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Older Americans Deserve a Substantive, Fair Debate

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After eating too much turkey and giving thanks for all we have with our extended family members, Congress returned to Washington this week with more opinions than my politically divided family about how we can reduce our federal deficit before the New Year when time runs out, and the federal budget turns in to a speeding car driving off a so-called "fiscal cliff." AARP has expressed a desire to wait until the next Congress takes their oaths of office to debate the changes it takes to strengthen Social Security and Medicare.

With the return of a lame duck Congress also comes the high volume of political pundits doing battle with each other on television screens and Op-Ed pages across the nation. The pundit math for reducing the deficit, at times razor-sharp, can also be more flawed than someone claiming they have a degree from the Electoral College.

Here are just three opinions AARP strongly disagrees with that could just as easily have come from three cranky family members at Thanksgiving as from our nation's newspapers:

Uncle Ed
From the Washington Post editorial board comes an editorial that says cutting Social Security's Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs) isn't really cutting Social Security. AARP disagrees with the editorial and the Washington Post knows that even before we've responded to them. The Post respectfully disagrees with us saying "AARP, the seniors' lobby, decries a $112 billion hit to Social Security over 10 years. AARP has a point -- reducing cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) could hurt those who face rising out-of-pocket medical costs. But remember: Adjusting those annual increments merely reduces the rate of growth in seniors' benefits; it does not actually cut them."

Politely, please hold on, Uncle Ed. You think that reducing the rate of growth doesn't actually cut Social Security? Let's take a look at the average price of chickens for the last twenty years (because the BLS doesn't have turkeys). In October of 1992, chickens cost $.87 per pound. In October of 2012, they cost $1.73 per pound, a nearly 100% increase. If Chained CPI gets put into place, experts say the cut could take up to one whole month of income per year right from the pockets of Social Security beneficiaries. This reduction, in twenty years, might not allow our family to afford any type of Thanksgiving poultry, or a lot of other food, heat or medicine. We disagree with the Washington Post editorial board on this one, but appreciate their respect for our opinion. Check out this chart below that shows several different formulas for calculating Social Security from AARP's report on Chained CPI (C-CPI). You'll notice the C-CPI-U line as a "Real Benefit" dropping precipitously.


2012-11-28-ChainedCPIGraph.png

Cousin Pearly
From the Washington Post's outspoken opinion giver Steven Pearlstein comes this shiny "pearl" of nonsense: "The greedy geezers at the AARP are desperate to muzzle any such discussion, and Democrats remain only too eager to oblige." Pearlstein is discussing, as he so often does from behind the comfort of his desk, cutting Medicare and Social Security benefits, and doing so in a quick debt deal before a new Congress comes along to have a lengthier, more informed debate because he knows, as Congress does, that such changes wouldn't be popular. But there's more to it than the fact that tens of millions of Americans depend on Social Security and Medicare every day.

Cousin Pearly, you've been on a crusade to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits for years, and you join other pundits who view the "fiscal cliff" as a great big opportunity to sneak unpopular plans past a public who would rather get on with their holiday shopping than focus on a lame duck Congress. Cousin Pearly, you and your pundit pals know AARP remains vigilant in our advocacy to fight any changes to the programs during the lame duck, which is why you've resorted to calling us silly names and slipping a nonexistent "muzzle" in to our hands. You haven't written about You've Earned a Say, a conversation AARP has had since March with more than 4 million Americans in all 50 states that we've been sending you updates about, or about how, as part of that conversation, we've shared opinions from both sides of the aisle about how people from the right and left would like to reform Social Security and Medicare in the long term. Some might say you've tried to "muzzle" AARP.

Aunt Carolina
In a Charlotte Observer piece that "asks the experts" what they think called "Will Capitol Hill leaders bargain or battle?," Erskine Bowles, of the Simpson-Bowles duo, incorrectly said that "If there's a Democrat (in Congress) who is willing to talk about compromise involving appropriate cuts in the entitlement programs so that they are sustainably solvent, the AARP... will run somebody in the primary and fund them pretty heavily to beat him or her."

Aunt Carolina, you may be a pretty smart individual, but you've made perhaps the most glaring error at the dinner table: AARP is nonpartisan, and has never backed candidates or contributed to any political campaign or committee. We go to great lengths to take our nonpartisanship seriously. We sponsored debates around the country in many of the close Senate, Congressional and Governor's races during this past election. The candidates on both sides of these debates were clear on AARP's nonpartisan status, and it's likely a reason they participated in some of the debates we sponsored.

Dessert
At the end of the Thanksgiving meal, when my family were too full to move, of course we ate dessert. We also said goodbye and hoped to see each other soon. AARP hopes Congress does the work voters elected them to do. But we hope they say goodbye without doing harm to the programs so important to so many millions of Americans by giving Social Security and Medicare the substantive, fair debate the programs deserve. None of my family members broke anything all that important in my home this year so let's hope the lame duck Congress doesn't break anything important to older Americans.