Is our country losing the vision and values which gave rise to Social Security?
Social Security benefits lag far behind those of other developed countries. A new analysis of census data shows that elder poverty is much higher than we first realized. And yet the discussion in Washington is of cutting, not expanding, it. The number of impoverished seniors would rise sharply if that happened, or if the Medicare cuts currently under discussion became law.
The numbers say that Social Security should be increased, not cut, and most Americans agree.
But the Social Security cutters, financed by billions and aided by their network of powerful friends in government and the media, are appealing to the human heart. That's a bitter irony for a policy prescription that even their own consciences must recognize is heartless.
We ♥ Social Security
Social Security, one of the most popular and reliable programs in the United States, is under concerted attack from corporate and Wall Street interests. Both the Republicans and President Obama have proposed to cut it.
The case against this ill-advised move has been made again and again. Polls, charts, graphs and logic have been deployed in support of a simple message: Social Security must be expanded, not reduced.
So why -- why, in the name of all that's good and decent -- aren't we expanding Social Security? Why does the president's proposed budget still include the "chained CPI," which would raise taxes on the drowning middle class while cutting Social Security benefits?
There have been several proposals to expand Social Security. These proposals would also make it fiscally impregnable for the foreseeable future, as far as the actuarial eye can see. Why have they received so little press attention and political support?
Maybe it's a matter of heart, of soul, of vision. The Social Security Cutters are putting all they've got -- personal and emotional, as well as financial -- into the fight against Social Security. They've created a narrative which is false, but is simple and internally coherent. Their vision can be summed up with these words:
We can't afford it.
That's not true. It's time for a better vision, one which is more fiscally sound -- and truer to our values as a society.
Motive and Opportunity
The Social Security Cutters are funded by hedge fund billionaires, major Wall Street bankers, and defense contractor CEOs. Their spokespeople include a handful of economists whose views get disproportionate attention, thanks to the money behind them, along with a hefty chunk of Democratic "centrists" whose policy prescriptions on Social Security are to the right of most Republicans.
The funders' motives are clear: Cutting Social Security would lead to more funds under Wall Street's management. It would also lead to less public pressure to tax ultra-wealthy individuals like themselves.
And policymakers who are still driven by macroeconomic misperception could then convince themselves that "government spending" (which Social Security isn't, at least in the deficit-spending sense) is no longer "out of control" (it's not, but they think it is). That means they'd feel free to keep funneling hundreds of billions of dollars of public money to defense contractors every year.
As we've said, it's a heartless mission: sacrificing the nation's elderly and disabled for personal enrichment. And yet they've managed to convince politicians, the media -- and apparently even themselves -- that they're acting for the greater good. People who know these players intimately insist it's true: They genuinely believe that their anti-Social Security campaign is a noble venture.
That moral self-assurance has undoubtedly helped them recruit so many Democratic leaders. The list of Democratic political supporters begins with Bill Clinton, who is their tireless pitchman; Barack Obama, who has shown dogged determination in putting Social Security cuts on the table; and, most recently, outgoing Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
(Republicans don't have to be recruited. They're already waiting in line to support the wealthy and powerful.)
Even Alan Simpson, the Republican Senator turned anti-Social Security pit bull, clearly seems to believe that he's fighting on the side of the angels. Granted, Simpson doesn't appear to have a firm grasp of the policy specifics. (We're being kind here.) And he doesn't overemphasize the civility that one normally learns in the United States Senate. (Here, too.) But ya gotta give him this: Simpson clearly believes the nonsense he's dishing out.
And while the Cutters prattle about "saving Social Security" -- by destroying it, as a general once proposed for a Vietnamese village -- poverty is rampant among America's seniors.
Poor, Old America
The U.S. Census Bureau re-evaluated its poverty figures using a "supplemental" analysis which included the cost of health care and other living expenses excluded from earlier studies. It found that 15 percent of people over 65 now live in poverty.
(It should be noted that the Social Security eligibility age is already being gradually raised to 67, which will add incrementally to these numbers with each passing year.)
The Kaiser Foundation dug a little deeper into the census data and found that "the share of seniors living in poverty is higher in every state under the supplemental measure than under the official measure, and at least twice as high in 12 states."
Compare and Contrast
Expanding Social Security isn't a particularly generous idea. According to a pension database created by the Organization of Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), the U.S. pension system only replaces 42.3 percent of a person's working income. That's significantly below the European average of 63.1 percent, or the overall OECD average of 60.8 percent.
Americans want a better Social Security system, like the ones most other developed countries have. It would be good for the economy if we had one. It would also help offset the injustices created by growing wealth inequality in this country.
But to get one we'll need a vision.
Growth, Jobs, and Values
Our task of reconstruction does not require the creation of new and strange values. It is rather the finding of the way once more to known, but some degree forgotten ideals and values. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt
Social Security is based on simple moral principles: Children who lose one or both parents shouldn't be forced to into child labor; disabled people shouldn't be condemned to poverty; and people should be able to retire with financial security after a full working life. For nearly 75 years it was considered inhumane and a violation of our core social values to suggest taking these economic rights away.
Only one or two decades ago it would have been considered alien to our values to suggest, as so many politicians and pundits do now, that it was more important to coddle wealthy "job creators" than to strive for the best interests of the elderly, disabled, and young.
Back then both parties understood a fundamental economic principle: that material support given to populations like these results in greater spending, economic growth, and more jobs. Social Security can and does, as Franklin Roosevelt put it, "take care of human needs and at the same time provide for the United States an economic structure of vastly greater soundness."
A Bright, Shining Web
Our national vision seems to have lost the concept of mutual reliance which spurred growth and made us stronger. We've lost the vision of an interconnected web of common interests, a matrix of fellowship and trust spanning generations, ethnicities, and income levels.
Sure, there were always those who condemned this web of interdependence and advocated a dog-eat-dog world. But their primitive views, once the exception, now seems more like the rule.
In mythology, "Indra's Web" was an infinitely large net with a jewel placed at every intersection of its threads. Each jewel reflects all of the others, so that a change to one immediately affects all of the others.
Americans instinctively understand that a healthy society is like that web. We know in our hearts that an injury against any one of us affects us all - and that whenever each of us shines brighter, we all shine brighter.
Beyond the Arithmetic of Selfishness
Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before ... -- William Shakespeare
The Cutters would turn generation against generation by employing a false and selfish arithmetic of what is contributed and what is received, shredding this ancient and beautiful web of mutual support with a vulgar and misapplied mathematics. But, as Franklin Roosevelt noted:
"Security was attained in the early days by the interdependence of members of families upon each other and of families within a small community upon each other. The complexities of great communities and of organized industry make less real these simple means of security ... Therefore we are compelled to employ the active interest of the Nation as a whole through government in order to ensure a greater security for each individual who composes it."
Nobody in a traditional family or community ever ran a profit/loss statement on feeding Grandpa, or asked if Grandma had offered as much food to her children as she was eating now in her elder years.
And we still understand a simple truth: That today's Gen X-er or Millenial is tomorrow's senior citizen or disabled person.
A Call to Conscience -- and Soul
The complexities Roosevelt spoke about are even deeper now. Our families and communities aren't just separated by geographic distance. Millions of Americans are bound into bank servitude by debt and driven from their communities by foreclosures and job searches.
Social Security benefits are calculated from lifetime earnings. Middle class Americans have already seen their Social Security benefits reduced already as the result of wage stagnation. Millions of people have seen even greater cuts as the result of short- or long-term unemployment.
And yet, when we need this bright shining web more then ever, there's talking of cutting its threads instead. We need to strengthen our web of mutuality -- for the sake of Social Security, but more importantly for the sake of our national soul.
When they falsely claim that "we can't afford to increase Social Security," give them the right facts and figures. But also tell them that, for the sake of our future and our consciences, for the sake of our national vision, we can't afford not to.