Tag Archives: deficit commission

The Myth of the Greedy Geezer

The following appeared today as an opinion piece on Al Jazeera English.

Old people are becoming everyone’s favourite scapegoat for America’s economic woes. Among the growing ranks of self-styled deficit hawks, Social Security and
Medicare are depicted as an intolerable burden to the nation’s already crippled
economy, which can only be saved through massive cuts to these so-called old-age entitlement programs. To advance this agenda, proponents of entitlement cuts have attacked not only the programs themselves, but the people who benefit from them – the selfish old folks like myself, who insist upon bankrupting the
country for the sake of their own costly health care and retirement income.

We in the over-65 set have become the present-day equivalent of Reagan’s notorious “welfare queens,” supposedly living high on the hog at the expense of the taxpayer. According to what I call the Myth of the Greedy Geezer, we lucky
oldsters spend our time lolling about in lush retirement villas, racing our golf
carts to under-priced early-bird dinner specials and toasting our good fortune
with cans of Ensure – all at the expense of struggling young people, who will
never enjoy such pleasures since the entitlement “Ponzi scheme” will collapse
long before they are old.

The fervour for entitlement-cutting remains strongest among conservatives, but these days, even President Obama is taking part, promoting the recommendations of his National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, commonly known as the Deficit Commission (and to its opponents as the Cat food Commission, since that’s what old people will be eating when the Commission finishes its work).

The appointed chair of the Deficit Commission, Alan Simpson, is one of the primary promulgators of the Myth of the Greedy Geezer. A former Republican senator from Wyoming who is known for his colourful turns of phrase, Simpson insists that “This country is gonna go to the bow-wows unless we deal with entitlements, Social Security and Medicare.” The majority of the people opposed to such cuts, he claims, are “These old cats 70 and 80 years old who are not
affected in one whiff. People who live in gated communities and drive their
Lexus to the Perkins restaurant to get the AARP discount. This is madness.”…

Read the rest at Al Jazeera.

Behind the Battle Over Social Security

As the midterm elections near, the future of the Social Security system has become a hot-button issue–and a confusing one. A number of Republican politicians have hit on it as yet another way to undermine Obama and the Democratic leadership, by criticizing their supposed fiscal irresponsibility. Some must also see victory at hand in the conservatives’ longstanding battle to destroy one of the most hated remnants of the New Deal. These include the GOP’s chief architect of change Paul Ryan,who wants to turn Medicare into a voucher program and privatize Social Security. He is backed up by House minority leader John Boehner, who, if the Republicans take the House, could become the next speaker. 

Some Democrats have risen to defend the best–and most solvent–anti-poverty program the nation has ever known. But for other Democrats–including those in the White House–the response is more triangulation. It was Obama who set in motion the Fiscal Commission, supposedly to study the deficit but in fact, as just about everyone in Washington knows, to pare entitlements, cutting Medicare and Social Security. Originally, this commission was thought ready to propose lifting the limit at which one could draw Social Security from 62 to 67. Now scuttlebutt  is that the entry age should be 70. Our supposedly “socialist” president has placed the country’s premier social program in the hands of Alan Simpson, a Republican crank who views old people as the new welfare queens. 

It’s not surprising, then, that a lot of older voters don’t know what to make of it. A piece in Sunday’s New York Times reported on “tales of political burnout and withdrawal among older voters” in one swing county in Colorado. Many in this consituency, which can usually be counted upon to vote in large numbers, seemed to be withdrawing altogether from the fray. Others were preparing to shoot themselves in the foot:

Bill Benton, 79, a lifelong Colorado resident who described himself as an Eisenhower Republican, supports Mr. Buck and believes that his comments suggesting that the private sector could perhaps do a better job with Social Security were “just talk.” Mr. Buck has said that despite his comments, he would not support privatizing the retirement program. “I like him, but he says some dumb things,” Mr. Benton said.

With all the rhetoric flying out of Washington, it’s likely that some older people have come to view the whole topic of Social Security as the centerpiece in a Washington charade of boasts and lies, another turn in the game of smoke and mirrors, much in the manner of the shouting match over health care. It turns the stomach, feeds the hate against Washington, and sends people fleeing to escape a nightmare they can’t understand–sometimes, it appears, right into the arms of the Tea Party.

And in fact, people who suspect a smoke-and-mirrors game are pretty much on the money. Social Security’s elevation to a central political debate is tied to another hot-button issue: The future of the Bush tax cuts. Those tax cuts, which benefit the very rich—the people who pump cash into a candidate’s campaign—are set to expire next year. “In 2010, when all the Bush tax cuts are finally phased in, a staggering 52.5 percent of the benefits will go to the richest 5 percent of taxpayers,” according to Citizens for Tax Justice, the Washington-based  public interest group that follows and analyzes tax policy.

The impact of these cuts on the national treasury–and the deficit–cannot be overestimated: “The tax legislation enacted under President George W. Bush from 2001 through 2006 will cost $2.48 trillion over the 2001-2010 period,” Citizens for Tax Justice reports. “This includes the revenue loss of $2.11 trillion that resultsdirectly from the Bush tax cuts as well as the $379 billion in additional interest.’’

Obama has declared his opposition to extending the tax cuts for the highest income brackets. But some conservative Democrats will have other ideas. And if the White House’s resolve fails, as it often does, there’s another deficit-cutting alternative at hand in Medicare and Social Security. It’s a lot easier for politicians to talk about paring down entitlements than it is to attack the rich on whose largesse they depend.

Tea Party Gets Old People to Drink the Kool-Aid

By now, it’s common knowledge that older people make up a large portion of the so-called Tea Party Movement. My Mother Jones colleague Andy Kroll confirmed this once again in his report on the recent Faith and Freedom  Coalition confab here in Washington, where he described “the right’s geriatric game plan” for the midterm elections.

Pundits have trotted out various theories to explain the oldsters’ taste for Tea (they’re scared; they’re racists; they’re just plain dumb). Whatever the reason, I think it must involve some instinct toward masochism or martyrdom. How else to explain why these old folks would support politicians who want to dismantle the very social programs upon which their comfort–and possibly their very lives–depend? It looks to me like the aging right-wingers have been convinced to drink the Kool-Aid, and now they are sipping their way toward a mass suicide that will make Jim Jones’s endeavor seem like  a drop in the bucket.

I know. You think  these are the ravings of yet another demented geezer. But take a look at what the members of Congress aligned with the Tea Party have to say about Social  Security and Medicare, which alone are responsible for lifting millions of seniors out of abject, body-and-soul-destroying poverty. Referring to these old-age entitlements as a loathsome  form of “welfare,” Minnesota’s Michele Bachmann says that once the Tea Partiers gain power, they can get rid of Social Security in one long weekend. No need for the niceties of Alan Simpson’s entitlement-cutting Cat Food Commission; Bachmann wants to simply kill this New Deal relic once and for all. 

Bachmann made her pronouncements in Las Vegas at the  Rightonline Conference sponsored by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which is run by David Koch. As Sodahead reported:

There, more than 1,000 Tea Partiers – the majority of whom are over the age of 45 — sat in rapt silence as Bachmann outlined a plan to end Social Security for all those who will be under the age of 65 at the time her potential dream Congress enacts the legislation.The growth of the federal debt and deficit require a drastic cutback in federal spending, Bachmann said. “Spending comes first, so we have to cut it first,” she explained, speaking of her plan to devastate Social Security. “And in my opinion, it’ll take us about a long weekend to get that done, and then we’ll be fine.”

For those between the ages of 55 and 65 at the time Bachmann’s Kill Social Security Plan hypothetically passes into law, there would be a means-tested program for “those who truly need it — the truly disadvantaged, those who truly can’t go forward.” For everybody else, there would be unspecified “alternatives and adjustments.” Those under the age of 55 would apparently be squat out of luck, regardless of how truly disadvantaged they are. From the assembled Tea Partiers, not a discouraging word was heard, even as Bachmann outlined a plan to essentially rob them of the money they’ve been putting into the system all their lives.

According to a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in April, 46 percent of Tea Party supporters fall into the 45-64 age group. (Untouched by the Bachmann plan would be the 29 percent of Tea Party supporters the poll cited as being over the age of 64.) The same survey revealed that among 47 percent of self-identified Tea Party supporters, either they or a member of their household was receiving Social Security retirement benefits. When asked whether the outlay for programs such as Social Security and Medicare are worth the taxpayer expense, 62 percent said they were.

As if this weren’t enough, some Republicans have suggested that if they take Congress in November, they may at some point force a government shutdown, on the model of the Clinton years. As Bob Cesca points out, one of the first thing that  happens when the government shuts down is–no more Social Security checks (and no Medicare payments, either.) So even if Bachman’s radical plan fails, the Tea Party oldsters may succeed in screwing themselves–and taking the rest of us geezers along with them.

Triangulating Social Security

While on vacation for the past two weeks, I didn’t read the papers or look at TV, so I was mercifully unaware of the latest bon mot from one of the leading politcal pricks of the summer, former Senator Alan Simpson, who co-chairs Obama’s entitlement-cutting “deficit commission.” Just in case you haven’t heard about it, here’s an account from CBS:

In a letter responding to criticisms against him from a group representing older women, former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson wrote that he has “spent many years in public life trying to stabilize” Social Security. However, he wrote, “Yes, I’ve made some plenty smart cracks about people on Social Security who milk it to the last degree. You know ‘em too. It’s the same with any system in America. We’ve reached a point now where it’s like a milk cow with 310 million tits!”

Simpson made his reply in response to an article on the Huffington Post penned by Ashley Carson, executive director of the National Older Women’s League (OWL). Carson had said, “Mr. Simpson continues to paint the picture that everyone receiving Social Security benefits is living the high life–driving luxury cars, dining out and living in gated communities.” She pointed out the average Social Security beneficiary gets $13,900 annually, relegating many older women to poverty–or, to put it more bluntly, throwing them into the proverbial poor house to rot out the rest of their lives.

Simpson is simply spouting right-wing crap. And I can understand the Clintonesque Democratic Leadership Council types, led by Erskine Bowles, the other co-chair of Obama’s deficit commission, wanting to play games with the right-wingers as they try to get their usual triangulation model set up. But how Obama thinks he can win votes out of the deficit commission charade is way over my head.

Up to now, the general idea has been obvious: Set up a show commission that spends billions of dollars going through the motions of investigation and study–LOL–while busily cutting deals among Republicans and conservative Dems to pare down Social Security and Medicare. These clever people then plan to announce that they can solve the deficit problem by slightly trimming Social Security and rearranging Medicare, but not so much as to hurt today’s “seniors.” God forbid! The deal is, however, to start making serious cuts as time goes on, after the current crop of do-nothing pols have long ago retired with their great pensions, splendid medical care, into profitable jobs lobbying the Congress for more cuts.

Now, nobody ever said the politicians in Washington are very swift. But you’d think that just by reading the basic demographic swing in the nation, they could see that with the tide greatly changing so that older people–not younger people–have the voting power to run the country. What they are actually doing is to doom their successors to a ruinous economics, not to mention a nowhere political future. But then, I always forget, the single greatest motivating force among the members of Congress–and I guess, sad to say, the Obama crowd, is a matter of simple greed in their own endless quest to stay in power.

This time, though, they may have miscalculated, especially by appointing an a-hole like Simpson, whose colorful pronouncements expose the deficit commission scam for the stealth attack that it is. Social Security is known as the third rail of politics, and we can at least hope that it’s lost none of its juice.

Obama’s Cat Food Commission, Alan Greenspan, and the Dancing Grannies for Medicare

President Obama’s Deficit Commission is all smoke and mirrors. Its members are making a big show of laboring over “painful” choices and considering all options in their quest to bring down the deficit. But  inside the Beltway everyone knows what’s going to happen: The commission will reduce the deficit on the backs of the old and the poor, through cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Some opponents have taken to calling it the Cat Food Commission, since that’s what it’s victims will be forced to eat once the commission gets done slashing away at their modest entitlements.

In fact, the true intent of the Deficit Commission was evident before it was even formed. That intent was only driven home when Obama appointed as its co-chair Alan Simpson, who is well known for voicing, in the most colorful terms, what Paul Krugman calls the “zombie lie” that old-age entitlements will soon bankrupt the country.

So why the big show? Because neither Obama nor the Congress wants to get caught cutting Social Security and Medicare in public, certainly not before the November elections. (Medicaid will be cut as well, but politicians tend not to worry so much about poor people, since they don’t go to the polls in the numbers we geezers do.) So instead, they are foisting off this unpleasant task onto the Deficit Commission, showing what the lawyers call “due diligence,” sucking their thumbs and pretending to study how to cut the deficit. They’ve got $1 billion in walk-around money to pay for propaganda so the PR industry ought to be plenty happy. So too, should billionaire Pete Peterson, as he and his foundation lackeys push forward towards a victory in their longstanding attack on entitlements.

Quite frankly, if the Republican Right could get itself together and shove the Tea Party nuts back into their cave–as Reagan did with the crackpots hanging around him–they too could reap the benefits of the Cat Food Commission’s work. Ever since the New Deal, the Right has been kicking and screaming about Social Security. Things just got worse in the 1960s with Medicare and Medicaid. And now, thanks to our supposedly “socialist” president, they are within a few inches of cutting a nice hefty hunk out of the largest social programs this nation has ever known.

As one Capital Hill player recently wrote me: “Unfortunately, everyone in a position of power up here knows full-well the connection between Peterson, the commission and Simpson.  They either don’t care or are too afraid to say anything because they’ll appear ‘soft on deficits.’  It’s no different than their Iraq war votes…they believe they’ll appear ‘weak’ if they don’t jump on the bandwagon. The Democrats, (with the exception of Nancy Pelosi and only a handful of others–including commission member Jan Schakowsky), have no intention of taking on Peterson’s crew.  Congress may be  a lost cause on this issue, if the voters don’t get pissed off about the Commission fast.” 

Will enough voters get pissed off enough, soon enough to slow down the anti-entitlement juggernaut? It’s a long shot, at this point. There are signs of something like a small movement growing around the Cat Food Commission idea, and scattered protests (among them a demonstration dubbed the “Dancing Grannies for Medicare.”)

But it’s going to take a lot to waylay the likely course of future events:  The Cat Food Commission will undoubtedly recommend, and a lame duck Congress will pass, legislation that looks fairly innocuous: trimming Social Security a bit, maybe by upping the age by a few years, and cutting a little from Medicare–none of it affecting anyone who is over 65 right now. That will enable the politicians now in office to look like they are protecting seniors and fending off any drastic cuts, while at the same time appearing “tough” on the deficit. But the legislation, in the usual Washington mode, will gradually widen as the years go by, so that by the time this bunch of pols are retired (on their fat pensions) and out of the fray, the new rules will be eating  into entitlements in a big way.

The other side of this Faustian bargain would appear to be Congress passing some tax increases. “In setting up his National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform,” William Greider recently wrote in The Nation, “Barack Obama is again playing coy in public, but his intentions are widely understood among Washington insiders.” As Greider puts it, “The president intends to offer Social Security as a sacrificial lamb to entice conservative deficit hawks into a grand bipartisan compromise in which Democrats agree to cut Social Security benefits for future retirees while Republicans accede to significant tax increases to reduce government red ink.”

It remains to be seen how “significant” those tax increases actually turn out to be. But even former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan seems to be on board with this general plan. Greenspan’s credentials include chairing the first major entitlement-cutting commission back in the 1980s, as well as promoting the Bush-era tax cuts that helped the deficit grow to its current proportions. He still says that reductions to Medicare benefits are necessary–but in a recent interview in the New York Times, Greenspan also says that he now wants to remove all the Bush tax cuts. Seeing as it comes from the champion of “let them eat cake” economics, this pronouncement must be seen as predictor of how conservatives could end up voting. In short, the old and the poor will have to eat cat food, but the rich might kick in a few crumbs as well.

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Petition to Stop the Entitlement-Cutting “Catfood Commission”

Readers of Unsilent Generation may be interested in a new online petition directed at members of Congress, concerning the work of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility of Reform, which I’ve written about here many times before. Here is the introduction to the petition, which was started by Alternet. You can read the text of the petition, and sign it, here at Change.org

Right-Wing “Deficit Hawks” and their enablers are on a march to destroy the social safety net we built for our seniors and retirees. Shockingly, some of the most notorious advocates are actually in charge of the presidential commission that will soon determine the future of Social Security and Medicare. We need to stop them in their tracks! Join us in calling on Congress to Stop the Catfood Commission.

The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform has been dubbed by progressives the “Catfood Commission” because its goal appears to be cutting benefits so drastically that retirees will only be able to afford to eat pet food. It’s hard to tell exactly what the commission is planning because its meetings are closed to the public and the press. Based on past statements and the background of its members the proposals are likely to include raising the retirement age to 70, turning large portions of Social Security over to Wall Street, and cutting Medicare benefits.

The commission’s co-chairman Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, has stated he believes the founders of the Social Security program never expected anyone to actually live to 65 and collect. “People just died,” he has said. “Social Security was never [for] retirement.” Erskine Bowles, the other co-chairman, negotiated a secret but ultimately unsuccessful deal between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich to cut Social Security benefits. Any chances that the commission would make cuts to the US defense budget in its pursuit of fiscal responsibility seem slim owing to the fact that the CEO of Honeywell, a major defense contractor, is a member of the panel.

We can’t sit back and count on a Democratic-controlled Congress to protect our social safety net. Just a day before the July 4th holiday weekend, the House of Representatives passed a measure that would guarantee an up-or-down vote on the Catfood Commission’s recommendations in the current session of Congress if they pass the Senate. With this measure House Speaker Nancy Pelosi relinquished her power to prevent the vote from coming to the floor.

Your representatives need to hear from you NOW.  Let’s stop the Catfood Commission from raiding the Social Security trust fund and slashing medical benefits for current and future retirees.

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The Peterson Foundation’s Retirement Plan: Debtors Prisons

For readers interested in the emerging entitlement wars, and the insidious influence of Pete Peterson’s anti-entitlement campaign on the public debate (and, apparently, on Obama’s Deficit Commission), yesterday’s post on “Entitled to Know,” the blog of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, needs no introduction. I’m quoting the post in full, but you can click through to the original post to watch the segment on CNBC–and while you’re there, subscribe to the blog to receive the latest information on these issues. 

Apparently, these are the “good-old days” our nation’s fiscal hawks relish.  The Peterson Foundation’s David Walker co-hosted CNBC’s Squawk Box this morning (personally, we yearn for the good-old days when so-called “news” shows were hosted by journalists—not partisan advocates—but that’s another debate). 

The discussion followed the classic Peterson Foundation talking points—government bad, business good—but ultimately led to a nostalgic reminiscence for the good old days when Americans faced debtors prisons and had no sense of “entitlement” (presumably to the Social Security and Medicare benefits workers have funded for their entire working lives):

“The fact of the matter is we have to change how we do things. We are on an imprudent and unsustainable path in a number of ways. You talk about debtors prisons, we used to have debtors prisons, now bankruptcy is no taint. Bankruptcy is an exit strategy. Our society and our culture have changed. We need to get back to opportunity and move away from entitlement. We need to be able to provide reasonable risk but hold people accountable when they do imprudent things…it’s pretty fundamental.”… (David Walker, Peterson Foundation, CNBC Jun 10, 2010)

Now, maybe in the Peterson Foundation’s circle of Wall Street types and multi-billionaires, bankruptcy is an exit strategy, but for millions of middle-class Americans bankruptcy is, in fact, a life-altering and often debilitating choice.  As for pitting “opportunity” vs “entitlement”—that’s classic Peterson Foundation messaging designed to convince us that America’s seniors are somehow riding high on the hog and soaking taxpayers with all of their “entitlements”. 

Of course, these fiscal hawks never mention that fact that the government doesn’t pay for those “entitlements”, American workers do. It’s not the government’s money…it’s not Wall Street’s money…and those so-called “entitlements” have been paid for by you and me.  The truth is, retirees are entitled to receive the benefits they’ve been promised; however, fiscal hawks like David Walker would apparently rather roll back the clock, ignore those promises, and build more debtor’s prisons.

Reader Response: How About Going After the Real “Fat Cats” Before Attacking Elders?

This morning I received a comment from Elizabeth Rogers in response to my posts about Senator Alan Simpson, the octagenarian elder-basher who co-chairs Obama’s Deficit Commission. Simpson has been making news with his comments about “fat cat” geezers who cling to their government handouts while younger generations suffer. I want to share it with everyone because Ms. Rogers gets to the heart of the whole entitlements question in a simple and direct way.

There’s a good chance this commission will end up proposing cuts in Medicare, along with steps towards privatizing  parts of Social Security. These have been heartbeat issues for conservatives running all the way back to the creation of Social Security in the New Deal, and has only grown since Congress created Medicare in the 1960s, after some arm twisting by LBJ. Doing away with these entitlement programs has been a cherished conservative idea, right alongside ridding the nation of  ties to the UN, ending the income tax, and abolishing the Department of Education, to name but a few.

In addition to destroying the social safety net, the war on entitlements serves to distract attention from the real causes of the inflated deficit. Elizabeth Rogers suggests some other sources of deficit-reduction that our politicians might want to consider before they start dipping into our Social Security checks. 

Retired Senator Simpson must travel in a very different crowd of older Americans than my husband and I do! We live in a compact 2 BR condo in the Pacific Northwest. Yes, there’s a gate, but our complex is very definitely occupied by middle class workers and retirees like us. At 73 I’m still working part time and thank my lucky stars that I have a job. My husband, now 80, worked until four years ago (he started working at age 14).

Lexuses? I don’t think so. Our small SUVs are over 10 years old and we hope they last as long as we do. Fat cats? Not exactly, although we do have an overweight feline in our family.

Seriously, although we have some additional resources, Social Security is a significant source of income for us, as I suspect it is for most recipients. That said, we get that the nation’s huge budget deficit is a serious problem.

We’d be willing to pay more taxes if the amount is fair and reasonable, but FIRST, how about: (1) pursuing the offshore bank accounts of billionaire tax evaders, (2) allowing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans to expire, (3) ending the UNfunded wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that are now costing in the trillions; (4) changing our culture’s views on end-of-life care so that Medicare doesn’t continue to spend huge sums on “heroic” measures to “save” those in their last 6 months of life. I have multiple advance directives in place because I have no desire to fall into the hands of the medical-pharmaceutical complex at the end of my life, but even so, I can’t be certain that I won’t. We need to get real about this issue!

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Deficit Commission’s Alan Simpson Denounces Fat Cat Geezers

It’s a little hard to believe that the political professionals within the Whte House (meaning Rahm Emmanuel) knew what they were getting themselves into when they appointed former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson to co-chair the president’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Yes, it’s obvious that the so-called Deficit Commission’s real purpose is to cut old-age entitlements, a move long favored by Simpson, as well as by the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street. But did they really want someone who would be quite so crude and blatant about these intentions–and so whacked out as well?

Simpson has already said that Social Security and Medicare are the reason “this country is gonna go to the bow-wows,” and he wouldn’t be dissuaded from cutting them by AARP or “the Gray Panthers, the Pink Panther, whatever.” But in an interview on Fox News last week, Simpson managed to outdo himself.

Simpson’s latest pronouncements were dissected by Trudy Lieberman, a contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review,  who has written some very smart commentary on the truth behind the entitlement “reform” effort. In this latest piece, she even writes about one of my favorite subjects, the phony war between the generations–as she puts it, “Geezers vs. Gen-X-ers.”  The piece is called “More Words of Wisdom on Alan Simpson.” I’m including a substantial excerpt here, but recommend reading the whole thing at the CJR site.

Former Sen. Alan Simpson’s interview on Fox Sunday was a doozy. His usual outspoken, outrageous, colorful self shined through, perhaps as a prelude to the first meeting of the federal deficit reduction commission, which he leads (and about which my colleague Holly Yeager posted the other day). Simpson never makes boring copy, and so far he has been consistently quotable in his remarks. He and his co-chairman, Erskine Bowles, make quite a media pair.

But the press needs to pay attention to what they are saying, because their drive to cut the deficit will affect the financial well-being of every man, woman, and child in America. So far the direction of the media coverage has been driven by their mantra: everything is on the table; no more Mr. Nice Guy when it comes to Social Security and Medicare. The Erskine and Alan show is laying the groundwork for drastically changing Social Security and Medicare in ways that might not be so palatable with the public.

It didn’t take Simpson long to climb on his hobbyhorse—that whatever the commission recommends will not hurt older folks. “Erskine and I are in this one for our grandchildren,” he said. “Somebody said they’re stalking horses for taxes. I’m not a stalking horse for taxes. I’m a stalking horse for my grandchildren.” Simpson told Fox anchor Chris Wallace that whatever “adjustment” is ultimately made, and whatever has been suggested in the way of Social Security reform for the last ten years, “none of that affects anybody over 57.” He said most of his mail was coming from:

“These old cats 70 and 80 years old who are not affected in one whiff. People who live in gated communities and drive their Lexus to the Perkins restaurant to get the AARP discount. This is madness.”

Perhaps Simpson hasn’t looked hard enough in Cody, Wyoming, or in other places where the elderly, particularly women, exist on rather small Social Security incomes. The average monthly benefit for all workers is about $1,150. These people are paying more and more for their health care out of pocket and will continue to do so after reform takes effect. I have spent a lot of my career talking to seniors, and I haven’t seen many living in gated communities, driving fancy cars. Walk down the streets of Torrington, Wyoming, not too far from where the former senator lives, to see the kinds of small, cramped, drafty houses where many of the town’s elderly survive. Some barely have enough for food, let alone gas for the cranky old vehicles they drive.

Once Simpson made his point about the fat cat geezers, Wallace tried to engage about what exactly he had in mind for the under-57 crowd: “You are talking about raising the retirement age, are you talking about higher taxes?” A fair enough question, to which Simpson replied: “I don’t know.” He said there were think tanks all over the country that have talked about how to resolve the Social Security problem and mentioned the 1983 commission that put the program on a sound footing. That commission resolved the problem, he said, “because they had all the facts they needed. So do we.”

If Simpson has all the facts, we’d like to know exactly how many seniors drive Lexuses and live in gated communities. If he doesn’t have the numbers, reporters following this story should pin him down or find out for themselves what the data show before spreading his sound bites far and wide, the way journalists did when Ronald Reagan called black women welfare queens who drove big cars while collecting food stamps.

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Pete Peterson’s Anti-Entitlement Juggernaut

When Obama’s new deficit commission gets going, it intends to be “partnering“–in the words of executive director Bruce Reed –with outside groups. Among them will be the foundation run by Wall Street billionaire Peter G. Peterson, who on Wednesday will upstage the president with his own fiscal summit in Washington. Obama insists he is keeping an open mind about how to deal with the deficit and national debt–but as I’ve written before, he’s already stacked his own commission with people who lean heavily toward one particular solution: cutting entitlements. And now he is working hand-in-glove with a wealthy private organization whose central purpose is to cut Social Security and Medicare. Talk about foregone conclusions. 

Pete Peterson: Beating a Dead Horse

Peterson, according to Forbes, was the 149th richest man in America last year, with $2.8 billion in assets. During his long career he has been, among other things, CEO of Bell & Howell,  head of Lehman Brothers, a co-founder of the Blackstone Group, and head of the Council on  Foreign Relations. He was Nixon’s Secretary of Commerce, and in 1994 served on a Clinton bipartisan commission on entitlements and tax reform. He launched his own Peter G. Peterson Foundation with a grant of $1 billion.  

A fiscal conservative, Peterson has long been issuing dire warnings about the the nation’s skyrocketing debt. The key cause of the problem, in his analysis, is that entitlement programs–primarily Social Security and Medicare, but Medicaid as well–are out of control; the only solution is to cut them. Peterson is the self-appointed head of what some people have begun to call the “granny bashers,” who argue that greedy geezers are ruining the lives of younger generations with their unconscionable demands for basic healthcare and a hedge against destitution. (Peterson himself is in his eighties–but of course he’s too rich to worry about such things.)  

The granny bashers’ real agenda, of course, is to cut the social safety net programs that they have long abhorred–but they have gained far more ground with their intergenerational inequity claims than they ever would with a straight-out attack on Social Security and Medicare. The majority of the Washington punditry seem to have fallen for it–and so too, apparently, has the White House. A year ago in Newsweek, Peterson wrote: 

For the first time in my memory, the majority of the American people join me in believing that, on our current course, our children will not do as well as we have. For years, I have been saying that the American government, and America itself, has to change its spending and borrowing policies: the tens of trillions of dollars in unfunded entitlements and promises, the dangerous dependence on foreign capital, our pitiful level of savings, the metastasizing health-care costs, our energy gluttony. These structural deficits are unsustainable. Herb Stein, who served alongside me in the Nixon White House as chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, once drily observed, “If your horse dies, I suggest you dismount.” And yet, we keep trying to ride this horse. 

In June, according to the Washington Post,  Obama’s deficit commission will be participating in a 20-city electronic town hall meeting, put together by an organization called America Speaks. It is financed by Peterson, along with the MacArthur Foundation and Kellogg Foundation. This is a truly unusual event because it marks the first time a presidential commission’s activities are financed by a private group that has long been lobbying the government on the very subjects the commission is supposed to “study.” 

The Peterson summit is crammed with luminaries in finance and government. First there’s the keynoter, Bill Clinton. Then there’s Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman widely credited with getting us into our current economic mess, and Paul Volcker, his conservative predecessor at the Fed. Robert Rubin, Clinton’s secretary of the Treasury, and another pillar of the current economic debacle, will speak. So will Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, a leading GOP guru, who among other things wants to replace Medicare with a system of vouchers and tax breaks. Judd Gregg, the senior and probably most important conservative senator when it comes to finance, will be featured as well; he is a keen  proponent of Peterson’s entitlement cuts. 

The heavy hitters are all to be interviewed by big names in mainstream media: ABC’s George Stephanopolous will question his old boss Clinton; Leslie Stahl will speak with presidential commission co-chair Erskine Bowles, one of Clinton’s a White House chiefs of staff. Ranked below the big guys are a slew of lesser lights including some liberals like Lawrence Mischel of the Economic Policy Institute, Robert Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, John Podesta of the Center for American Progress (and another former Clinton chief of staff), and former Congressional Budget Office head Alice Rivlin. 

All-in-all, it seems to be dominated by Clinton-era officials, who oversaw much of the Wall Street deregulation that nearly drove the country broke. These are the people who will now try to make up the losses on the backs of the poor and the old by rewriting the hard-won entitlement programs created during the New Deal and the War on Poverty. 

Meanwhile Obama–who seems to have learned nothing about strategy from the health care wars–will not say what he thinks about any of it. Instead, he prefers to sit on the sidelines and see what these people come up with–as if that horse wasn’t already out of the barn.

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