The Republicans have made it clear that their claim that this tax bill, in slashing taxes on corporations and the rich, will “pay for itself” through supposed higher economic growth is bogus and that the real goal is to, as conservative strategist Grover Norquist once put it, “to shrink government down to the size that we can drown it in the bathtub.”
But make no mistake, the Republicans aren’t talking about shrinking the biggest drain on the federal budget — the military — which consumes 54% of each year’s discretionary budget. No, they’re talking about cutting social spending, or in other words the key elements still left from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.
This campaign will be based upon a lie which the corporate media tend to repeat uncritically: that Social Security is “bankrupt” and more importantly that it is the main cause of the nation’s $20-trillion deficit (soon to be a $21.5-trillion or higher deficit after the new tax law works its magic). In fact, Social Security benefits are, always have always been and will through 2019 continue to be fully funded by payments made into the program by past and current workers’ FICA payroll taxes. The program has over its 81-year history contributed exactly nothing to the federal deficit. Rather, that deficit is the result primarily of the nation’s massive military budget and endless series of wars and cold wars since the end of World War II, as well as to a gutless Congress that continually adds to to the red ink by refusing to fully fund government programs, preferring to borrow and push the costs onto future generations. (Truth to tell, Congress has since World War II cravenly used borrowing from the Social Security Trust Fund to finance US wars without having to raise income taxes to pay for them.)
The strategy for going after what Republicans scornfully (and Democrats ignorantly and lazily) deride as “entitlements” such as Social Security and Medicaid, are actually earned benefits that workers have, over their lifetimes, paid for with taxes taken from both their paychecks and from their employers, is to claim that the government just can’t afford these programs anymore.
It’s true that because of demographic changes and medical advances — a declining birthrate, a major increase in life expectancy, and the arrival of a massive wave of so-called “Baby Boomers” born in the two boom decades that followed the end of World War II — there is a bulge in the number of people reaching retirement age and eligibility for both Medicaid and Social Security retirement benefits. We know that is happening (the first Baby Boomers reached 62, the earliest age for claiming benefits, in 2007, and reached 66, the age of eligibility for what is known as “full retirement,” in 2011). That bulge in elderly citizens claiming benefits will continue enrolling for retirement and Medicare eligibility until the period 2026 through 2034, when the last Boomer babies, born in 1964, will be reaching, respectively, either age 62 or age 70, the latter being the age one can file and receive maximum monthly benefit checks. (Then, left unsaid, is the reality that the shortfall problem will begin to go away as older retirees in the bulge begin to die off.)
Coincidentally, 2034 is also the year that, if nothing is done by Congress to bolster the Social Security Trust Fund in advance, the Social Security System as currently established under the 1936 Act, will have to draw on just the FICA tax receipts from then current workers. That, we’re told, would mean cutting benefits by some 21%. That’s hardly going bankrupt, but it would be a hard blow for the elderly who depend upon only Social Security benefits to survive on, as they have no retirement savings and no pensions thanks to America’s poverty-level minimum wage and the termination of most traditional pensions. But the countries of Europe, as well as Japan and Taiwan, all face these same issues and have dealt with them, keeping their much more generous systems solvent. Here the story is different.
Ten years ago, this temporary shortfall in the Trust Fund and this predictable extra draw on the system’s resources because of the retirement of Baby Boomers could have been dealt with by a few simple tweaks, such as eliminating or even just raising the cap on income subject to the FICA tax (it’s currently capped at the first $127,000 of earnings). But Congress has refused to deal with such a fix, and longer allegedly people’s deliberative body waits, the more dramatic and costly that fix will have to be. Today, the shortfall could be eliminated by changing the law so that all income — even multi-million-dollar incomes — be made subject to the payroll tax, and by a few smaller tweaks, like adding a transaction tax of perhaps 0.25% to every short-term stock trade — something many countries in Europe (where retirement systems are much better funded) do. Or the amount employers pay into worker accounts could be raised from the current matching 6.2% to 7.2% or 8.2%.
Okay, so we know that Social Security and Medicare, two of the most popular programs of the United States government, are in the gunsights of Republican strategists. Ergo, now is the time to begin building a mass movement to not only defend but to expand those programs, which are actually among the most meager and inadequate of retirement and state-run health programs among all developed nations.
The first step is to begin a campaign to explain to the American people that Social Security and Medicare will not go bust as long as they fight to protect them. Despite the best efforts of conservative and neo-liberal ideologues to pretend that they are doomed by demographics and actuarial tables as if they were private annuities, Social Security and Medicare are in fact purely political constructs and benefits are set and funded by the decisions of elected politicians.
The second step is to explain clearly to all Americans that Social Security and Medicare do not simply benefit the old and the sick. They are there for every worker who becomes disabled or too ill to work anymore. Social Security benefits are also paid to support children when a wage-earning parent dies, or to a widow who may have earned no or only a minimal Social Security benefit while raising a family. Even more importantly, Social Security and Medicare also mean that children and grandchildren do not have to bankrupt themselves or short-change their own children’s future by having to impoverish themselves to support their aging parents and/or grandparents. If you think about it, what working-age person complains the benefit payments to their retired parents or grandparents being too high? And yet that is one of the more obscene tactics opponents of these programs have turned to: trying to stir up an inter-generational war over “entitlements.”
Marches on Washington and state capitals in this movement should not include just older people — they should be packed with young people demanding that grandma and grandpa and mom and dad get the benefits they’ve earned, and that these programs be there for them too, when it’s their turn to need them.
I would say that this movement I’m calling for should also be in defense of Medicaid — the federal/state program that funds medical care for the poor (and also for a huge proportion of the middle class when they need to move into long-term nursing home care), and of welfare for families of the unemployed and those who, despite working at prevailing minimum wages, cannot survive without financial assistance. But the truth is that these programs, as well as Medicare itself, should be replaced with some type of national health program for all, such as they have in the UK and Canada (and virtually all of Europe and much of Asia), and by a federal minimum wage that actually is set high enough to support a family on it (current minimum wages are so low that workers qualify for welfare programs like WIC and Food Stamps, meaning these programs are actually just taxpayer-funded payroll subsidies for greedy employers unwilling to pay their workers a living wage).
It’s easy to make the case that the US has the most costly health system in the world by a factor of two, and still leaves nearly 30 million citizens uninsured and unable to pay to see a doctor, while other developed countries, at a fraction of the cost, have systems that cover all their citizens’ health care costs. It’s easy too to make the case that raising incomes at the bottom is the best way to raise all workers’ incomes since employers have to offer more to attract workers when less skilled workers start to receive more than those skilled workers are currently receiving. It’s a no-brainer.
The challenge, as I see it, is to also make the connection between the coming attacks on these New Deal remnant programs and the vast sums of tax money being annually squandered on the US military’s war machine, a giant funds-sucking monster that currently receives $1.3 trillion, counting the interest on the debt for prior wars and military spending. That is as much as the next eight nations in the world, including China and Russia, spend on their militaries, and it is demonstrably a huge waste.
Are we safer because we spend multiple times what our rivals spend on our military? Is the US free from the threat of terror because of the endless wars that the US is fighting or providing aid for others to fight (Saudi Arabia, Israel, etc.)? Clearly not. Would the US be at risk if the military budget were cut by 75%, if its nuclear force was trimmed to a few dozen weapons (pending reaching a global ban on nuclear weapons), if it ceased to have $15-billion aircraft carriers, whose only purpose is engaging in unprovoked wars on third-world countries that pose no threat to the US, and if its bloated officer staff was whittled down to a few generals per military branch? Hardly. We have been terrorized by our government leaders and our compliant corporate media for long enough. It’s time to whittle the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower so presciently warned us against down to a size where it would no longer be able to dictate its own budgets, as its military bases and arms manufacturers, situated strategically in every congressional district in the union, currently allow it to do.
Any movement to protect and expand Social Security and to move the US away from its shabby, complicated and cut-prone patchwork health care system of Medicare, Medicaid, employer-based private insurance, charity care and, at least for now, the Affordable Care Act, to some kind of nationalized health system, needs to be independent of the two main political parties. The Republican Party is attempting to eradicate public retirement and public health care programs of all kinds, or at least to convert Social Security into some kind of worker-funded ggovernment-mandated401(k) managed by private firms, and to erase the ACA.
But the Democrats have been treacherous on this. The ACA — Obamacare — is with us because President Obama, despite having a mandate and a majority in both houses of Congress in 2009, chose to reject any consideration of a Canadian-style single-payer government medical insurance program, and instead developed an insurance-friendly Rube Goldberg-like government subsidized the program, the ACA, which was immediately slated for death by Republicans and which was doomed by its own internal contradictions which were bound to eventually make it too costly to continue with. Meanwhile, Obama also, early in his first term, created a commission, headed by former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson (famously known for calling Social Security “a cow with 310 million teats”) and Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff to President Clinton. They called for raising the retirement age and making Social Security more of a means-tested program — an idea Hillary Clinton also promoted, disastrously, during her losing 2016 presidential campaign.
No, the only way to fight this looming battle for Social Security and health care for all has to be independent of parties, like the Civil Rights and Anti-war movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s before it. And it needs to start getting organized now before the Republicans get their shit together on this.
On the bright side, this is a battle that can, if done right, unite in one mass progressive movement the broadest possible spectrum of the American public, bridging distinctions of race, age and gender, where people live (urban, suburban or rural), class (poor, working, middle or even upper-middle income people) and ideology (socialist, Democrat, independent and even many Republicans since everyone needs Social Security and health care).
So who’s on this? We need to get to work.
Top photo: americans4financialreform | CC BY 2.0