Tag Archives: NCPSSM

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.

Why Medicare Benefits Won’t Fall

Additional analysis on what the health care legislation means for older Americans can be found on the website of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. Here are a couple of key points: One is on the budget impact of the reform and why Medicare benefits won’t be cut. The other concerns private Medicare Advantage plans.For the entire statement, go here.

Despite the fear mongers’ claims, Medicare benefits will not be cut to pay for covering the uninsured.  Before health reform, the federal government was projected to spend about $6 trillion on the Medicare program over the next decade.  After enactment of health reform, Medicare is still projected to spend about $5.6 trillion.  That means over the next 10 years about $450 billion less of American’s money will be spent on wasteful tests, haphazard treatment options, wasteful subsidies to private insurance companies and reimbursement policies that drive up costs without improving the quality of care seniors receive.  The rate of growth will be trimmed by about 1.0 percent over the next 10 years, from about 6.8 percent growth rate to 5.8 percent – hardly the destruction of Medicare that opponents have claimed.  

As a result, the lifespan of the Medicare Trust Fund will more than double: its solvency will be extended from 2017 to about 2026.  Medicare will continue to grow to meet the needs of an expanding older population, but it will grow at a slower rate that will more closely match the growth of the rest of the economy.  And because health reform is designed to slow the growth of costs in the entire health care system at the same time, seniors’ out-of-pocket costs will be trimmed without driving providers out of the Medicare program or creating other barriers to care. 

While these improvements are being made, health reform also provides new tools to help crack down on the fraud in the current Medicare program.  For example, by allowing the Department of Health and Human Services and the Internal Revenue Service to share information, it will be easier to stop Medicare payments to scam artists masquerading as legitimate providers.  The health reform legislation also gives the agencies more time to verify that providers are legitimate and that they have provided seniors with the wheelchairs, hospital beds, oxygen tanks and other lifesaving pieces of equipment that they are billing to the Medicare program.  Fraud in the Medicare program hurts us all by increasing costs. 

Many people worry that curtailment of the Medicare Advantage ripoff plans signals the beginning of the end, denying care to millions and–as people always warn whenever there’s government “intervention” in medicine, driving the doctors out of business. Here’s what the Committee has to say about Medicare Advantage:

Making changes in the Medicare Advantage program is another way of restoring the integrity of Medicare by reducing wasteful spending.  Medicare Advantage is the privatized part of Medicare whose growth has been fueled by the massive subsidies enacted in the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003.  Medicare Advantage plans are paid on average 13 percent more per enrollee than it costs to provide comparable care in traditional Medicare.  These subsidies, which cost over $11 billion in 2009 alone, are paid for by taxpayers and by all beneficiaries, whether or not they are enrolled in a private plan.  It is estimated that every couple receiving Medicare, including the 75 percent in traditional Medicare, will pay about $90 in additional Part B premiums this year to subsidize those in the private Medicare Advantage plans.  And although these plans provide some additional benefits, many require much higher cost-sharing from seniors for expensive services such as chemotherapy, extended hospital stays and skilled nursing home care – a shortcoming few seniors realize until they find themselves needing the service. 

Despite what some are claiming, the health reform legislation does not eliminate Medicare Advantage plans or reduce the extra benefits they provide.  The legislation simply phases down the exorbitant subsidies they are currently getting so their payments end up more in line with what it would cost traditional Medicare to cover the same seniors.  It is up to each private insurer to decide how to absorb the reduced payments, and whether to continue providing extra benefits.  The insurers who run Medicare Advantage plans cannot cut guaranteed benefits – they are required to offer all benefits covered by traditional Medicare.  And under the new health reform law, they are now prohibited from charging seniors more than traditional Medicare for expensive services.  They are also, for the first time, required to spend at least 85 percent of their revenue on patient care rather than profits or overhead.  Finally, the legislation rewards Medicare Advantage plans that are providing high-quality care by giving them bonus payments. 

David Brooks Goes After Greedy Geezers

David Brooks wants to pull the plug on us greedy, grasping old folks. Or more accurately, he wants us to pull the plug on ourselves, by giving up our generous “entitlements” and submitting to Social Security and Medicare cuts. We should be more than happy to do this, he says, out of an altruistic urge to rescue younger generations from misery and penury. Too bad Brooks fails to mention that what really needs rescuing is the nation’s system of social inequality and corporate greed.

In his Monday New York Times column, called “The Geezer’s Crusade,” Brooks zeros in on one of the increasingly popular straw men of our times–that enemy of the people known as the Greedy Geezer.

Dripping with condescension, Brooks runs through a list of all the wonderful things that come with old age in the 21st century. Instead of sinking into dimwitted oblivion, the modern geezer–lo and behold–is actually able to think and function. “Older people retain their ability to remember emotionally nuanced events. They are able to integrate memories from their left and right hemispheres. Their brains reorganize to help compensate for the effects of aging.” Brooks even has scientific proof for his claims: “A series of longitudinal studies, begun decades ago, are producing a rosier portrait of life after retirement,” he writes. According to these studies, old people “become more outgoing, self-confident and warm with age.” We “pay less attention to negative emotional stimuli,” and are just plain happier than the middle-aged.

Yet despite all these bountiful gifts (which undoubtedly offset such minor inconveniences as not being able to walk, see, screw, or control our bladders), we old coots just can’t shake the selfish idea that we ought to get a little help from society in our golden years. After working, raising and educating our kids, and paying taxes all our lives, we Greedy Geezers now want to sit back and rake in our “entitlements”–Social Security and Medicare. Can’t we see that in doing so, we are actually stealing  from the young, denying them a future, and worse, driving the nation into bankruptcy? Brooks writes:

Far from serving the young, the old are now taking from them. First, they are taking money. According to Julia Isaacs of the Brookings Institution, the federal government now spends $7 on the elderly for each $1 it spends on children.

Second, they are taking freedom. In 2009, for the first time in American history, every single penny of federal tax revenue went to pay for mandatory spending programs, according to Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute. As more money goes to pay off promises made mostly to the old, the young have less control.

Third, they are taking opportunity. For decades, federal spending has hovered around 20 percent of G.D.P. By 2019, it is forecast to be at 25 percent and rising. The higher tax rates implied by that spending will mean less growth and fewer opportunities. Already, pension costs in many states are squeezing education spending.

In the private sphere, in other words, seniors provide wonderful gifts to their grandchildren, loving attention that will linger in young minds, providing support for decades to come. In the public sphere, they take it away.

Brooks doesn’t specify the exact reforms necessary to correct this cancer on society, but we all know what they are: We need only reduce the entitlements, along the lines Pete Peterson has been strenuously advocating. That can be accomplished by setting up an Entitlement Commission to impartially hand down “fast-track” cuts to old-age entitlement programs, tell Congress what it has to do, and get the economy back on course. When Obama sees the happy-times oldster lolling about on his houseboat in the Florida Keys, he ought to react the way Reagan did when he observed the “welfare queen” who was supposedly ripping off  taxpayers: Cut off the supply of federal funds, and stop letting the Greedy Geezers feed at the public trough.

If it isn’t politically expedient to cut us off (because we darned geezers insist upon voting), then convince us to do it to ourselves. What Brooks calls the Geezer’s Crusade is an imagined “spontaneous social movement” by elders to reduce their own benefits. He writes:

It now seems clear that the only way the U.S. is going to avoid an economic crisis is if the oldsters take it upon themselves to arise and force change. The young lack the political power. Only the old can lead a generativity revolution — millions of people demanding changes in health care spending and the retirement age to make life better for their grandchildren.

Brooks has audacity, I’ll give him that. Too bad his premise is as phony as a three-dollar bill. But Brooks is far from alone in advancing what I call the Myth of the Greedy Geezer, in which old people’s selfish attachment to their entitlements is the primary cause of the nation’s economic woes, and entitlement cuts are the only solution. The myth is circulated by pundits of all political stripes, and graces the editorial pages of some of the nation’s largest newspapers.

This fabrication serves a myriad of purposes. It substitutes a phony intergenerational conflict–a phantom battle between young and old–for the real conflict in American society: the conflict between the interests of poor and middle-class people, who pay more than their fair share, and the corporations and wealthy elite, who get an easier ride in America than they do anywhere in the developed world.  

In the past 30 years, according to Congressional  Budget Office data, the income of the top 1% of Americans has risen 176%, while the middle fifth have seen a 21% growth in income, and the poorest fifth just 6%. But hey–why talk about taxing the rich when you can balance the budget on the backs of those Greedy Geezers?

Wall Street had to be bailed out to the tune of $1 trillion, and they’re back to business as usual. But why take measures that might “stifle” the “freemarket” when we can just cut Social Security instead? (And never mind that the Greedy Geezers saw their retirement savings decimated and their home values plunge; they’ll manage.) 

Millions of Americans suffer and even die from inadequate health care, and medical costs drive thousands into bankruptcy every year. But why should we expect the drugmakers and insurance companies to reduce their hefty profits, when we can just reduce Medicare payments to those Greedy Geezers? After all, does grandma really need that hip replacement when it means taking money out of the hands of her grandchildren? Should grandpa have a triple-bypass, just to get a few more years of life, when it means bankrupting the country?

What we have here is a classic bait-and-switch. Politicians are talking about the urgent need to cut Medicare because Democrats and Republicans alike won’t take on the real enemies of affordable health care–the insurance companies, Big Pharma, and other providers of medicine for profit. They’re saying we have to “reform” Social Security (a program which, compared to Citibank and Goldman Sachs, is a model of financial solvency) because they are unwilling to really take on Wall Street. They’re devising ways to skim off of entitlements, which have lifted millions of old people out of dire poverty, because they won’t consider a more “socialist” tax structure–like, for example, the one we had in the United States during the Nixon Administration.

In the long run, the Myth of the Greedy Geezer also serves one of the most cherished items on the conservative agenda: permanent cuts to core social safety net programs that date back to the New Deal and the War on Poverty. Commenting on Pete Peterson and the other right-wing “granny bashers” last year, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research wrote: “It should be evident that the granny bashers don’t care at all about generational equity. They care about dismantling Social Security and Medicare, the country’s most important social programs.” 

This quest just got a potentially big boost from David Brooks and his “Geezer’s Crusade.” I just hope we geezers don’t fall for it.

(For another take on Brooks’s piece, I recommend this post by FireDogLake’s pithy “Earl of Huntingdon.”)

The Golden Years in America: Can’t Work, Can’t Retire (Unless You’re a Bailed-Out Banker)

The National Committee to Protect Social Security and Medicare reports today on recently released statistics that illustrate the lose-lose situation now faced by many older people, thanks to Wall Street and the recession it spawned.

The National Retirement Risk Index  shows that a majority of American households are at high risk of not having enough money in retirement. The 51% finding is the highest at-risk percentage since the index’ creation in 2006.   The report concludes: 

“…half of today’s households will not have enough retirement income to maintain their pre-retirement standard of living, even if they work to age 65, which is above the current average retire­ment age. Even if the stock market should bounce back, the housing bubble is unlikely to reappear. And as defined benefit plans fade in an environment where total pension coverage remains stagnant, Social Security’s Full Retirement Age moves to 67, and life expectancy increases, the outlook will get worse over time. The NRRI clearly indicates that this nation needs more retirement saving.”

And yet, working longer isn’t as easy as it sounds for the over 60 employee.  The New York Times sums up the unemployment figures for seniors: 

“…there are more Americans 65 and older in the job market today than at any time in history, 6.6 million, compared with 4.1 million in 2001.  Less well known, though, is that nearly half a million workers 65 and older want to work but cannot find a job — more than five times the level early this decade and this group’s highest unemployment level since the Great Depression.  The situation is made more dire because of numerous recent trends: many people over 65 have lost their jobs as seniority protections have weakened, and like most other Americans, a higher percentage of them took on debt than in previous generations.”

With prospects like this, some old people may start to feel like going before those mythical “death panels” isn’t such a bad idea after all.

None of this applies, of course, to the people responsible for placing large numbers of America’s seniors in financial peril in the first place. Wall Street is whining about he limits on executive pay announced last week by White House “pay czar” Kenneth Feinberg. These apply only to the 25 top execs at each of the seven huge companies that are currently using bailout funds, and still allow them to make multiple millions per year. What’s more, unlike the rest of us, these guys can still look forward to getting golden parachutes to cushion their golden years. As the New York Times reports:

[I]t’s worth noting that certain contentious pay issues were either ignored or shoved under the rug. Ken Lewis, the soon-to-be-retired chief executive of Bank of America, has declined to take a salary in 2009, at Mr. Feinberg’s urging. But he is still going to get around $70 million in retirement pay — which Mr. Feinberg could do nothing about. And so Mr. Lewis will soon join the ranks of other top Wall Street executives who walked away with millions after doing a miserable job. That’s the kind of pay practice that makes people justifiably angry.