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An Open Letter to Tea Party Activists: Let's Defend Social Security Together

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Polls consistently find that the vast majority of Americans oppose cutting Social Security, whether they're progressives or Tea Partiers or anything in between. And most real experts agree it's not necessary. We're supposed to have a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people." So why does something most of us oppose look more likely with every passing day?

Republicans have been threatening to shut down the government unless the program is slashed, and the administration's been sending out benefit reduction trial balloons ever since the Deficit Commission came to its ignominious end. Since Tea Partiers and progressives both oppose cutting Social Security, why shouldn't they work together to make sure it doesn't happen? Left and right joined forces to audit the Federal Reserve. Why can't they unite to protect America's retirement security? That's why I've written this letter.

Dear Tea Party Activists:

I don't speak for any organization, much less any movement. I'm just writing as one citizen to another. You're usually described as "right-wing" and people like me are typically called "progressive" (we're both called other names sometimes, too). But we share some values -- like representative democracy, public accountability, government transparency, and a love for this country. Something very undemocratic may be happening, and it's up to us to stop it.

The next month will be crucial for the future of our nation -- and for own futures, as the older Americans we're all destined to become. In the weeks leading up to the President's State of the Union address on January 27, Democratic and Republican party leaders will conduct a flurry of so-called "bipartisan" negotiations to cut Social Security. They may also agree to raid the its Trust Fund, which currently contains $2.6 trillion they'd love to use for other purposes.

We should work together to prevent that, building on seven points of agreement:

1. The people lead in a democracy, not the politicians.
2. The Social Security Trust Fund is our money, not theirs.
3. They shouldn't hijack payroll taxes to create "invisible tax hikes" on the middle class.
4. We paid for those benefits. We kept our part of the bargain, now you keep yours.
5. Don't punish hard work or thrift.
6. Don't use "means testing" to create a huge, ineffective government bureaucracy.
7. Don't turn Social Security into a welfare program.

Here's why we should be in this fight together.

1. The People Must Lead -- and That Means Us

One of your political manifestos is called the "Contract From America." Nice touch. As we wrote in "The New Silent Majority," there aren't enough leaders in either party listening to the people on this issue. 76% of Americans oppose cutting Social Security to reduce the deficit, including 77% of Republicans and 76% of the Tea Party's rank and file members!

Don't let Washington politicians and media tell you this is a "left/right" issue. It's not. We've already said that 76% of you oppose cutting Social Security. Six of ten Tea Partiers also oppose raising the retirement age to 69 or reducing cost of living adjustments.

Some of the Republicans you support are selling you out. Take Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. He was on TV this weekend saying that he wants to cut Social Security, and that he'll hold the entire Federal budget hostage to do it. That's right: Medicare, Social Security, even paychecks and medical care for our troops -- this Washington insider wants to hold them all for ransom just to do something you oppose.

We may disagree on a lot, but neither of us wants to surrender our decision-making to non-accountable party leaders. That's why your vigilance over the Republican Party makes a lot of sense. Every political movement should remain loyal to principles rather than parties.

Let's face it: Your movement has always been divided between the real grass-roots activists -- people like you -- and GOP hacks like Dick Armey who are funded by self-serving billionaires. Don't let them hijack your movement by working against your interests. Stand up and stop them, before it's too late. You hold Republican power brokers accountable, and we'll do the same with Democrats.

2. That Trust Fund Is Ours, Not Theirs

Eight out of ten Tea Party supporters agree with this statement: "Social Security should be guaranteed because it is financed mainly by taxes on employees and their employers."

You guys got this one right, too. That's our money. We've been contributing to this fund for our entire working lives. Now some Beltways insiders and media big shots are saying its "funny money" or "just paper" or "IOUs." What kind of country do these people live in? In our United States -- where people like us live -- people honor their debts. We're not welshers. They're only talking about "IOU's" so that they can take the $2.6 trillion in that account and use it in other ways.

Now, I support a whole lot more government spending than you do, and I think all tax revenue is "our money." You don't -- but we should be able to agree on this: The working men and women of America didn't set that money aside to subsidize new government programs, or to pay down the debt on Washington's past fiscal irresponsibility. That money's being held in trust for our retirement. Let's tell them to keep their hands off it.

3. Don't Let FICA Become an "Invisible Tax Hike" on the Middle Class

Here's what FDR said about Social Security:

"We put those payroll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program."

Makes sense. Even Glenn Beck likes to quote that line. But now some of those "damn politicians" want to raid our accounts anyway, and last month's tax deal could be the first step down that road. For the first time in 75 years,they're mingling general budget dollars with our retirement funds.

You say you're for a simpler, fairer tax system. Well, it's not fair to take a tax (FICA) intended for people's retirement and turn it into a general tax that the Federal government can use any way it pleases. And remember, it's got a cap on it, so the rich pay a lower percentage of their income into it than the rest of us do. If we start mingling this money with general funds, it becomes just another tax -- one that hits middle-class families harder than the rich. That makes it the opposite of a flat tax: It becomes an "upside-down" or "inverted" tax with a higher rate for the middle class than the wealthy.

Last month's tax deal reduces the payroll tax for a year, and takes money out of the general Federal budget to make up for the lost income. That's the first time that's Social Security's ever had anything to do with the deficit, even indirectly. FDR had it right: This money should be completely separate.

FICA's not a tax in the usual sense, anyway. Technically, Social Security is "social insurance," so FICA's more like a premium. Like other kinds of insurance, we pay into a fund and then draw from it when we need it. If they tamper with our FICA "premiums," they'll be creating an "invisible tax hike." And they'll have undermined your basic tax principles of fairness and simplicity.

Let's demand that politicians from both parties pledge not to use the Trust Fund for anything but our retirement. Not now, not ever.

4. Protect The Benefits We Paid For

You've heard a lot of phony scare talk that "Social Security's going broke." Well, it's not -- especially if they keep their hands off our trust fund and FICA premiums. Here's the truth: If nothing's done, the program will be fine until 2037, and then it will only be able to pay 75% of planned benefits. In response, some politicians want to start cutting it sooner -- and deeper - than that! That makes no sense.

We kept our end of the bargain by paying those taxes every year. Now it's their turn.

If we stopped capping the FICA tax at and just made it a simple "flat tax" at all income levels, we would fix almost all of its problems. So our choice is: Enact a truly flat tax (and a fair one), or break a promise to the American people by needlessly cutting their retirement benefits. Do we want to let our politicians make us the first generation in history to break a promise because of a lie?

5. Don't Punish Hard Work or Thrift

Washington insiders like John Boehner and Lindsey Graham also wants a means test for Social Security. This is one of those ideas that sound pretty reasonable, even to a lefty like me - until you stop to think about it.

The first problem with proposals that say they'll cut benefits for the "rich" is that they usually define "rich" as starting at around $40,000 per year! Does that sound rich to you?

Here's how it would work: Take somebody who's worked their entire life and paid into Social Security, but when they reach retirement age they need to keep working -- maybe to pay for an underwater mortgage, or because their defined contribution plan tanked. That person would get less of the benefits they paid for because they're working than they'd receive if they just sat around at home. Or take someone who's lived frugally and invested wisely, so now they're earning a comfortable investment income. They'll get less of a benefit than they would have if they'd spent recklessly and lived lavishly. Does that sound right?

6. Don't Create a Huge, Ineffective Government Bureaucracy

Then there are the strictly practical problems. One of the great advantages of Social Security is that it's cheap and easy to administer. If the government has to start "means testing" it will need to hire more people, expand its computer system, link electronically to the IRS, maybe even start monitoring people's bank accounts. In other words, means testing would create a new, giant, expensive, intrusive government bureaucracy.

Now, we're different, you and I. I like government bureaucracies. They're there to do the things we ask them to do. But I know you don't feel that way, and I don't like wasteful spending any more than you do. Means testing means bigger, less efficient government. What's more, very few people over the age of 65 make a lot of money, so most experts think means testing will cost more than it saves. The idea's a loser on both moral and practical grounds.

7. Don't Turn Social Security Into a Welfare Program

We probably disagree even more strongly about welfare. I think people need a helping hand from government sometimes, and that there's no shame in that. If you don't agree, then this might surprise you: They want to turn Social Security into a welfare program.

Social Security's greatest strength has always been the fact that, true to FDR's vision, it isn't welfare. It was never intended to simply help the needy. It was designed to be a self-funded program (it's forbidden by law from contributing to the Federal deficit) that funded everybody's retirement. Means testing turns it into welfare.

I didn't think you guys were big on welfare.

Standing Together

Even Newt Gingrich hasn't come out in favor of benefit cuts -- and he wants to lower taxes on Social Security benefits, which is an indirect form of benefit increase (and it favors higher earners -- so much for "means testing"). So maybe Newt and the other GOP Presidential hopefuls who have stayed silent on the subject are with us too. We know that many of the Democrats in Congress are. But there are plenty of others who have Social Security in their sights, and we have to stop them.

When people in Washington use the word "bipartisan," they're usually talking about a backroom deal. Why don't we get together and show them some real bipartisanship?

Don't worry. We'll have plenty of time to fight again afterwards, especially when you guys start talking about "privatization" again. But that's how we Americans have always operated: We set aside our differences when confronted by a common threat, and once we've defeated it we start brawling again.

So let's stop the flim-flam artists, the backdoor taxers, the piggy bank raiders, and all the other "damn politicians" you (and we) have worked so hard to elect. It's what progressives want. It's what Tea Partiers want. Hell, it's what America wants. So let's get it done. Let's defend our money and our benefits, stop the invisible tax hike, and prevent them from pulling any backdoor budget chicanery.

Then, after we win, I'll want to talk to you about some of the signs I've seen at your rallies. And who are you calling "communist," pal? But let's save Social Security first. Then we can have a good old-fashioned American slugfest.

Do we have a deal?