Tag Archives: entitlement cuts

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.

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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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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Simpson to Geezers: Bugger Off

On Tuesday President Obama formally launched a new commission that is supposed to bring down the national debt, in large part by investigating how entitlement programs, including Social Security and Medicare, can be cut back.

Obama told reporters at the White House he wouldn’t discuss the options at for bringing down the debt at this point. “We’re not playing that game,’’ Obama said. “I’m not going to say what’s in. I’m not going to say what’s out. I want this commission to be free to do its work.”

 The new commission, which is to file a nonbinding report by Christmas, has two co-chairs. Erskine Bowles, a former investment banker and Clinton chief of staff, is one of them. Alan Simpson, the quirky, conservative, longtime senator from Wyoming, is the other. The commission is supposed to be objective. But Simpson already has signaled that whatever happens, he wants to keep old people out of the process.

You remember the last time we corrected Social Security, and people calling me.  Let me tell you, everything that Bush and Clinton or Obama have suggested with regard to Social Security doesn’t affect anyone over 60, and who are the people howling and bitching the most? The people over 60.  This makes no sense.  You’ve got scrub out (of) the equation the AARP, the Committee for the Preservation of Social Security and Medicare, the Gray Panthers, the Pink Panther, the whatever.

In other words, the geezers should all shut up, since they will all be dead by the  time any entitlement reductions kick in. And what if they wanted to stick up for other old people in generations to come? Well, too bad. By the time those suckers hit retirement age, it’ll be too late to do anything. 

 

Debt Commission Chair Alan Simpson Thinks “This Country is Gonna Go to the Bow-wows”

For more than a year, I’ve been joining with a handful of other critics in warning that all our economic woes–the costs of the financial meltdown, and the bank bailout and stimulus spending that followed–would eventually be placed square on the backs of our so-called old-age entitlements: Social Security and Medicare. And lo, it is coming to pass, via President Obama’s euphemistically named National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform–commonly called the Deficit Commission or the Debt Panel.

Despite the names, no one is even trying very hard to pretend that the commission has any purpose other than cutting Social Security, Medicare, and probably Medicaid as well. That choice was clear from the get-go, based on Obama’s choice of Alan Simpson to co-chair the commission. The former Republican senator from Wyoming has already described his mission as “saving” the United States from “insolvency” by hacking away at entitlements. And if we want any more proof, we need only look at Simpson’s background, as detailed by Saul Friedman in his latest “Gray Matters” column:

This time President Obama, in his obsessive reaching across the political aisle, may have gone a stretch too far. For the Republican he picked to co-chair the so-called deficit reduction commission, former Sen. Alan Simpson, has been a harsh critic of Social Security and Medicare. And he sought to destroy their most powerful defenders, especially AARP.

That was 15 years ago, but as recently as 2005, Simpson, a conservative from Wyoming who left the Senate in 1997, supported attempts by President George Bush to privatize Social Security by turning part of the pension and insurance program into millions of individual investment accounts, which by now would have lost 20 percent of their value. Bush’s plan failed, largely because of the opposition of AARP and other advocates that Simpson sought to discredit.

Even now, Simpson, who should know better, conflates or deliberately confuses Social Security’s long term fiscal problems, which are minor, with its supposed contribution to the federal deficit, which is almost nil.

In an interview with the NewsHour after his appointment, Simpson said of Social Security, “You have two choices…you either raise the payroll tax or decrease the benefits or start affluence testing. The rest of it is B.S. And if the people are really ingesting B.S. all day long, their grandchildren will be picking grit with the chickens. This country is gonna go to the bow-wows unless we deal with entitlements, Social Security and Medicare.”

Simpson insists that he is keeping an open mind. He told the Wall Street Journal that he didn’t like politicians who “demonized” their opponents: “Instead of saying this guy’s ideas are as goofy as a peach orchard boar, they are saying this guy is as goofy as a peach orchard boar. I won’t demonize people.” But its eminently clear whose ideas Simpson agrees with. In an interview on CNBC, Simpson referred to cutting entitlements as “correcting Social Security.” 

Simpson also told old people and their advocates to stay out of the debate, since the cuts would only apply to younger people.

You remember the last time we corrected Social Security, and people calling me.  Let me tell you, everything that Bush and Clinton or Obama have suggested with regard to Social Security doesn’t affect anyone over 60, and who are the people howling and bitching the most? The people over 60.  This makes no sense.  You’ve got scrub out [of] the equation the AARP, the Committee for the Preservation of Social Security and Medicare, the Gray Panthers, the Pink Panther, the whatever. 

There’s an interesting twist to Simpsons argument. Usually, we geezers are accused of being greedy and selfish for opposing entitlement cuts that would affect us. We’re told we should be willing to give up some of our government handouts for the good of future generation. This time we’re being attacked because we might actually care about the next generation, who won’t even be able to count on the modest social programs we enjoy.

But Simpson himself says he’s doing all this for his grandchildren, according to US News and World Report. (Warning: This quote contains more animal metaphors.)

There are six little people running in and out of my house, called grandchildren, who are absolutely just little lambs led to slaughter. They are totally uncomprehending. They have no idea that when they reach 60—under the present system—they’ll be picking grit with the chickens.

This would be quite noble if not for the fact that Simpson wants to cut his grandkids’ Social Security (presumably because he thinks the debt threatens them even more?) And if not for the fact that there is no crisis looming for the future of Social Security. Any long-term shortfalls in the system could be fixed with a minor adjustment:  raising the ceiling on earnings subject to Social Security taxes, which currently stands at $106,000. Obama himself has suggested this in the past.

More importantly, as Friedman points out.

Social Security’s long term fiscal problem has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with Social Security’s role in the deficit. For, as I have emphasized in my column for years, Social Security costs the budget not one cent-aside from the one percent it spends on its thousands of employees and field offices. Indeed, Social Security helps finance the deficit by loaning the treasury money, for which it earns interest (about $700 million a year.) If what’s owed to Social Security must be cut as part of deficit reduction, will that help Social Security?

As for Medicare, the only way to deal with its fiscal problems are through comprehensive health care reform to address the skyrocketing cost of privatized medicine.

The real contributors to dangerously high deficits are health care costs and military spending, along with undertaxing of the rich. This means that what the “debt commission” really ought to be doing is raising taxes on the highest earners, getting us out of two wars, and instituting single-payer health care. But as Alan Simpson might say, that dog won’t hunt.

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Obama’s Stealth Entitlement Commission

Less than a month after the Senate rejected a proposal for a bipartisan entitlement commission, President Obama has created his own version by executive order. It is not, of course, called an “entitlement commission”–that unsavory term has been banished from the political lexicon, since it clearly frightens the geezers. Instead, it is called the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. (Who wouldn’t support that?) The shorthand names are the “deficit commission” and the “debt panel.” This last term is remarkably similar to the much-maligned “death panels”–which seems appropriate, since its primary purpose is to pull the plug on old-age entitlements. Despite protestations to the contrary, the commission exists primarily to make cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

The commission’s slant is evident from the choice of its two co-chairs: former Wyoming Republican senator Alan Simpson, a long-time foe of entitlements, and Erskine Bowles, the middle- right former Clinton chief of staff. The rest of the 18-member commission will include 6 Republican and 6 Democratic members of Congress, and four more members named by Obama. They are supposed to make a report and recommendations to the president in December, after the fall elections, and Obama is expected to forward the recommendations to Congress.

In the best-case scenario, Congress will do the same thing it has done with all of Obama’s other proposed reforms–i.e. nothing. Because if it acts at all, it will almost certainly decide to pay down the deficit at the expense of the social safety net. While Social Security may be the proverbial “third rail” of politics, the other debt-reducing options–raising taxes on the rich, or making corporations pay their fair share–will be seen as even more deadly in the current political climate.

An aggressive move to cut entitlements is, of course, a long-cherished conservative goal. The Heritage Foundation has been promoting the idea for decades, and was a major cheerleader for creation of a Congressional entitlement commission. Billionaire anti-entitlement activist Pete Peterson has bankrolled a huge lobbying effort for a commission that could ready the cuts, then ram them through Congress on a fast track yes or no vote. When that idea ran into heavy opposition in the Senate, Obama came up with his comparatively toothless version.

The driving force behind the commission—in addition to Peterson’s determined lobbying– is a group of conservative Blue Dog Democrats, some of whom would most likely be just as happy to see Social Security privatized. They will likely join with Republicans to support cuts in Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security.

This same alliance will also be key to a scaled-back health care reform, which looks to bypass altogether the so-called liberals in Congress. Instead, it depends upon senior conservatives in the Republican party, led by retiring New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg. Gregg has said he thinks the health care system needs changing, and he wants to engage in “constructive dialogue” with the president on reform. But any plan Gregg champions will have to be relatively meager and inexpensive. The fiscally conservative Gregg  joined with Democrat Kent Conrad to support the Congressional version of a debt commission, and he now seems to making common cause with the perennial Democratic health care compromiser, Max Baucus.

The long and the short of this situation is that  the Democratic administration, along with a small group of conservative Democrats in Congress, may make considerable headway toward doing what neither Ronald Reagan nor George W. Bush was able to pull off. They will likely make cuts to Social Security, while at the same time advancing Obama’s government-subsidized “automatic IRA” scheme, which would divert people’s earnings into 401K-style retirement accounts. These, of course, would be invested by Wall Street, helping to rebuild the finance industry. So in the end, we could see a de facto privatization of a portion of Social Security–the ultimate conservative dream, brought to us by the Democrats.

By the same token, the Democratic-led health care reform is likely to bring about some cuts to Medicare and Medicaid–the only single-payer health care this nation has ever known. It will do so while preserving the power and wealth of the health care profiteers who are largely responsible for skyrocketing costs.  The corporations, once again, are set to emerge victorious.

Meanwhile, the old, sick, disabled, and poor, who rely on entitlement programs, will bear the weight of the national debt. The low- and middle-income people still reeling from the recession–who need more, not less, government spending–will be left out in the cold, victims of what the Center for Economic and Policy Research calls “the deficit hawks who distract the public and policy makers from the policies necessary to bring the economy back to full employment.” 

The people and policies responsible for running up the deficit look like the only ones who won’t be taking a hit. In a report released on Wednesday called “Where Today’s Large Deficits Come From,” the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities added up the numbers and found: “In fact, the tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the economic downturn together explain virtually the entire deficit over the next ten years.”

Time for Hell’s Grannies to Ride Again

This is not a good time to be old in America. In addition to dealing with the usual burdens of aging–our aches and pains, and our worries about senility and death–we now have to contend with a backlash against the supposedly greedy geezers who insist upon clinging to life in definance of the public good.

On one side, we have pundits like David Brooks babbling on about old people stealing the nation’s wealth, and billionaire geezer-basher Pete Peterson bankrolling a campaign for an “entitlement commission” to cut Medicare and Social Security. Why should we expect a government handout just because we’ve worked and paid taxes all our lives? (Never mind that Wall Street has already decimated our retirement savings and home values.)

On the other side we have the champions of age-based health care rationing, led by “ethicists” like Daniel Callaghan, trying to convince us to go gently into that good night, while our corrupt system of medicine for profit goes on unrestrained. How would you like to be denied a kidney transplant or even a new hip, on the grounds of enlightened “cost-benefit analysis,” while the drug and insurance companies continue to rake in their profits?

It’s no wonder elders around the world are taking matters into their own hands. The only thing that’s surprising about the German geezer gang described in yesterday’s post is that it doesn’t happen more often. You hear about other incidents every now and then: an oldsters’ crime wave in Japan, or an octogenarian bank robber with an oxygen tank in San Diego. Maybe soon we’ll be seeing more elderly sapper gangs in action.

In the meantime, a reader dropped me a line last night with a reminder that there is indeed a precedent for all this, deftly portrayed by Monty Python. Seems to me that it might be time for Hell’s Grannies to ride again.