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Robert L. Borosage Headshot

Kick the Old and the Disabled to Show We're Serious About Deficits?

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In the deficit hysteria now sweeping Washington, Social Security has emerged in the bull's eye as a target for cuts. Republican House Minority leader, the perpetually tanned John Boehner, called for hiking the retirement age to 70. Democratic House Majority whip, wrong-way Steny Hoyer argued for hiking it to 69. Various proposals float to change the cost of living adjustments to lower benefits substantially over time.

And kicking the old, the disabled, the widowed now is elevated into a machismo measure of credibility on reducing the debt. In a Times column on tension between Obama and the business community, former Clintonista Roger Altman, a Democratic financier argues that Obama must overcome business "skepticism" about his "commitment to reducing the huge and dangerous budget deficits" by "undertaking the difficult task of trying to fix Social Security."

The clownish former Republican Senator Alan Simpson, now ensconced as co-chair of the president's deficit commission, characteristically adds salt:

"You have two [sic] choices...you either raise the payroll tax or decrease the benefits or start affluence testing. The rest of it is B.S. And if the people are really ingesting B.S. all day long, their grandchildren will be picking grit with the chickens. This country is gonna go to the bow-wows unless we deal with entitlements, Social Security and Medicare."

Simpson's animus towards "greedy geezers" and Social Security is infamous. More importantly, the influential liberal John Podesta, head of the Center for American Progress and close advisor to the president, endorses the same "credibility" test. He agrees that the long term Social Security imbalances are not "a main driver of long term federal deficits," and that "any reasonable reforms will have virtually no impact on the 2015 fiscal picture." But, he writes, "reforms could starkly demonstrate to skeptical debt markets that the US is willing to take on a politically difficult fiscal issue."

Social Security isn't a problem and "fixing" it will have "virtually no impact" on long term deficits, but cutting the modest guaranteed insurance payments for the elderly and the disabled will show bankers we mean business.

Now this makes no sense in policy, politics or morality. Social Security works. It is America's great family protection program, insuring that workers can retire with some dignity out of poverty, helping to insure that parents are not a burden on their children, insuring against disability or the sudden loss of a mate.

It isn't lavish by any means. The average benefit is little over $1000 a month. Yet it is the largest source of retirement income. Only half of married couples and one-third of single women have any income from pensions or annuities other than Social Security.

Moreover, Social Security is financially the most solvent of any government program. It is in surplus now and will remain so until 2016. The trust fund that has been built up by boomers "pre-funding" their retirements won't be exhausted until 2037. In the long term, Social Security adds a negligible amount (less than 1 percent of GDP) to current projections of soaring national debt, which are driven overwhelmingly by soaring health care costs. (If the US spent the same per capita as other industrial nations that have better health care results, we'd be looking at surpluses as far as the eye can see, not deficits).

Social Security isn't broke; there is no need to "fix" it.

The public overwhelmingly believes Social Security is important. As a USA Today/Gallup poll showed once more, Americans oppose raising the retirement age or cutting benefits. The only reform proposals to gain majority support are lifting the cap on the payroll tax so that folks who make over 106,800 a year pay the same rate as everyone else and paring back benefits for the wealthy.

But the campaign against Social Security has succeeded in scaring the bejesus out of folks. The same USA Today poll shows that six of 10 non-retirees don't believe Social Security will be able to pay them a benefit when they stop working, as do fully ¾ of those 18 to 34. Even a majority of current retirees are terrorized, with a majority believing their current benefits will be cut.

Consider this the culmination of the decade long campaign by billionaire Pete Peterson and others to target Social Security and America's relatively modest entitlement programs. It's Peterson's fondest strategic dream come true. Build hysteria about deficits. Convince people that Social Security is going bankrupt and won't be there for them. Step in and claim to be "saving" Social Security by raising the retirement age and cutting benefits over time. Emerge a hero to the very seniors and disabled that you are skewering. It is not for nothing that Herman Melville's Confidence Man is an American classic.

What can stop this juggernaut aimed at the old and the disabled? We can. We can challenge the lies, rouse people to understand the sham, strengthen Social Security, and focus reform on what is broken -- our health care system, our bloated military budget, our regressive tax system, our feckless trade and industrial policies.

Already folks are organizing to challenge the attack on Social Security. The Campaign for America's Future, which I co-direct, has joined with 50 other organizations (and growing) representing 35 million Americans to form a coalition. Its purpose is expressed in its title: Strengthen Social Security, and its tag line: don't cut it. The formal launch will come later this month, but a web site is already up and running. The initial members of the Coalition are here. The seven principles that they sign onto are here. And on the site, you find a remarkable YouTube video that deftly lays out the facts on Social Security with clarity and humor. It is worth a watch.

On Thursday this week at Netroots Nation in Las Vegas, I'll join a panel led by Nancy Altman, co-director of Social Security Works, and chair of the Pension Rights Center board. We'll be inviting the bloggers across the country to help fend off the assault on Social Security, and join the debate about priorities over the next years. Also on the panel will be Laura Clawson, a contributing editor of the Daily Kos, and Eric Kingson, the co-director of Social Security Works.

This country has big decisions to make in the months and years ahead. We've still got a long way to go to get people back to work and to get this economy going. We've got to build a strong foundation for a new economy that will provide shared prosperity and rebuild a broad middle class. We need to address global warming -- and capture a leading role in the green industrial revolution that will transform our lives. Fix our broken health care system whose soaring costs will be unaffordable for businesses, families or government and get our budgets back in order. Redress our growing domestic public investment deficit -- in basic infrastructure like sewers, roads, an efficient electric grid, in education and training, in research and development. Balance our trade, and revive manufacturing in America. End two wars and stop spending as much as the rest of the world combined on our military budget. Clean up our politics, curb the influence of money, and reform the dysfunctional Senate. Empower workers and fix our broken immigration system. The daunting check list can go on.

But one thing we don't need. We don't need politicians demonstrating their "credibility" by kicking the elderly and the disabled. We don't need to fix a Social Security program that isn't broken. The best "fix" for Social Security is simply to tell the truth about it.