A broad coalition of groups has been formed to defend Social Security, and the videos announcing it are all worth watching. Of all the ideas proposed, my personal favorite comes from AFSCME President Gerald W. McEntee: A new reality show starring the people who want to cut Social Security. He suggests having John Boehner, billionaire benefit-cut advocate Peter G. Peterson, and Deficit Commission chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles live for a year on the average Social Security benefit of $14,000.
"They won't get a COLA (cost of living increase," says McEntee, "but they'll still have to deduct $100 a month for Medicare Part B and still have to pay $200 a month for Medigap insurance." (The video of his comments is below.)
Great idea, Mr. McEntee! Mr. Peterson should be more than happy to take you up on your offer. He likes games, having funded one called "Deficitball."(1) Alan Simpson seems like a playful sort of fellow, too. It sounds a lot like I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, where the famous and well-to-do are dropped in a jungle and forced to do icky things like eat bugs and snakes. But in this case the jungles will be our own cities and towns and contestants are more likely to eat Purina than piranha.
But why limit ourselves to only four contestants? Why not invite those Senators who have pushed for these sorts of cuts, too, like the senior Senator from California? Dianne Feinstein, come on down! And let's not exclude economists like Alice Rivlin, a member of the Simpson/Bowles Commission who wants to cut benefits for all the wrong reasons. Let's meet our newest contestant! Dr. Rivlin thinks it's "absurdly unlikely" that "widows living on the edge of subsistence" will have their benefits cut - but then, she doesn't tell us where she thinks that edge lies.
That's a shame because, as women, our last two contestants will be asked to survive on less than the men. The average Social Security benefit for older women is $11,900, so that's what our female contestants will receive. Unfair? you say. Outrageous? Sure it is, but this is a "reality show" and that's the reality.
"When do you think they'll stop calling for benefit cuts?" asks McAfee. "Probably in the first episode." He's probably right. Chances are that our contestants live in pleasant communities, surrounded by the nearness of family and friends. That'll be the first thing to change. There may be tearful farewells to children and grandchildren and lifelong friends, as our contestants move to urban slums or the distant and fading outposts of the American dream.
Our next dose of reality: Our male contestants will be living on $1,166 each month, and the women will have $991. After those premiums are subtracted they'll have $866 or $691 for all their monthly needs. (And let's hope they don't have out-of-pocket medical expenses.) Rent? Food? Transportation? These amounts will have to cover everything. Our contestants may not know what it's like to live like this, but here's their first lesson: Monthly budgets are too long-term when you're subsisting at this level. If they're lucky enough to pay no more than $500 per month for rent and utilities, our male contestants will now have $85 per week for all other expenses and the women will have $44.27.
Is our reality show "real" enough for you yet, contestants? Are we "living on the edge of subsistence" yet? Eating bugs and snakes for a few weeks is probably starting to look pretty good by comparison.
What would we call this reality show? Survivor? The name's been taken. The Real World? Taken. Extreme Makeover? That one's taken too. American Chopper? Not quite right, although would be a good name for what the Deficit Commission is trying to do right now with our benefits.
Here's the reality: Generations of Americans benefited from a three-legged system that ensured their financial security in old age. The first was the pension system, which has been gutted by employers. The second was savings and personal assets, which for most households have been decimated in the last several years. And now the only remaining leg, Social Security, is under attack.
"It's not a benefit cut," proponents claim. "We just want to raise the retirement age." But many people who live in the reality show we call "life" can't work until we're seventy. Their jobs are physically demanding, or there aren't any jobs to be had. Raising the retirement age means less money for them. (Of course, it also means less money over a lifetime for those who retire at seventy, too.) Social Security's the most conservatively managed, financially stable public program we have. It has survived multiple economic downturns. Its greatest threat right now comes from our would-be contestants.
Some deficit cutters will promise that lower-income people will not see benefit cuts. But any cuts will break the covenant under which workers have paid payroll taxes for a lifetime. And the question remains: Where will you cut? If you say you won't do it for people living on $44 per week, what about those whose total income adds up to $65 a week? $75? $100? What will satisfy you? And what assurances will we have that you won't break your promise again someday?
When it comes to tampering with Social Security, millions of Americans are already living the reality we just described. The next one to "play" it may be the teacher who taught you to read, or the nurse that brought you back to health ... or your mother and father ... or you. Hey, look! The show's about to begin. Some of the faces look awfully familiar .. .
Hey, America! It's time to meet our newest contestants!
(1) I thought "Budgetball" sounded like a cross between The Fountainhead and Death Race 2000, but if Peterson plays this game I promise to reconsider.
(click here to send a message to every Washington politician on the campaign trail: Hands off Social Security!)
(The reality show remarks occur at 2:30.)
Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.
He can be reached at "firstname.lastname@example.org."
Website: Eskow and Associates