SINCE 1759

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Making the Rich Richer

A few days ago I got a nice letter from the Social Security Administration, telling me that I was entitled to some $1,600 a month, but that unfortunately I couldn't receive it because I was still earning a lot of money. Last week I opened the newspaper to find that the House of Representatives has voted unanimously to have the money sent to me anyway. The Senate and the president, it appears, are quite prepared to approve this change. So in the course of this year I shall get government checks for about $20,000. About $8,000 of it will go for federal and state taxes, but I shall still have a net $1,000 extra a month that I never expected to have.

I do not feel entitled to that money. Like a lot of other Americans who are 68, I am making a very good living. When I stop working I will get a pension that ensures that I still live perfectly comfortably. I would like Congress to use the Social Security taxes I've paid over the last 45 years to promote the general welfare.

That means leveling things out a bit, so that my fellow 68-year-olds who could not go to college, and could not get nice, highly paid, white-collar jobs like mine, will have a better chance at a reasonably comfortable old age. Congress could have sent the extra money it wants to send me, and millions like me, to some of my fellow sexagenarians who do need it. These include all those arthritic 68-year-olds who are shelving groceries, or standing on their feet all day making change, for $7 a hour. They are doing this because their monthly Social Security payments will probably never rise above $1,000.

Members of Congress know perfectly well that the rich have been getting steadily richer and the poor poorer -- that Americans like me are getting a bigger and bigger share of the gross national product, whereas the people who clean the toilets in my office building are getting less and less of it. But this knowledge seems to have no influence on them whatever. They act as if promoting the general welfare meant promoting the interest of people who make more than $50,000 a year. As Nicholas von Hoffman has put it, we live under ''government of the comfortable, by the comfortable and for the comfortable.''

Once the boom stops, and the Silicon Valley bubble bursts, we can expect our elected representatives to take considerable pains to see that the comfortable remain comfortable, while letting the poor assume any burdens that must be borne. The man who puts in eight hours making sandwiches at a cafeteria on the Stanford campus, and another eight hours bringing glasses of ever fruitier cabernet and ever spicier chardonnay to us comfortably off folk in one of Palo Alto's better restaurants, will probably lose his second job, because many of the professionals in Silicon Valley will start drinking jug wine at home.

This will probably mean that this man cannot move his kids into a school district where they might learn something, and that they will never get properly educated. Our elected representatives can be expected to look with equanimity on this steady reinforcement of our present system of hereditary castes.

President Clinton has said that he will sign the legislation that gives me that extra $1,000 a month. He should think again. He is a decent and generous-spirited man, whose attempts to do the right thing have been frustrated by Republican majorities in Congress. But he could use his last year in office to speak out. With the backing of Vice President Al Gore and former Senator Bill Bradley, he could ask Congress to take the bill back and make it a little less absurd -- a little more fair, a little less selfish.

Our president has been good at political compromises, but unless he takes a few uncompromising stands before leaving office he will go down in history as having acquiesced in our nation's moral decline. This decline has nothing to do with our sexual mores. It has everything to do with our increasing willingness to let the rich take more and more from the poor.

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