I think we are making a mistake, both economically and politically, by confining our defense of Social Security to an argument about simply preserving current benefits. We should be pushing for an increase in Social Security benefits as both a social and economic necessity.
Let me start with the hardest challenge facing people who watch the State of the Union address because I've already seen this for many months: you must not believe that we are in a financial debt or deficit "crisis." It is a complete sham -- and it is allowing the people who want to attack our basic social fabric to sow great fear in the country (I detailed all this in "It's Not Raining, We're Being Peed On: The Scam of the Deficit Crisis")
The country is rich -- and growing richer.
The problem is that our leaders do not have the spine to go after the rich and the powerful who are either pocketing the lion's share of the wealth in the country and/or eviscerating the basic livelihood of the rest of us (either by suppressing or cutting wages and/or forcing us to live with a corrupt health care system -- to mention just a few things).
Here's how this goes:
The people in the reality-based community -- that would exclude virtually every talking head in the traditional media, probably 90 percent of the elected officials and most people residing in so-called "think tanks -- know that Social Security is sound and is not in crisis.
If we do absolutely nothing -- zero -- Social Security will pay all benefits for the next 27 years and be able to pay 80 percent of benefits for many years after even if we did nothing.
So, with that said, we should expand our vision and our idea of what to do: with the plan on solid financial footing, let's expand it and increase benefits.
Let's be clear: the people need it. Outside of Social Security, older people have very little savings. For example, people 55-59 (egads, that's almost me) will have on average less than $600 a month in retirement income outside of Social Security.
At the very least, we should increase Social Security benefits by 15 percent for the next 20 years to make up for the trillions of dollars that people lost in their IRA's because of the financial crisis engineered by too many people on Wall Street. I might add that part of the loss of retirement is the end game of a foolish 30-year old experiment with IRAs -- an experiment that sold the people on the idea that a real pension (a defined benefit pension) was not a good bet and people would do a lot better by investing in IRAs. As my friend Dean Baker points out, we know that it was greed that really powered the growth in IRAs and the current attempt to undermine Social Security:
It would take more than $10 trillion in private accounts to generate the same amount of money as Social Security pays out each year in benefits. If the financial industry collected just 1.0 percent of this sum in fees each year, it would mean another $100 billion a year into the coffers of the Merrill Lynch set.
In fact, I have argued for a Financial Transactions Tax on Wall Street to bring some money back to doing the right things for society. We could use part of the money to fund an increase in Social Security benefits but it may be that we demand from the financial industry a separate dedicated stream of money that goes directly to the Social Security fund -- after all, it is the financial industry that created a huge part of the non- Social Security retirement crisis and, so, they should be forced to help increase Social Security benefits.
If you don't believe in the morality of the idea because you are still enamored of the bankrupt philosophy of the so-called "free market", then, just ponder this thought: what are the impoverished older people going to be able to buy if they have nothing left?
I like this thought from Pearl S. Buck: "Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members".