It was a simple thing: rock star parking spot at the grocery store, right by the front door. A rare occurrence, so go for it.
But I thought, "Nah, leave it for someone who might need it. Someone older, someone with kids." I parked farther away, deeper into the parking lot and walked the distance to the front door.
Such trivial moments educe a familiar internal debate when our moral fabric is challenged: Doing the right thing vs. doing what we might characterize as perfectly legitimate, or legal, or even something to which we are entitled. There is often a difference.
The fact that East Bay Rep. Pete Stark's children are collecting Social Security benefits even though their father is working and wealthy has ignited a controversy in the congressman's bid for re-election against his challenger, Dublin City Councilman Eric Swalwell.
It's unknown exactly how much the kids are getting a 16-year-old and twin 11-year-olds but the question is whether they should be getting anything at all.
They are certainly entitled under the law, but we can safely assume they don't need the money since Stark is estimated to be worth $27 million and continues earning his $174,000 congressional salary. In short, Pete Stark is doing nothing illegal, but if you don't need it, should you take it?
When the children's benefit was created in 1939, the intent was to provide a supplement after the family breadwinner retired. Most families back then relied on a single salary.
While much has changed since 1939, the child benefit has not. If you qualify, you get it, and anyone over 65 who has underage children qualifies regardless of net worth or annual salary.
The Social Security Administration doles out $2.5 billion a month to some 4.4 million children, mostly of deceased or disabled parents; 609,000 minors of retired parents receive $605 a month.
Stark, a Democrat, often refers to his stepchildren, the product of a third marriage, as a "second litter," impelling San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders to mordantly describe his child benefit as a " 'second-litter' subsidy for older men who start second families."
Swalwell has seized on this and pledges that if elected he'll close that loophole.
Our attention isn't on a candidate's attempt to make political hay, or even the debate over Social Security itself. The issue here, once again, is the hypocrisy of our elected leaders, Stark being the senior member of California's congressional delegation, and our frustration with an elected body unable to relate to the electorate given that the elected hardly live as the electorate must. Who among us of independent wealth and hefty salary must endure a burdensome monthly check that, for so many Americans, is a vital lifeline to albeit meager sustenance?
Stark campaign consultant Michael Terris told the Chronicle that Stark heroically "fought his entire career to protect Social Security from those who would dismantle it." In an absurd rhetorical flourish, campaign manager Sharon Cornu accused Swalwell of "joining the Ryan-Romney plan to undermine Social Security as we know it."
No, taking money you don't need from a system that can't afford it that's helping to undermine Social Security.
But Terris is firm: Stark has paid into the system all these years and "he and his family intend to collect the benefits to which they are eligible."
No one is questioning whether Stark is eligible; it's a question of whether he's being ethical. Taking taxpayer dollars while receiving a generous, taxpayer-funded salary not to mention lavish benefits is a pathetically poor example of sacrifice and service. Isn't this what Democrats always talk about, shared sacrifice? The average monthly Social Security payment is $1,200. What person of Stark's wealth would miss it?
Why not some sort of realistic compromise? Perhaps foregoing a portion of the money you put in, which has already earned its interest over the years, or getting back only what you contributed? It makes no sense for those not in need to receive monies far beyond what they paid in.
Social Security was always intended as a form of insurance to help individuals facing financial hardship. A true protector of Social Security would set an example. At age 80, Stark should long ago have taken up his election challenger's cudgel to upgrade the system and eliminate the loophole of cashing in on a benefit by those who don't need it at the expense of those who do. What he's doing isn't protection.
I don't regret I'll never be as wealthy as Stark, nor do I resent his wealth, but if I make it to 65 and am financially healthy enough to decline Social Security, let's just say I'll let someone else have that parking spot.
Just because you can do something, doesn't always mean you should.