They’re at it again. Who are they? They are called many things: “the Establishment,” the “power elite,” the “central committee of the ruling class,” the “people who really run this country,” the “political leadership,” and so on. What are they up to? Having, through willful greed or gross mismanagement, brought the nation’s economy to a precipice they have decided, under the rubric of “reform,” to make somebody pay to put things right again.
It’s not just in this country; it’s behind this business in Greece. In each and every country in the European Union there is talk of “austerity” (we tend to avoid the word in our country). And in every one of them it means attacks on easy access to healthcare and social security for those in their golden years. They call such programs, secured after decades of struggle, “entitlements.” These reform policies are known of as “neo-liberal,” although there is nothing liberal about them. They are efforts to renew the project that Lady Thatcher and Ronald Reagan launched but couldn’t quite finish. In the U.S., that means eviscerating, and eventually doing away with, Medicare and Social Security.
Often when these people are divided amongst themselves as to how far to go, and not wanting to take personal responsibility for advocating a specific course of action, they propose a “commission.” You see, cutting back on, or eliminating, Medicare and Social Security is fraught with political peril, if for no other reason than old folks vote. The idea behind the commission is that a “blue ribbon” body is formed – so many Republican, so many Democrats, a couple inserted by the White House – and they deliberate. Whatever proposals they come up with are then debated in congress and then voted up or down – with no amendments.
You get the picture; nobody gets hurt.
When the proposal to set up the commission–opposed by many liberal groups, including the AARP, NAACP and the AFL-CIO–came before Congress in January it was defeated. I’m ashamed to say it but both California senators, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, support this scheme.
Opponents of Medicare and Social Security don’t need an excuse to go after the two programs. They’ve been at it since the programs were enacted. Right now the backdrop is the hysteria over the federal deficit. Somebody should pay to bring it down. Why not those expecting to take advantage of Medicare and receive the Social Security they have been paying into all these years? Of course, nobody has the temerity to suggest looking at the military budget; most of it is unnecessary (whatever happened to the “peace dividend”?) and the rest is often inefficient and pork laden.
So far Congress has failed to come up with the requisite commission, but don’t hold your breath. What we’re witnessing is mostly political posturing and positioning. Some politicians are proposing that the commission consider tax increases in addition to cuts in social services; some want taxes off the table, especially any targeted at those who are profiting most in today’s economic climate. Dollars to donuts says they will find common ground before you know it.
The White House has chosen to break the apparent deadlock but through establishing a commission by executive order without congressional action. It is said that the Obama commission would be less of a threat because Congress would not be obliged to vote its recommendations up or down without amendments. But there is a caveat: The Democrats could decide to institute that provision themselves and, given the spineless crew in charge of the Senate, it’s not unthinkable that they would do so.
“So an executive commission is better than the alternative, but also means the fight against the austerity posse is far from over, “ Bill Scher of the Campaign for America’s Future wrote after the vote in Congress. “We still need to make sure any commission does not fire at the wrong targets of Social Security and Medicare, which are not causing any long-term fiscal threat. The broader issue of skyrocketing healthcare costs is the main concern.”
Meanwhile the neo-liberal media drumbeaters and spear carriers for “reform” are hard at work placing the blame for delaying the sought for action on seniors.
On February 1, the seniors as selfish freeloaders line got a full exhibition by New York Times columnist David Brooks. “Far from serving the young, the old are now taking from them,” he wrote. They are taking their “money,” “freedom” and “opportunity.” He had to have been holding his tongue in his cheek as he wrote the column, full as it was with praise for the abilities of the elderly, and issued a call for “generativity revolution — millions of people demanding changes in health care spending and the retirement age to make life better for their grandchildren.” Notice he didn’t suggest an effort to bring down healthcare costs, but spending (hint: Medicare) and though he didn’t specify how many more years he wants seniors to work before retiring he clearly means beyond 65.5 years old. Maybe in a future column the 48-year-old independently wealthy Brooks will explain how with unemployment at 10 percent and rising, and which forces people to work longer, makes any sense. You got to admit the man’s got nerve.
Actually, there is something quite illogical about Brooks’ argument. There are not two groups involved, the young and the old. It’s a continuum starting from entrance into the workforce until retirement. While he says he speaks in the interest of the young, if there is a severe curtailment of Medicare and Social Security those hurt most will be the youngsters when they reach the age where they need them both.
Brooks is not the only pundit out there spreading the idea that spending for the elderly is bankrupting the nation. There been an epidemic of such muttering across the political spectrum. Columnist George Will has upped the ante considerably, arguing that Medicare spending could cripple the nation’s defense and handicap its ability to compete economically with – you guessed it – China. Writing in the Washington Post February 4, Will cited an article by economist Robert Fogel, published by the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, warning that healthcare expenditures in the U.S. can be expected to surge because, “By living longer, Americans will become susceptible to more health problems. By becoming richer they will be able to purchase more biotechnologies that make health interventions more effective…This demographic destiny might entail starving every other sector of society — including national defense, at great cost to America’s international standing,” Will wrote. Then, echoing Vogel’s comment about the increase in Beijing’s spending on education Will concludes, “While China increasingly invests in its future, America increasingly invests in its past: the elderly.”
“Brooks doesn’t specify the exact reforms necessary to correct this cancer on society, but we all know what they are,” James Ridgway wrote recently in Mother Jones magazine, “ We need only reduce the entitlements …. That can be accomplished by setting up an Entitlement Commission, impartially hand down ‘fast-track’ cuts to old-age entitlement programs, tell Congress what it has to do, and get the economy back on course.”
“In other words, when Obama sees the happy-times oldster lolling about on his houseboat in the Florida Keys, he ought to react the way Reagan did when he observed the ‘welfare queen’ who was supposedly ripping off taxpayers: Cut off the supply of federal funds, and stop letting the Greedy Geezers feed at the public trough,” wrote Ridgway.
“In the long run, the Myth of the Greedy Geezer also serves one of the most cherished items on the conservative agenda: permanent cuts to core social safety net programs that date back to the New Deal and the War on Poverty,” wrote Ridgway. “This is not a good time to be old in America,” Ridgway wrote in his blog, UnSilent Generation February 10. “In addition to dealing with the usual burdens of aging–our aches and pains, and our worries about senility and death–we now have to contend with a backlash against the supposedly greedy geezers who insist upon clinging to life in defiance of the public good.’
“Why should we expect a government handout just because we’ve worked and paid taxes all our lives? (Never mind that Wall Street has already decimated our retirement savings and home values.),” continued Ridgway, “On the other side we have the champions of age-based care rationing led by ‘ethicists’ like Daniel Callaghan, trying to convince us to go gently into that good night, while our corrupt system of medicine for profit goes on unrestrained. How would you like would to be denied a kidney transplant or even a new hip, on the grounds of enlightened ‘cost-benefit analysis,’ while the drug and insurance companies continue to rake in their profits?”
Economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research wrote: “It should be evident that the granny bashers don’t care at all about generational equity. They care about dismantling Social Security and
Medicare, the country’s most important social programs. It is important that the public recognize the granny bashers’ real agenda so that they can give them the respect they deserve.”
“My guess is that there will be a lot of yelling and they’ll end up coming up with nothing,” Baker said in a recent interview. “The whole point is to find some back door way to cut Social Security and Medicare, because they know such cuts are hugely unpopular. This is one area where the Internet has been tremendously helpful in getting the word out, in preventing this kind of backdoor manipulation that can fool even well-informed, educated people.”
Commenting on the right-wing “granny bashers” Ridgeway says: “This quest just got a potentially big boost from David Brooks and his ‘Geezer’s Crusade.’ I just hope we geezers don’t fall for it.”