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Intergenerational Demagoguery about Social Security

Carl Bloice: Why is it that the richest and most powerful nation on earth cannot provide adequately for both its students and its retirees?

Thomas Friedman was on a roll last week, putting forward one sweeping declaration after another – as he is wont to do. Some of it was kind of interesting, made you stop and think. Like the idea that we find ourselves at the mercy these days of the “two most merciless forces on earth: the market and Mother Nature.” The latter, which caused the Japanese nuclear energy crisis, we can’t do much about but it does underscore the fact that the country has neither an identifiable energy nor climate policy. The latter is the well known scary “market” that could suddenly lose “confidence in our ability to maintain the value of our currency.” Times a wasting, wrote the New York Times correspondent March 19, and the country should take corrective action now rather than waiting until after the 2012 Presidential election. Problem is, he says: “President Obama has the right convictions on all these issues, but he has not shown the courage of his convictions. The Republicans have just gone nuts.”

grandmother and grandson

It’s all pretty heady stuff and, like I say, interesting. Until we get to this line:

A country that invests more in its elderly than its youth, more in nursing homes than schools, will neither invent the future nor own it.

Sounds profound, no? Is he quoting someone? Socrates? Or de Tocqueville?

Couldn’t he just as well have said: A country that invest generously in its youth and inadequately in its elderly, more in schools than in facilities for it seniors will lose its soul and thus decline?

It would be easy enough to pass this off as the demographic demagoguery we’re accustomed to hearing these days. Play up a false dichotomy. But there is something else at work here.

Why is it that the richest and most powerful nation on earth cannot provide adequately for both its students and its retirees? That’s the question pundits like Friedman don’t want to address because it would also raise the question of the enormous and growing economic inequality in the country. It’s easier to say somebody has to take a hit right now and it might as well be the old folks.

Actually, it’s getting to be very irritating to hear learned people rail about the need for increased education spending at a time when across the country schools are being closed, teachers laid off, class sizes increasing, and curriculums reduced amid mostly silence from on high, as if it’s the logical thing to do.

There’s a subtext here.

What Friedman wants is “the kind of serious, sensible, Simpson-Bowles-like budget cuts and tax increases we need.” Oh.

It’s President Obama’s fault. He created the body that bears these deficit hawks’ names, the one that never voted out a report, while the views of its chairs are considered those of “his own deficit commission.” Richard (RJ) Eskow of The Campaign for America's Future says the Commission “report” should be called "some opinions that two guys have about the deficit."

The Republicans, Friedman correctly observes, are “calling for cuts in the things we need to invest more in — like education and infrastructure — while leaving largely untouched things we need to reduce, like entitlements and defense spending” That leads him into the nonsense about the need to spend more on schools and less on nursing homes.

Essentially what Friedman is doing here is advancing the now common argument that it is necessary to reduce Social Security and “reform” Medicare to demonstrate that we are serious about reducing government spending. Doing so by the White House would produce a chip with which to bargain with Senate Republicans in the budget deliberations. Notice he’s not saying that Social security is the cause of the federal budget deficit; he knows better than that. Not that that argument is not being advanced everyday and every way. The rich and the powerful can champion two erroneous arguments at the same time. Writers for media outlets like the Washington Post do it almost every day.

Speaking of which, a blogger named Blue Girl did a good job of refuting the Post’s latest venture in the Social Security bashing. (Washington Post On Social Security: Long On Hyperbole, Short On Facts)

“Lori Montgomery has turned in, and an editor has seen fit to publish, 700 or so words of ignorant, unresearched blather and nonsense under the headline Social Security splinters Democrats in debate over reining in budget deficits. And the article lives down to the headline,” writes Blue Girl. “It is a journalistic chimera of unsourced allegations and speculation, innuendo, conflated information and mindlessly regurgitated talking points asserted as fact.”

Hyperbole? No. the business page reporter had written “Wth momentum building to rein in record budget deficits, Democrats are sharply divided over whether to tackle popular but increasingly expensive safety-net programs for the elderly, particularly Social Security.” Blue Girl answered with the oft repeated words that should be stenciled on the foreheads of the editors of most of the country’s major media: “Social Security does not contribute one penny to the deficit. It is a self-funded program and it is solvent until 2039 if we do nothing, indefinitely if we make a minor tweak and raise the earnings cap.”

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“It is flat-out lying to imply that Social Security is responsible for the deficit when it is self-funded and solvent for decades and can be made so for generations to come simply by raising the cap on the income that the Social Security tax is collected on,” write Blue Girl. “Right now, every dollar you and I make, we pay Social Security taxes on. But people who make over $106,800 don't pay anything on the money they make beyond that amount. It doesn't matter if it's a surgeon who works long hours and is underpaid at $300,000 or a Wall Street parasite stealing millions from people. Like that surgeon, they don't pay Social Security taxes on the money they earn over $106,800. If that was changed, we would have indefinite solvency. Problem solved. Decades in advance.”

Then Blue Girl draws attention to the last would-be weapon in the arsenal of the Social Security slashers: the “Third Way.” That’s the “centrist” Democratic party think tank that last week called upon the party leadership to take the lead in advancing, “bold action to restrain government spending -- including overhauling Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.”

One of the board members of the Third Way think tank is William Daly, son of, and brother of, two past Chicago mayors, and chief of staff for President Obama.

“There’s a conventional view right now that [entitlement spending] is an issue that shouldn’t be touched within the Democratic Party, that we should wait for Republicans to act and trap them,” Third Way Policy Director Jim Kessler is quoted as saying, “... Our view is, that might work in a normal time. But this isn’t a normal time,” he said. “We think it’s more dangerous politically not to be in this debate than to be in it.”

Actually, that’s not accurate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and some others joined a group of organizations this week in launching a wide-ranging "Protect Social Security” campaign. “Senator Reid doesn’t believe that the budget should be balanced on the backs of America’s seniors, plain and simple,” an aide to the senator said.

“When you see surveillance videos of some creep mugging an elderly person in an elevator or apartment lobby, the universal reaction is outrage,” New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote last January. “But when the fat cats and the ideologues want to hack away at the lifeline of Social Security, they are treated somehow as respectable, even enlightened members of the society.

“We need a reality check. Attacking Social Security is both cruel and unnecessary. It needs to stop.

“The demagogues would have the public believe that Social Security is unsustainable, that it is some kind of giant contributor to the federal budget deficits. Nothing could be further from the truth. As the Economic Policy Institute has explained, Social Security “is emphatically not the cause of the federal government’s long-term deficits, since it is prohibited from borrowing and must pay all benefits out of dedicated tax revenues and savings in its trust funds.”

“…The folks who want to raise the retirement age and hack away at benefits for ordinary working Americans are inevitably those who have not the least worry about their own retirement. The haves so often get a perverse kick out of bullying the have-nots.”

Last Saturday, Herbert wrote his last column for the Times. In it, he observed, “So here we are pouring shiploads of cash into yet another war, this time in Libya, while simultaneously demolishing school budgets, closing libraries, laying off teachers and police officers, and generally letting the bottom fall out of the quality of life here at home.

“Welcome to America in the second decade of the 21st century. An army of long-term unemployed workers is spread across the land, the human fallout from the Great Recession and long years of misguided economic policies. Optimism is in short supply. The few jobs now being created too often pay a pittance, not nearly enough to pry open the doors to a middle-class standard of living.

“Arthur Miller, echoing the poet Archibald MacLeish, liked to say that the essence of America was its promises. That was a long time ago. Limitless greed, unrestrained corporate power and a ferocious addiction to foreign oil have led us to an era of perpetual war and economic decline. Young people today are staring at a future in which they will be less well off than their elders, a reversal of fortune that should send a shudder through everyone.

Carl Bloice

”The U.S. has not just misplaced its priorities. When the most powerful country ever to inhabit the earth finds it so easy to plunge into the horror of warfare but almost impossible to find adequate work for its people or to properly educate its young, it has lost its way entirely.”

That view makes a lot more sense to me than trying to pit one generation against another, pretending we have to close assisted living facilities in order to open schools.

Carl Bloice

The Black Commentator