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Looting Social Security | The Nation

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Looting Social Security

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Follow the bouncing ball: Washington first cuts taxes on the well-to-do, then offsets the revenue loss by raising taxes on the working class and tells folks it is saving their money for future retirement. But Washington spends the money on other stuff, so when workers need it for their retirement, they are told, Sorry, we can't afford it.

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William Greider
William Greider
William Greider, a prominent political journalist and author, has been a reporter for more than 35 years for newspapers...

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There’s a frightening enthusiasm for war among pundits—and now the public seems ready to go along too.

The orthodox American policy is that if challenged, the US must go to war to prove itself, to show the world it is still Superman and willing to shed blood and treasure to defend that franchise.

Federal budget analysts try to brush aside these facts by claiming the government is merely "borrowing from itself" when it dips into Social Security. But that is a substantive falsehood. Government doesn't own this money. It essentially acts as the fiduciary, holding this wealth in trust for the "beneficial owners," the people who paid the taxes. This is the bait and switch the establishment intends to execute.

Peter Peterson, a Republican financier who made a fortune doing corporate takeover deals at Wall Street's Blackstone Group, is the Daddy Warbucks of the "fiscal responsibility" crusade. He has campaigned for decades against the dangers that old folks pose to the Republic. Now 82 and retired, Peterson claims he will spend nearly one-third of his $2.8 billion in wealth--he ranks 147 on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans--alerting the public to this threat (leave aside the fact that old people have already paid for their retirement or that Social Security's modest benefits are equivalent to minimum-wage income). The major media treat him adoringly. Most reporters are too lazy (or dim) to check out the facts for themselves, so they simply repeat what Peterson tells them about Social Security.

It is a frightful message. Peterson describes a "$53 trillion hole" in America's fiscal condition--but the claim assumes numerous artful fallacies. His most blatant distortion is lumping Social Security, which is self-funded and sound, with other entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid. Those programs do face financial crisis--not because the elderly and poor are greedily gaming the system but because the medical-industrial complex has the profit incentive to drive healthcare costs higher and higher. Healthcare reform can solve the financing problem only if it imposes cost controls on private players like the insurance and pharmaceutical industries.

Peterson is financing a media blitz. His tendentious documentary--I.O.U.S.A.--opened in 400 theaters and was broadcast on CNN with appropriate solemnity. Last September Peterson bought two full pages in the New York Times to urge the next president to create a "bipartisan fiscal responsibility commission" once he was in office (Peterson was for John McCain). This group of so-called experts would be authorized to design the reforms for Congress to enact. But Peterson does not want Congress to have a full, freewheeling debate on the particulars. The reform package, he suggests, should be submitted to a single "up-or-down vote by Congress, as is done with military base closings." That's one of the gimmicks intended to give politicians cover and protect them from their constituents. It is profoundly antidemocratic. But that's the idea--save the government from the unruly passions of citizens. Peterson's proposal also resembles the notorious fast-track provision, which for years enabled presidents to steamroll Congress on trade agreements, no amendments allowed.

Peterson's proposal would essentially dismantle the Social Security entitlement enacted in the New Deal, much as Bill Clinton repealed the right to welfare. Peterson has assembled influential allies for this radical step. They include a coalition of six major think tanks and four tax-exempt foundations.

Their report--Taking Back Our Fiscal Future, issued jointly by the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation--recommends that Congress put long-term budget caps on Social Security and other entitlement spending, which would automatically trigger benefits cuts if needed to stay within the prescribed limits. The same antidemocratic mechanisms--a commission of technocrats and limited Congressional discretion--would shield politicians from popular blowback.

The authors of this plan are sixteen economists from Brookings and Heritage, joined by the American Enterprise Institute, the Concord Coalition, the New America Foundation, the Progressive Policy Institute and the Urban Institute. "Our group covers the ideological spectrum," they claim. This too is a falsehood. All these organizations are corporate-friendly and dependent on big-money contributors. No liberal or labor thinkers need apply, though the group includes some formerly liberal economists like Robert Reischauer, Alice Rivlin and Isabel Sawhill.

The ugliest ploy in their campaign is the effort to provoke conflict between the generations. "The automatic funding of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid impedes explicit consideration of competing priorities and threatens to squeeze out spending for young people," these economists declared. Children, it is suggested, are being shortchanged by their grandparents. This line of argument has attracted financial support from some leading foundations usually associated with liberal social concerns--Annie E. Casey, Charles Stewart Mott, William and Flora Hewlett. Peterson has teamed up with the Pew Trust and has also created front groups of "concerned youth."

Trouble is, most young people did not buy this pitch when George W. Bush used it to sell Social Security privatization. Most kids seem to think Grandma is entitled to a decent retirement. In fact, whacking Social Security benefits, not to mention Medicaid, directly harms poor children. More poor children live in families dependent on Social Security checks than on welfare, economist Dean Baker points out. If you cut Grandma's Social Security benefits, you are directly making life worse for the poor kids who live with her.

The assault sounds outrageous and bound to fail, but the conservative interests may have Obama in a neat trap. Their fog of scary propaganda makes it easier to distort the president's position and blame him for any fiscal disorders driven by the current financial collapse. He will be urged to "do the right thing" for the country and make the hard choices, regardless of petty political grievances (words and phrases he has used himself). Obama's fate may depend on informing the public--now, not later--so that people are inoculated against these artful lies.

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