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June 14, 2011

Spackle can only do so much to fix problems

COLUMBUS _ "This ceiling reminds me of my face," Uncle Chet said, standing on the eight-foot stepladder, cutting in with a sash brush.

"How's that?" I asked from the floor, where I was stirring paint with a piece of scrap wood, trying not to spill it over the rim.

"Closer you get, worse it looks," he muttered, drawing the brush along the border between wall and ceiling.

"If it's that bad, we can spread a little more Spackle," I glanced around.

"No. You've got 10-foot ceilings," he said. "I couldn't see these little ridges and pockmarks until I got up here."


I went back to stirring the flat ceiling paint Hon had requested.

"Just keep the lights low."

"You're worrying me." I looked around again.

"And the curtains drawn."

"If it's that bad, fix it," I said, a little tension in my voice, but he continued in the same drawl: "It's like when I go to the mirror in the morning and wonder `where did that smooth, handsome, face go?' And 'who is this dried-up, pot-bellied old man I'm looking at?"'

"That reminds you of the ceiling?" I said.

"When I shock myself, I just back away from the mirror," he dipped his brush carefully. "And at 10 feet or so -- your floor-to-ceiling height -- everything looks fine."

"Good." I was pouring paint into a roller tray.

"Then again, people aren't going to be standing on their heads in the kitchen, are they?" he asked. "Probably not."

"So, the question isn't how things look from 10 feet away," he said as he climbed down the ladder and fetched the one-gallon Spackle bucket. "It's how they appear from four feet, if someone's 6 feet tall."

"Pretty spry old man today," I observed.

"I'm celebrating; I've been retired 15 years today," he said.


"Last day of school, 1986," he said. "And ever since, I get up, shower, do anything I want and that check keeps coming in, like magic, and the health care is there when you need it. Thank you, New York state."

"The American dream," I said with a certain lack of enthusiasm.

"Golden years. Isn't that what they told us?" he said, climbing a step higher to reach the corner. "Isn't that what we deserve after working our butts off?"

"In private industry, that deal is over," I said. "Now you're on your own."

"That's why Social Security is more important than ever," Uncle Chet said. "People rely on it, and it has to be there for everyone who's paying in."

"Amen to that," I said.

"And the way to guarantee Social Security's future is to close the tax loophole that exempts all income over $106,000," he said.

I nodded, working the roller into the paint.

"Right now, if I make $1 billion a year, and you make $40,000, only a tiny fraction of my income pays into the fund, leaving me virtually tax-free for Social Security."

"And every dollar of mine is taxable," I said.

"It's a worker's tax now," he said, "but if you began to tax everyone -- janitors, CEOs -- at the same rate on their entire incomes, Social Security would be flush forever."

"Because you're chasing money, not people," I said, squinting in the work light's hot glare, guiding the roller along the ceiling.

"Because to no one's surprise, the rich make a ton of money," he said. "Tap into those veins at the same rate a waitress pays and all those gloomy assessments, all those attempts to undermine generational trust, will evaporate because people will know: Social Security is here to stay."

Cooperstown Bureau Reporter Tom Grace is traveling with his Uncle Chet, whom he says is imaginary. Grace's column appears every other week. For more of his columns, visit

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