As we move towards the fifth anniversary of the great financial crisis of 2008, people should be outraged that cutting Social Security is now on the national agenda, while taxing Wall Street is not. After all, if we take at face value the claims made back in 2008 by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and former Treasury Secretaries Henry Paulson and Timothy Geithner, Wall Street excesses brought the economy to the brink of collapse.
But now the Wall Street behemoths are bigger than ever and President Obama is looking to cut the Social Security benefits of retirees. That will teach the Wall Street boys to be more responsible in the future.
Most people are now familiar with President’s Obama’s proposal to cut Social Security by reducing the annual cost of living adjustment. While the final formula is somewhat convoluted, the net effect is to reduce benefits by an average of roughly 3.0 percent.
Since Social Security benefits account for more than 70 percent of the income of a typical retiree, this cut is more than a 2.0 percent reduction in income. By comparison, a wealthy couple earning $500,000 a year would see a hit to their after-tax income of just 0.6 percent from the tax increase that President Obama put in place last year.
While President Obama is willing to make seniors pay a price for the economic crisis, his administration his unwilling to impose any burdens on Wall Street. Specifically, it has consistently opposed a Wall Street speculation tax: effectively a sales tax on trades of stock and derivatives. The Obama administration has even used its power to try to block efforts by European countries to impose their own taxes on financial speculation.
If the idea of taxing stock trades sounds strange, it shouldn’t. The United States used to impose a tax of 0.04 percent until Wall Street lobbied to eliminate it in the mid-1960s. Many countries, including the United Kingdom, Switzerland, China, and India already impose taxes on stock trades.
The tax in the UK is 0.5 percent on stock trades (0.25 percent for both the buyer and the seller). It dates back more than 3 centuries. The country raises more than 0.2 percent of GDP ($32 billion in the United States) from the tax each year. The tax has not prevented the London stock exchange from being one of the largest in the world.
There are currently two bills in Congress for a similar tax in the United States. A bill by Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison would impose the same tax as the UK on stock trades and would apply a scaled rate to options, futures, credit default swaps and other derivative instruments. It could raise more than $150 billion annually or more than $2 trillion over the ten year budget window.
A second bill has been put forward by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and Oregon Representative Peter DeFazio. This bill would apply a 0.03 percent tax to trades of stock and a wide range of other financial assets. According to the Joint Tax Committee, the bill would raise close to $40 billion a year or over $400 billion over a ten-year budget window once it is implemented.
Unfortunately the administration has consistently opposed both bills. It claims that it is concerned about the incidence of these taxes – that ordinary investors would see large burdens from the tax. It also claims to be worried that the taxes will disrupt financial markets by making trading more costly.
Neither of these stories passes the laugh test. Ordinary investors don’t trade much, and therefore are not going to feel much impact from the tax. If someone with $100,000 in a 401(k) (this is much larger than the typical 401(k)) turns it over at the rate of 50 percent annually, they would pay $15.00 each year as a result of the Harkin-DeFazio tax.
Furthermore research shows that investors reduce their trading as costs increase. This means that if the tax increases trading costs by 20 percent, then investors will reduce their trading by roughly the same amount (in this example, turnover would fall to 40 percent annually). That means that the net cost of turnover in a 401(k) will barely change for a typical investor as a result of the tax. Wall Street would just see much less business.
So the Obama administration wants us to believe that it is willing to cut the Social Security benefits of retiree living on $15,000 a year in Social Security by $450 but it opposes a Wall Street speculation tax because it is concerned that investors with $100,000 in a 401(k) may pay a few dollars a year in additional trading costs. Only a reporter with the Washington Post would believe a story like that.
The other part of the Obama administration’s story is equally laughable. The cost of financial transactions has plummeted in the last four decades because of computers. Even the Ellison tax rate would just raise costs back to their mid-80s level. The Harkin-DeFazio tax rate would probably still leave costs lower than they were in 2000.
The country certainly had a vibrant capital market and stock exchange in the 1980s, taking costs part of the way back to this level will not prevent Wall Street from serving its proper role of transferring capital from savers to borrowers. It will just clamp down on speculation.
The basic story is very simple. Wall Street bankers have a lot more political power than old and disabled people who depend on Social Security. That is why President Obama is working to protect the former and cut benefits for the latter.
The Washington Post long ago abandoned the separation between news and editorials, routinely running pieces advocating cuts in Social Security and Medicare in its news section. It now appears as though the New York Times is following the Post’s lead.
A news story on the budget made repeated assertions that Social Security and Medicare must be cut. At one point it referred to:
“the inevitable pain that comes from curbing those huge and popular programs [Social Security and Medicare].”
Of course there is nothing inevitable about curbing spending on Social Security and Medicare and there is certainly not inevitable pain. The most obvious route for curbing costs in these programs from an economic standpoint would be cutting Medicare payments to drug companies, medical equipment companies, doctors and other providers. This would not be especially painful for anyone who does not derive income from the program.
Clearly the paper was expressing its desire to see these programs cut.
It later added:
“The longer the delay, the sharper and more immediate the changes Washington must eventually make to ease the long-term fiscal squeeze.”
Again, this is an invention of the NYT. There is no evidence that the country is up against any “long-term fiscal squeeze” or that anything would be gained by making cuts now.
The NYT, unlike the Post, generally keeps these sorts of political views on the opinion page. It is unfortunate that it appears to have departed from its standard practice with this article.
- Thomas Friedman Again Demonstrates the Skills Shortage for NYT Pundits (alethonews.wordpress.com)
By Dave Lindorff | This Can’t Be Happening! | April 13, 2013
What’s wrong with the Obama administration’s proposal to change the way Social Security checks are adjusted for inflation from using the Consumer Price Index (CPI) to instead using something called a “chained” CPI?
Let’s start with the fundamental problem: Social Security is not a cause of the federal budget deficit, and will not be for years, even if nothing is done to raise more revenue for the program.
Sure the US will eventually have to come up with more money to pay the benefits earned by retirees in the Baby Boom generation, but that problem of an eventual shortfall in Social Security tax revenues can be easily solved by simply eliminating the cap — currently $113,000 in annual income — that is subject to the FICA tax. If the cap were completely eliminated, so that all income was subject to the tax, as is the case with the Medicare tax, the shortfall would be nearly eliminated. Any remaining shortfall could be erased too, by extending some kind of FICA tax to unearned income from investments. My favorite is one that is common in Europe: a small — say 0.25% — tax on short-term stock and bond trades.
But there is a bigger problem with this Obama proposal to cut both Social Security benefits and Medicare funding: Adopting a long-time Republican proposal, it only looks at those programs in isolation, and concludes that they need to be cut. Our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president does not look at the biggest and most wasteful spending in the entire federal budget, which is the military. That bloated white elephant, which this year is sucking up close to $800 billion, not counting the interest on money borrowed to pay for past wars and armaments, could be cut in half or even by three-quarters, and it would still leave the US military budget larger than any other nation’s in the world. The US would be no less safe in that case. In fact, it would be a hell of a lot safer because we would no longer have US troops stationed expensively and provocatively in 1,000 foreign locations.
Nobody in Congress is talking about slashing military spending and spending the savings on medical care, Social Security, education and other pressing needs. The public needs to demand this.
But let’s leave those two points aside for a moment, important as they are.
What the Obama administration is calling for — a switch from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ CPI to a new chained-CPI to determine inflation adjustments in Social Security checks each year — is a brazen attempt to cut benefits for the elderly without admitting it. This is unconscionable, and as poorly reported as the story has been, the American people, regardless of age, are smart enough to be solidly opposed to the idea. People old enough to be drawing Social Security benefits, or who are close to filing for Social Security, know it’s stealing from them. But younger people, who almost all have parents or grandparents who are depending on Social Security, also know intuitively that this is a bad idea, and are opposed to it.
Chained-CPI has long been a favorite scam among Republicans and conservative Democrats, who are in thrall to business interests that want to reduce the payroll taxes they have to pay into the Social Security system. But their claim that it is a “more accurate” way to measure inflation’s impact on the cost of living is clearly a fraud and a lie.
The rationale behind a chained-CPI calculation of inflation is a theory that when the price of some good or service rises too much, people supposedly switch to a cheaper alternative, so that alternative should be substituted in the “market-basket” used to calculate the cost of living.
Now sometimes that may be true. When gasoline prices soared during the Bush invasion of Iraq, many people downsized their cars to cut their gasoline bills. That move to smaller cars also cut families’ overall transportation expenses because small cars are generally cheaper than big ones. A chained-CPI would account for this by substituting small cars in the market basket, and might also lower the allocation for gasoline, since people would be buying less.
But the theory falls down, especially when it comes to older people, who drive a lot fewer miles than those who are commuting every day to work, and who also tend not to buy new cars. The old gas-guzzler they have, which doesn’t get many miles put on it in a year, is kept on the road and repaired as needed. They continue to buy whatever gasoline it takes to drive the thing.
Old people and the disabled also spend vastly more on health care than most other people, and the cost of that health care is rising much faster than most other things. That’s a point the CPI, chained or not, doesn’t factor in. And the elderly and disabled have little choice about making substitutions on health care. They don’t — and shouldn’t — change doctors. And if you need an operation, you go where your doctor practices. If you need heart medication or cholesterol-lowering medication, you buy what is prescribed, whatever it costs. If you need Medi-gap insurance to cover your health needs, you buy it, whatever the inflated premium. Even Medicare itself has become more expensive at a pace well above the inflation rate!
Housing is another problem area. Young people, if their rent goes up, can move to cheaper digs. Old people can’t do that so easily. If they are in some kind of senior housing, it’s probably the only one in their neighborhood, and they’re not going to move to some place cheaper where they don’t know anyone, or where they are too far from their family, or to the son or daughter who lives nearest and who has been helping them out as needed. Nor should we expect them to move just to save money. If they are in their family home, it is where they are comfortable. It would take a lot to make them move, so they probably won’t.
Food is another area where the elderly have a harder time making substitutions. As people get older, they tend to get much more set in their ways. A young person can decide that buying salmon is too expensive, so they’re going to switch to mackerel or sardines, but an older person can get very fussy. They may not know how to cook a new fish, and won’t even try to switch. They may not even be doing that much cooking, and are relying on prepared foods that can be put in a microwave. There’s not much room for switching there.
All in all, this chained-CPI proposal from the White House is a disgusting betrayal by a president who swore as a candidate that he would stand firm against any cuts in Social Security or Medicare.
There are only two proper responses to this betrayal. One: we must demand that there be no cuts in Social Security or Medicare benefits, or increases in the taxes paid by those already paying taxes into the program or receiving benefits, until the military budget is first cut by at least 50 percent. Two: We must demand that no change be made in the way Social Security benefits are adjusted for inflation unless or until the government conducts an honest, unbiased and transparent academic study to develop a valid market basket for the elderly and disabled, to determine what their actual costs of living are, and how they are impacted by inflation.
- Top 5 Myths About Chained-CPI, Debunked (thenation.com)
Obama Does Social Security and Medicare
With Barack Obama putting his plan to cut Social Security and Medicare expenditures into writing in his Federal budget proposal the ability of those who voted for him to credibly deny his years of publicly stating he would do so disappeared. The pathetic pleas from liberals and progressives who only a few short months ago were assuring the unwashed masses Mr. Obama was on the cusp of a ‘liberal’ renaissance if only doubters would join them in granting him another term are today as empty as their assurances were then. And Mr. Obama’s self ‘sacrifice’ of voluntarily giving up 5% of his own $400,000 per year salary in solidarity with seniors present and future who will see their Social Security payments reduced calls into question his intelligence if sincere—the difference between the rich (Mr. Obama) voluntarily giving up a fraction of their yacht allowance versus millions of seniors choosing between eating and living indoors is fundamental.
Those whose politics begin and end with rolling off the couch every few years to vote could in theory be forgiven for perceiving a yawning chasm between the Republican and Democrat candidates. Marketing firms were paid a lot of money to create that illusion. And Mr. Obama almost certainly has the political calculus correct that the bourgeois commentariat, a/k/a/ ‘the left,’ will whimper in protest for a few days, weeks at most, before falling in line for Hillary or whatever militaristic, corporatist abomination the Democrats put forward in the next Presidential election. Early reports even have liberal pundits sticking with the line Mr. Obama is only posturing with the proposals, despite his near decade prior explaining why he believes Social Security and Medicare must be cut to be ‘saved.’ However, this is truly a ‘let them eat cake’ moment. Mr. Obama’s policies will needlessly, and in economic terms gratuitously, hurt a lot of people—overwhelmingly those who self-identify as the Democrats’ political ‘base.’ And lest there be confusion over the matter, in his first term Mr. Obama fully restored the fortunes of America’s ruling class at several trillion dollars of public expense before proposing these cuts.
The faux official hand wringing over Social Security is a result of the bi-partisan (‘Washington’) consensus that produced the trajectory of catastrophic public policy over the last forty years. Radically skewed income distribution, the result of public policy, has seen lower and middle-income wages stagnate with all economic gains delivered up to a tiny plutocracy. This has lowered the proportion of total income paid into Social Security because above the current $113,700 cap income is excluded from contribution to the program. Raising the cap would have some effect in reducing expected future shortfalls but would reframe the social insurance nature of the program because payments are also capped. The real solution—where the real money is, lies in shifting economic gains back toward lower and middle class wages. Doing this would raise the proportion of income paid into Social Security. And this leaves aside the fact the Federal Reserve created several trillion dollars ‘out of thin air’ to restore the fortunes of a dysfunctional financial system and its beneficiaries in the plutocracy and could more productively do so to fund the nation’s social insurance programs. In short, the ‘crisis’ facing Social Security and Medicare is one of skewed income distribution resulting from bad public policy and is readily solvable without cutting benefits.
To the argument proposed tax increases on the rich balance ‘sacrifice’ across economic classes, what makes Mr. Obama’s self-imposed wage cut so ludicrous is how radically it understates the degree to which a large and growing proportion of the population has been economically marginalized. It also frames income distribution as an outcome of ‘natural’ processes from which returning some proportion for the benefit of the common weal through taxes is ‘sacrifice.’ (The rich benefit from public expenditure in far greater proportion than the rest of us). About one-third of retirees exist entirely on Social Security payments that are already at bare subsistence levels. These payments constitute the bulk of monthly income for two out of three retirees. Cutting benefits for people who lack other options for obtaining income isn’t ‘sacrifice,’ shared or otherwise—it is immiseration. And Social Security belongs to those who paid into the program throughout their working lives—it is only through radically anti-democratic governance Mr. Obama and Congressional Republicans have say in the matter.
Income distribution data shows top incomes coming from two related sources—finance and finance related and corporate executive compensation. Wall Street—the F.I.R.E. sector (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate), benefited from Wall Street’s resurrection at public expense. Government ‘bailout’ policies were framed as ‘liquidity’ provision when in fact the programs went on far longer and at greater public expense than this explanation supports. In fact, Wall Street was (is) insolvent due to poor and / or fraudulent business practices meaning bankers killed ‘their’ banks, not nature. The resurrection of Wall Street, including paychecks and bonuses, took place entirely on the public dime. And a significant proportion of the rise in corporate earnings used to justify grotesquely disproportionate executive compensation came from cutting wages to labor. The ability of executives to cut wages derives from government policies specifically designed to reduce the power of labor unions and from tax breaks and incentives to shift production to low wage countries. These are no more ‘market’ forces than the bank bailouts were.
The challenge for the bourgeois commentariat is it largely accepts the political economy that produced current circumstance but objects to the outcomes. Explicit austerity economics, of which Mr. Obama’s proposals to cut social insurance programs are a component, receive their provenance from the ‘structural adjustment’ programs the IMF (International Monetary Fund) for decades inflicted on the citizens of other nations for the benefit of Western banks. The neo-liberal premises behind structural adjustment are still taught in university economics departments by ‘liberal’ economists who are leading members of the bourgeois commenting class now critical of austerity. With the aforementioned government policies to concentrate wealth within a tiny plutocracy whilst throwing labor to the wolves in mind, liberal economists defer to ‘market’ forces to explain the income and wealth skews behind the ‘natural’ austerity faced by the bulk of the working populace and then argue explicit austerity policies are ‘unfair’ and / or economically destructive. But why argue over effects when the causes can be addressed?
In the macroeconomic context in which austerity economics is argued the mainstream debate is between Keynesian economists, ‘New’ and old and Austrians. Keynesians argue in circumstances where private demand for goods and services is ‘inadequate’ government spending produces multiples of the money spent in increased economic output. Austrians argue government spending is always and everywhere less productive than private spending and taxes levied to fund government spending take away from private spending. Eighty or so years of evidence strongly favor the Keynesian understanding of how modern economies ‘work,’ but with a caveat. Austrians tend to understand the roles of money and banking in the economy whereas ‘New’ Keynesians remain willfully clueless. This difference plays out in a few ways—private credit expansion has an economic effect similar to public expenditure but it is neither in the public interest nor is it socially neutral in its political-economic effects. And public investment funded with public debt has the power of the printing press behind its repayment whereas private credit doesn’t.
Mr. Obama’s delivery of several trillion dollars of public wealth to the banks in ongoing bailouts was sold as a way to ‘get banks lending again,’ ‘private’ Keynesianism, to raise the quantity of private debt issued to bolster consumption. But wholly reviving insolvent banks has no legitimacy in any economic theory. This is why the bailouts were, and still are, framed as liquidity provision when they are in fact solvency provision. And again, private debt has the political-economic consequence of concentrating wealth and political power in the hands of lenders (Wall Street). Intellectually honest Austrian economists would have let Wall Street die at its own hands in 2008 in favor of a functioning private credit system. ‘New’ Keynesians support public spending to bolster demand when necessary under the (correct) premise the power of the printing press is a tool to serve the public interest. But their ignorance of money and banking leaves them supporting the monetary policies of solvency provision for dysfunctional banks and at utter losses as to why fiscal policies funded by this same printing press are nowhere to be found. To coin a Clintonism, it’s the class warfare stupid!
The difference between the Federal government providing ‘liquidity’ to markets and restoring solvency to insolvent banks is more than a technicality. In the case of liquidity provision the government temporarily floods markets with money to facilitate transactions during bank panics– it is the ability to transact that is restored. In the case of restoring solvency the Federal government both buys bad assets from the banks that through fraud and / or incompetence rendered themselves insolvent and it provides subsidies from which banks can ‘rebuild’ their balance sheets. Both are transfers of public resources to private interests demonstrated by history to be economically destructive.
Without apparent irony, the structural adjustment programs fiscal conservatives look to for intellectual sustenance absolutely reject using public funds to restore dysfunctional banks because dysfunctional banks inevitably bleed the economies that remain dry. Austerity economics, the bases for IMF and World Bank policies, are banker economics designed to assure bank debts are repaid regardless of the economic devastation doing so may cause. For theoretical coherence austerity requires that core banks (Wall Street), the banks for which loans be forcibly repaid by the periphery, be functional and healthy. Having now saved a parasitic and dysfunctional Wall Street at public expense, fiscal conservatives in the U.S., led by Barack Obama, seek to cut public expenditures to pay for the privilege.
If cutting the inflation assumption for Social Security would ‘save’ the program, the purported rationale for doing so, then reversing policies designed to concentrate income and wealth would do far more. But cutting the inflation assumption isn’t intended to ‘save’ the program; it is intended to cut Federal spending in which Social Security plays only an indirect role (why else include it in budget ‘negotiations’?) because it is funded through a dedicated tax, not through Federal spending. This doesn’t mean Mr. Obama isn’t locally sincere (if wrong) in promoting the Hamilton Project (Robert Rubin) line that ‘tweaking’ social insurance programs will ‘save’ them. But here context is important. And the context is public expenditures are being cut to pay for the Wall Street bailout and the economic calamity Wall Street caused. Put another way, if there is no public debt ‘crisis’ (there isn’t) and the temporary increase in public debt was to save Wall Street and undo the damage it did to the economy, why not get the money from Wall Street?
But in fact the money is still going in the other direction. And across Europe the story is remarkably similar—through assuming bank liabilities directly (Ireland), shifting public resources to the banks to ‘save’ them and public expenditure on economic stabilizers and unemployment benefits, formerly fiscally ‘disciplined’ nations are now regularly characterized by the European Central Bank and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as nations of ‘takers’ whose morally bankrupt citizenries ruined their countries with fat public welfare programs that must be cut to restore economic health. To be clear, fiscal issues the European periphery faces came from delivering public resources to Wall Street alone. (Wall Street now includes large European banks).
For the uninitiated, the endgame appears nigh. The seizure of bank deposits in Cyprus to pay for bank losses simply removed the ‘middle men,’ the European Central Bank and the political powers that be in Europe, from transferring wealth from the citizens of Cyprus to Cypriot bankers (and to European banks and U.S. hedge funds). The capitalist media storyline promoted by gullible liberals that ‘Russian mafia’ money was seized is nonsense. By reports European banks and rich Russians had little trouble getting their money out of Cyprus. The deposits being seized are in precise inverse relation to the political-economic power the depositors wield. And across the West policies of economic austerity are being imposed in similar fashion.
Mr. Obama is who he is. But those who voted for him have some explaining to do. I oppose Mr. Obama’s policies and would have likewise vocally, and otherwise, opposed those of Mitt Romney had he ‘won.’ Were this simply a matter of resentment the situation would take care of itself—you are the schmucks who cut your own Social Security and Medicare programs. But if you think this is it, that the worst is over, I humbly suggest that was your view when Mr. Obama won his second term. To those paying attention, the Dodd-Frank legislation being sold as a way to ‘reign-in’ bailed out banks contains ‘Cyprus’ clauses that leave banks (or their creditors, beginning with derivatives counter-parties) no alternative than to seize insured deposits when they need their next inevitable bailout. On the plus side, this will eliminate the time-consuming theater of austerity ‘debates.’ On the minus side, Mr. Obama is exponentially increasing the misery of society’s most vulnerable. But I’m confident he appreciates your support for his policies.
Rob Urie is an artist and political economist in New York.
- Who Will Save Social Security and Medicare? (alethonews.wordpress.com)
April 13, 2013 Posted by aletho | "Hope and Change", Deception, Economics, Supremacism, Social Darwinism, Timeless or most popular | Democratic Party, Democrats, International Monetary Fund, Medicare, Obama, Social Security, Wall Street | Leave a comment
Before Social Security and Medicare existed, the elderly were either completely dependent on their children or were left to beg in the streets. These programs thus remain sacred to the vast majority of Americans. They allow the elderly dignity and independence instead of poverty and insecurity.
Attacking these programs has always been political suicide for the assailant; not even the smoothest talking politician would squirm into an aggressive stance.
But now the gloves are off. Obama and the Democrats are aligning with Republicans to strike the first major blows against Social Security and Medicare. This long hidden agenda is finally in full view of the public. The decades-long political agreement to save these programs is dead, and the foundation of American politics is shifting beneath everyone’s feet.
The New York Times reports:
President Obama next week will take the political risk of formally proposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare in his annual budget…
Many liberals are scratching their heads in astonishment, asking “How could this happen?”
The truth is that every liberal and labor leader knew this was in the works for years; they just kept their mouths shut in the hope that Obama could successfully push the blame entirely on the Republicans.
Throughout the summer of 2011 Obama worked with Republicans in the first attempt at a ‘Grand Bargain’ that included cuts to Social Security and Medicare. The Washington Post published an article entitled “Obama’s Evolution” about that summer:
… the major elements of a [Grand] bargain seemed to be falling into place: $1.2 trillion in [national programs] agency cuts, smaller cost-of-living increases [cuts] for Social Security recipients [cuts by dollar inflation], nearly $250 billion in Medicare savings [cuts] achieved in part by raising the eligibility age [of Medicare]. And $800 billion in new taxes.
Labor and liberal leaders kept quiet about this so they could push their members to vote for Obama in 2012. They also kept quite in the fall of 2011 when Obama released his budget proposal that included hundreds of billions of dollars worth of cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.
But hiding the most recent betrayal was next to impossible, and every liberal group is now suddenly “shocked” to see Obama officially and publicly on record to pursue the cuts.
The most craven of the liberal groups will continue to spew rotten rhetoric that only blames Republicans for the cuts while making excuses for Obama’s behavior, claiming that he merely buckled under intense Republican pressure and felt the need to “compromise.”
But it’s all nonsense. No working person who votes Republican wants to cut Medicare and Social Security. Obama could have shattered the Republican Party at its kneecaps by broadly exposing their plans to cut Social Security and Medicare. Instead he insisted on co-leading the attack.
These cuts have nothing to do with Obama’s courage or backbone. It’s a matter of political and economic ideology, and the policy that flows from it.
To reverse this policy one cannot make excuses for the president or ignore his “treacherous” behavior. A criminal offensive requires a powerful counterattack. And although labor and liberal groups are reluctant to attack “their” president, the members of these groups share a different perspective.
In an attempt to connect with the rank and file, the president of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka, said of Obama’s Social Security cuts:
These cuts are bad policy. And the only way we’re going to stop them is if President Obama and all members of Congress hear that we’re not going to tolerate them. Sign our petition to the president NOW.
The trouble is that petitions are not capable of stopping the years-in-the-making bi-partisan attack. Trumka knows this. He is thus faking opposition to a policy that he’s partially responsible for, since his miseducating of the AFL-CIO membership led to an ignorance that Obama exploited — union members couldn’t mobilize against something they didn’t know was happening.
But now the secret is exposed, and working people will expect the leaders of their organizations to wage a serious fight against these policies.
Those in the labor movement interested in organizing against this anti-worker offensive should consider actively building the coming August 24 demonstration called by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and The King Center for Washington, D.C. where they are planning to place the demand for jobs to end poverty squarely on the Obama government. Once working people are mobilized to fight independently for their own interests, it will be far easier to add demands around Social Security and Medicare to the list, since working people overwhelmingly support these programs. The AFL-CIO has endorsed this demonstration. Now they will have to seriously mobilize for it.
If we don’t fight back now, then when?
- AFL-CIO: Obama’s budget plan ‘bad policy’ (thehill.com)
The New York Times ran a front page piece warning readers that the cost of treating dementia is “soaring.” The piece tells readers of the findings of a new study by the Rand Corporation that shows the cost of dementia doubling by 2040 from its 2010 level.
Are you scared? Are you shaking in your boots? Thinking about pulling the plug on these costly old-timers?
Well our friend, Mr. Arithmetic, reminds us that the Congressional Budget Office projects that the size of the economy is projected to roughly double over this period. This means that the Rand study’s finding implies that dementia will impose pretty much the same burden on the economy in 2040 as it does today.
This story follows a common practice among the Washington elite. They continually highlight and exaggerate costs associated with an aging population. Of course as a practical matter there is little that we can do about these costs, although we can redistribute the burden. The implicit and explicit intent behind much of this discussion is that the elderly and their children should bear more of these costs, as opposed to the government.
Keeping the costs of an aging population front and center in public debate obstructs discussion of the massive upward redistribution of income over the last three decades. This upward redistribution has shifted roughly ten percentage points of GDP ($1.6 trillion annually) to the richest one percent of the population at the expense of the rest of the population. The impact of this upward redistribution on the living standards of the bulk of the population dwarfs the impact of any taxes that might be associated with caring for an aging population through Social Security, Medicare, and other government programs.
If issues were treated in proportion to their importance to the public we would be seeing daily pieces on proposals for breaking up the big banks, taxing financial speculation, ending patent monopolies for prescription drugs, free trade in health care services and other measures that would reverse the upward redistribution of income over the last three decades. However, importance to the public is apparently not a major criterion for determining news coverage. Hence we get misleading front page pieces in the NYT on the cost of dementia.
The Way Forward is a Single-Issue Social Security Defense Party
The history of third parties in America is pretty dismal. The system is rigged against them, for one thing. But equally problematic is the lack of focus that leads to infighting and splits whenever a third party is created.
A great answer to this would be to create a third party that has a laser-like focus on a single issue, where there is little or no room for debate over what the party stands for.
As it happens, there is such an issue, and it has the potential to decimate the two major parties by pulling support from both their bases.
I’m talking about Social Security and its more recent offspring, Medicare, both under threat by the Democratic/Republican duopoly in Washington.
Social Security is without a doubt the most popular program ever created in Washington. Virtually every American pays into it and expects to rely on it in old age, or if he or she becomes disabled. There are currently 54 million people who are receiving Social Security benefits ( 39 million are 65 or older, and 8 million are disabled). And there are some 74 million Baby Boomers — people born between the years of 1946 and 1964, representing one-in-four of all Americans — who will be receiving it over the next several decades. Add to that number the many younger people who are ardent advocates of the program, not just because they expect to also depend upon it, but because they know it is providing already for their parents and grandparents, and you have a bloc of voters and potential voters the likes of which this nation has never seen.
The key to getting them all together is establishing a political party whose raison d’être is preserving, improving and expanding Social Security benefits.
Medicare is also an important part of this concept. Everyone who receives Social Security in retirement is also eligible for Medicare, as are those 65 and older who choose to wait a bit to earn higher Social Security benefits. Again, the number currently depending on Medicare is 50 million, but this will rise dramatically as the Baby Boom generation reaches 65. The Medicare program is under even graver threat than Social Security at the moment as Democrats and Republicans in Washington, both beholden to huge medical industry and insurance industry campaign donors who want to undermine the program, do the bidding of their paymasters.
It’s time for progressives, advocacy organizations of the elderly and the disabled, labor activists and everyone who is worried about halting and reversing the decline of American society and democratic governance to rally around defending these two critical programs created, respectively, in the 1930s and 1960s.
The Social Security Defense Movement envisioned here would organize a single-issue party with the following simple platform:
Defend Social Security benefits and ensure that they are adequate to provide for a decent retirement for all Americans!
No increase in the Social Security payroll taxes for current payers!
Eliminate the cap on income subject to Social Security payroll taxes! This would mean that all income would be subject to the tax and the wealthy would finally pay their share!
Add a tax on so-called unearned income from investment! This would mean that people who live on profits from investments, interest income, etc., would pay into the Social Security fund, too. (Note: income in retirement could be exempted, so people drawing on their tax-deferred IRA or 402(k) money would not have to pay a Social Security tax on it.)
Tax all short-term stock and bond trades at 0.25%, with the revenue generated to be designated for bolstering the Social Security and Medicare funds!
Eliminate Medicare Parts B, C and D! Roll doctor and drug coverage into Part A making it a single, simple program covering all medical costs, and just throw out Part C, which simply provides a huge profitable business to the private insurance industry to cherry pick healthier elderly people, luring them into subsidized private plans and leaving government-run Medicare to pay for the sicker, more costly beneficiaries.
Lower the age of eligibility for Medicare, gradually if necessary, but quickly, so that all Americans will be covered by one government insurance program, fully funded by taxes, and bar private insurance companies from providing health insurance, with the government negotiating reimbursement rates for hospitals, drug companies, doctors and medical device companies. (Explanation: Right now, the 10% of Medicare beneficiaries who are the oldest use 90% of Medicare’s funds. Younger Medicare users in their 60s use are much less costly. As people are younger, their health care costs are even less, so it is actually a bargain to bring them into Medicare. They would be paying in much more than they would be costing. This explains why Canada’s universal Medicare program is such a bargain. Canadians pay 11% of GDP for in total for Medicare that covers everyone, while Americans pay 18% of GDP for health care and many millions are simply left out and get none.)
Eliminate the Veterans Administration and make all veterans eligible for Medicare immediately.
* Eliminate the two-tiered health care system created by Medicaid, and enroll all Medicaid eligible people in Medicare, lifting that financial burden entirely from the states.
The pure focus of a Social Security Defense Party on the issues of Social Security and Medicare might at first appear narrow and parochial, but as one considers the implications, it becomes clear that can be the core of a whole new progressive movement.
Just a couple of examples:
Protecting, guaranteeing and improving Social Security provides long-term security to workers who then no longer have to stay in exploitative jobs simply to save for their old age. The same goes for lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 0. Nothing makes it more difficult for workers to adopt a militant stand in organizing a labor union or going on strike against intransigent management than the fear of losing a family’s health benefits. This is the whole reason that American companies have, seemingly against their own interests in reducing labor costs, consistently opposed a state-run health care system such as the one in Canada. Employers are happy to have the leverage they get by being able to withhold health benefits from strikers or union activists.
Making sure everyone has access to quality health care insures that the quality of that care stays high. Just check out the health care quality in countries like Sweden, Finland, Germany, Canada or France, where everyone has access to the same doctors and hospitals. The quality, and the outcomes, are higher than in the US, where the poor get shoddy, late and often criminally inadequate healthcare in crumbling facilities, while the wealthy get state-of-the-art care at absurdly high prices, with much of the money being wasted on marketing and amenities having nothing to do with actual care and treatment.
Besides getting millions of Americans to refocus on their common interests, such a single-issue party and movement would also inevitably lead to a mass collective rejection of the military industrial complex, with its $1.3-trillion annual expenditure on wars and war preparation. Any attempt to provide adequate funding for retirees, the disabled and for health care for all would inevitably have to confront, head-on, this massive waste of tax dollars and to see it for what it is: a vast transfer of national wealth to giant corporations and the people who own and run them, and away from human needs.
Easing the economic pressure on the elderly by strengthening Social Security and improving Medicare would also tend to make the elderly more politically progressive. People who are not scrimping in order to have enough money to pay the rent, buy enough to eat, and pay their health bills can afford to be more generous and altruistic about supporting funding for local schools, for example, whereas today, the elderly in many communities often become opponents of needed school funding because they see the local school taxes as making it impossible to pay for their prescriptions.
The best thing about a Social Security Defense Party is that it would draw heavily on the base of both the Democratic and the Republican Parties. Regardless of their political views on issues like prayer in schools, abortion, flag-burning, stem cell research, animal rights, climate change, gun ownership or the death penalty, polls show that the vast majority of Americans, left and right, support Social Security and Medicare. Most of them know that they are being betrayed on those two critical issues by their party leaders and elected representatives, Democratic and Republican. Independents, too, support both programs overwhelmingly. A party that speaks resolutely about defending and improving both programs, and that runs candidates who do the same, could potentially vacuum up supporters from both major parties, leaving them empty husks.
And that’s what they should be.
President Obama’s recent closed-door sessions with Republican congressmen to reach a “grand bargain” has roused suspiciously little attention in the mainstream media. What scant reporting has occurred presents the following narrative: President Obama is a “middle ground” politician attempting to breach political divides with erstwhile Republican opponents. In reality these meetings are not between political opposites, but kindred spirits; perfectly matched ideologies that differ only in implementation, and only by degrees.
Here’s a summary of the meetings by the conservative Economist magazine:
On March 6th he [Obama] took 12 Republican senators out to dinner at a posh hotel in Washington… The [Republican] guests noted with surprise and delight that he [Obama] listened more than he talked…The next day Mr. Obama invited [Republican] Paul Ryan to lunch at the White House…This week he is paying three visits to Congress on three consecutive days, to make his pitch for a grand bargain to each party’s caucus in both chambers.
The article fails to remind us what the definition of a “Grand Bargain” is, nor its political/historical significance. Essentially the Grand Bargain is a bi-partisan plan that does two things: 1) reduces the national deficit by cutting so-called “entitlement programs” (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, education, etc.) and 2) raises revenue via taxation (not necessarily from the wealthy and corporations).
Does this make Obama a treacherous renegade of the Democratic Party? Not quite.
Many Democrats are leading the attack on popular “entitlement” programs erected under Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal (Social Security) and enhanced by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs (Medicare). These are the bedrock social programs of the modern Democratic Party. But even bedrock turns into quicksand over time. The Democrats of today have been radically transformed, thanks to a monsoon of corporate cash that has eroded the parties affiliation to its past.
The corporate Democrats in the Senate have been so complicit in the Grand Bargaining that the pro-Democrat New York Times recently congratulated them for putting forth their own proposed budget, in an attempt to separate them from the political fallout that would come if a Grand Bargain actually came to fruition. The New York Times reports:
It’s been four years since the Democrats who control the Senate produced a budget. That has meant four missed opportunities to demonstrate what they stand for, in hard numbers and clear spending priorities. On Wednesday, the chamber’s leaders stiffened their spines and issued a 2014 budget.
In reality it’s not about stiff spines but saved faces. This Grand Bargain conversation has been happening in the media since Obama was elected in 2008, and only now, when the chapter’s final paragraph is being written, do Senate Democrats put forward an alternative ending they know won’t pass.
But what about the progressive caucus Democrats in the House of Representatives? They too are complicit in the crimes of the corporate Blue Dog Democrats. For example, you would be hard pressed to find even the most progressive Democrat publicly denounce Obama’s scheming to cut Social Security and Medicare; instead, these progressive Democrats spend their time pointing out the obvious — that Republicans would like to cut these popular programs.
This type of distraction provides vital political cover for Obama to continue his right wing policies. The progressive caucus thus minimizes or ignores the sins of its leadership, guaranteeing that the rightward drift of the Democrats will continue.
It’s true that the progressive caucus released a progressive budget as an alternative to the Republican’s — and Obama’s — budget. But this budget has no chance of being passed, and progressive caucus Democrats have no intention of building a movement that might give life to such a budget, since it would make their leadership look bad and divide their party.
At the end of the day the progressive Democrats will fall in line with the Democratic leadership, as they typically do. If Obama needs the votes, the progressives will cough them up. One of the first “progressive” Democrats to jump on the Grand Bargain bandwagon is Congressmen Sheldon Whitehouse, who, in speaking about the President’s Grand Bargain hunting said:
We will have your [Obama’s] back, you will have ours, together we will give President Obama all the support he needs during these [Grand Bargain] negotiations.
This progressive caucus complicity was also noted recently by Norman Solomon, (a longtime associate of the media watch group Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting) who noticed that curiously few progressive caucus members had signed onto a letter that pledged to vote against any budget that included cuts to Social Security and Medicare. The political winds have shifted to the right, and the progressives would like to stay Democrats, which now means supporting cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
This wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who had read the recent article by John Stauber, who traced the origins of the “Progressive Movement,” which was set up by the rich Democrats who lead the party, as a way to counteract the Republicans media savvy. The point of the Progressive Movement and progressive Democrats is not to change society, but to beat Republicans in elections by creating the appearance of a groundswell of support for Democratic Party policies.
At the end of the day a so-called progressive Democrat is still a Democrat, and the Democratic Party has re-made its image to reflect the interests of its new big donors from Wall Street, who now feel as comfortable buying Democrats as they do purchasing a Republican politician.
Both Republicans and Democrats know that a Grand Bargain comes with gigantic political risks, most notably political suicide, since the party that cuts Social Security and Medicare will earn the hatred of 99% of Americans. Their ingenious answer is to blame each other. The progressive Democrats and Tea Party Republicans who stand on the sidelines during this fiasco — without taking any real action to stop it — stand to benefit from the outcome, and will loudly denounce the treachery post-treachery, their own names remaining unbesmirched.
But the majority of people in the U.S. will see through such blatant opportunism, and will trust neither party again. The far right will thus rush to organize a new political party, while the labor and community groups supporting the Democrats will either do the same or continue hitching their fortunes to a flagship sinking to the bottom of the ocean.
The Post has a nice piece pointing out the disparities in life expectancy by income. As a result of these differences, proposals to raise the age of Social Security eligibility would disproportionately hit lower income workers.
At one point the piece tells readers:
“Advocates of raising the retirement age say only a relative handful of older workers would be harmed and that the vulnerable could be protected by enacting hardship exemptions.”
It would have been worth noting that this practice of creating “hardship exemptions” was one of the policies that won Greece much ridicule in recent years. Its social security system allowed workers in many occupations to retire at younger ages. For example hairdressers were allowed to start collecting benefits at age 50, ostensibly because they worked with hazardous chemicals.
Most countries have been moving away from policies that vary retirement ages by occupation in favor of uniform retirement age. It is striking that we have people in policy positions in the United States that are advocating the old Greek model.
- How Raising the Retirement Age Screws the Working Poor (motherjones.com)
Here’s a proposal for Social Security that was on the New York Times‘ op-ed page yesterday (2/20/13):
The top third of beneficiaries (by lifetime income) [would] receive no annual cost-of-living adjustment in retirement. The middle third would get half of today’s adjustment, and the bottom third would receive the same annual increase they do now. Such a reform…would reduce Social Security spending by more than a tenth over a decade and fix the program’s long-term financing.
This is part of Paul Ryan adviser Yuval Levin‘s attempt to find “common ground” on the entitlement issue: “Both sides should agree at least to spend less money on the wealthy.” So who are these “wealthy” people who would be getting a benefit cut equal to the rate of inflation every year? According to the SSA, about 34 percent of people over 65 have family incomes of $50,000.
Now, you can argue about what “wealthy” is, but I think you would find pretty widespread agreement on what wealthy isn’t: $50,000 a year. If you sent the New York Times an op-ed outlining your plan to balance the budget by raising taxes on “wealthy” people who make 50k a year or more, it would be put in the same pile that gets the submissions about Elvis’s UFO diet. But when you’re talking about cutting entitlements, if you want to call those people “wealthy,” that’s perfectly reasonable.
But wait! Those aren’t the only people who are getting too much from the government and need to have their benefits cut–the middle third of the elderly are also “wealthy” and need their benefits cut–but by only half the rate of inflation per year. The ones making more than $50,000 must be the super-wealthy, the regular wealthy make…between $25,000 and $50,000, roughly.
For comparison purposes, the poverty line for a family of four is $23,350. Talk about a shrinking middle class!
This idea of “means testing” as a painless way to solve the supposed entitlement crisis is very popular among wealthy pundits. It’s not hard to understand why. One of the principles Levin suggests we should all be able to agree on is “give less to the wealthy rather than take more from them.”
OK, so let’s say you’re wealthy–not Levin’s pretend wealthy, but truly super-rich, in the top 0.01 percent of income. Average income in this group is about $24 million a year. So you can easily afford to give up their whole Social Security paycheck. If you’ve paid in the maximum possible amount and retire at 66, that’s $2,513 a month–or $30,582 a year. You have sacrificed for your country.
But let’s say that instead of taking away your Social Security check, we tax your income–which comes entirely in the form of investment income, since you’re a wealthy retiree–at the rate for regular income rather than at the special lower fat-cat rate. So instead of paying (very roughly) $4.8 million in federal income tax, you’ll be paying about $9.5 million.
Now, you can surely afford to live on $14.5 million a year rather than $19.2 million–just as you can afford to give up your Social Security check. Somehow, though, making the latter sacrifice is probably going to seem more appealing.
And the thing is, there aren’t that many really wealthy people who won’t miss their Social Security checks–so in order to save any appreciable amount of money, you have to take a substantial chunk away from people who actually aren’t very wealthy at all. That’s a principle we can all agree on. All of us making $24 million a year, anyway.
Speaking to The Middle Class today, Barack Obama made a promise, pledging not to pursue spending cuts “that will hurt seniors, or hurt students, or hurt middle- class families.” Such is the state of liberal politics today: the most our recently reelected progressive president is willing to offer his supporters is a pledge not to actively harm them.
Of course, being the head of an empire that feeds on death and consumer debt, the president didn’t even really offer that. Instead, the sentence containing his grand promise continued, clarifying that Obama only meant he wouldn’t harm the middle class “without asking also equivalent sacrifice from millionaires or companies with a lot of lobbyists, et cetera.”
“[I]t’s going to have to be a matter of shared sacrifice,” he added.
So, in exchange for cutting your grandmother’s already inadequate Social Security, a Fortune 500 CEO will — no, let’s go with “may” — be bumped up to a higher tax rate, which could require as many as two to three additional billable hours for their accountant to successfully evade. No one, least of all our secretly Marxist commander in chief, will point out how the middle (and lower) class already sacrifices its claim to the country’s abundant resources to the capitalist class, which the state grants monopoly privileges over what ought to be our shared abundance.
Seems about right.
President Obama and his Republican partners in austerity have choreographed a kind of bi-partisan ballet, in which the dancers reach out to each other in slow motion, their fingers almost touching, teasing the audience. These cheap and transparent theatrics are designed to transmit a soap opera-like sense of drama: “Can the two parties come to a compromise for the sake of the country?” But, the fact is, Obama and the Republicans reached most of their grand bargain more than a year ago, when they slashed $1.7 trillion out of domestic spending over a decade. As liberal Obamite Robert Kuttner, of Demos, points out, there’s very little left to cut except Medicare and Social Security.
Social Security has always been Obama’s Great White Whale; he’s conspired with Republicans and right-wing Democrats to harpoon the mother of all New Deal programs since the very start of his presidency. But Social Security is not an easy mark. George Bush found that out in his second term, when he suffered his worst domestic defeat in attempting to privatize the program.
It would take a Black Democrat, fresh from a near-landslide election, to put Social Security on the chopping block, as Obama did in January of 2009. But before he could move in for the kill, Obama and his allies had to convince the public that Social Security is a major contributor to the federal budget deficit – which is a lie. Social Security runs on its own stream of revenues that go into the Social Security Trust Fund, totally separate from general taxation and debt. However, by endless repetition of the Big Lie – that Social Security adds to the federal deficit – Obama and other corporate Democrats and Republicans succeeded in maneuvering the program into the austerity debate, where it does not belong.
At this point it must be said that Obama’s insistence on making Social Security a budget deficit issue shows that he has always intended to make drastic cuts to the program. One of the reasons Social Security has long been thought of as “untouchable” is because President Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal Democrats purposely insulated it from the conventional budget process. However, President Obama has largely neutered Social Security’s traditional congressional defenders, who know perfectly well what their president is up to, but will not directly oppose him. That’s why we at Black Agenda Report call Obama “the more effective evil”; he can accomplish what Republicans only dream about.
Obama’s scheme to cripple Social Security is to change the way inflation is measured, resulting in a drastic scale-back in cost-of-living increases in recipients. According to Dean Baker, of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the cuts would amount to 3 percent over 10 years, 6 percent over 20 years, and 9 percent over 30 years. In dollar terms, Black Minneapolis Congressman Keith Ellison says retirees would lose $6,000 in the first 15 years of cuts and $16,000 over 25 years.
And that’s just the beginning. Once the untouchability of Social Security has been breached, it becomes just another social program to be carved up on austerity chopping blocks. President Obama’s true legacy will be to have begun the destruction of the crown jewel of what’s left of the nation’s social safety net.
Glen Ford can be contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com.
- Obama and GOP Play Tag Team on Entitlements (alethonews.wordpress.com)
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