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This Can't Be Happening

We Need A Mass Movement to Save And Expand Social Security And Medicare

Old, young, men and women of all races fighting together.

Social Security has never been a pension or annuity; retiree benefits have always been funded by current workers' FICA taxes. (Photo: Wikicommons)

Social Security has never been a pension or annuity; retiree benefits have always been funded by current workers' FICA taxes. (Photo: Wikicommons) 

The latest report of the Social Security Administration trustees is out, and as usual they are issuing dire warnings that the Social Security system is heading for the rocks. The Trust Fund — extra money deliberately collected from workers and employers since 1983 to build up a surplus so as to fund the cost of benefit checks to the wave of Baby Boomers who began retiring in 2011 — will “run out” in 2034, they warn, explaining that unless something is done before then by Congress to bolster the program’s funding, everyone for years would have to take a 21% cut in benefits.

Note that the program is not “going bankrupt,” as hyperventilating talking heads on Fox and right-wing radio will claim. In fact, with no change in taxes or income sources Social Security would still continue to provide retiree and disability benefits at that reduced rate indefinitely from that point on just based on the funds paid into the fund by current workers at that point (which is how the program was intended to work from the time it was established in 1936).

The real point though, is that even today, in 2018, the threat of a benefit cut is still 16 years or almost a generation off.

It’s not a demographic crisis. It’s a crisis of Congressional corruption, deceit and spinelessness. For 20 years Congress has known this would happen, thanks to the increasing longevity of retirees and declining birthrates. If Congress had taken steps to increase funding for the system 20 or 10 or even five years ago, they’d have been minor. Now they’ll have to be more dramatic.

I’m trying to think of any other problem facing the US which is 16 years away that creates such hysteria on the right, and that causes such dysfunction in Congress.

For example, we know that most of the east coast of the United States as well as the Gulf Coast, will see sea levels about six inches higher by 2034. In fact, the Mid-Atlantic states will see even worse sea level rise because the land there is still sinking quite rapidly as an after effect of the melting of the Ice Age glacier which reached down across Canada as far as New York City and Philadelphia (that mile of ice depressed the earth under it which then bulged up toe the south in Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and North Carolina, which are now in a process of sinking back down to their natural level).

Are Congress and the legislatures of those states working to confront the issue of their vanishing coastal regions? No. In fact, worse than doing nothing, some of those states, notably North Carolina, have passed laws making it illegal for coastal towns to take development measures to confront or remediate sea level rise. Same thing in Florida where sea level rise is even more rapid due to the expansion of ever warmer sea water. Miami Beach is already flooding at high tide, and is at risk of washing away the next time it takes a direct hit from a hurricane, yet the state government has ordered state agencies to stop using the term “climate change.”

Or consider our school system. Half of America’s kids these days are simply warehoused for 12 years. They don’t learn much of anything and graduate barely literate and unable to work a cash register. There will be hell to pay having a huge uneducated population in another 16 years, but does Congress care? No.

These two disasters are truly serious and the damage done is irrevocable but there are no cries of despair from the cassandras of the right. Only about the “bankruptcy” of Social Security — a problem they can actually easily fix. Why is this? Because Congress doesn’t want to fix Social Security. It’s enemies want to kill it off and by doing nothing they could. By falsely telling younger workers that Social Security won’t be there for them — a bald-faced lie — they hope to get younger workers to stop supporting the program, even though it’s currently supporting their grandparents and parents so they don’t have to.

So we are faced with a crisis we know is coming. We have all the details. And we know what needs to be done. Raising more funds would be easy. All that’s needed really is to lift the cap on income subject to the FICA tax. If every person and every employer paid that same 6.2% tax on all income, there would be no shortfall in funding in 2034, or ever. Why won’t Congress act? Because they don’t want to inconvenience their rich supporters.

So what should we do? We need to demand that all income be subject to the same FICA tax that we working stiffs have deducted from each paycheck.

But why stop there? Everyone knows that retirement is a looming disaster for most Americans. Most people cannot save money in a 401(k) or an IRA, since we are getting by from paycheck to paycheck after decades of no increase in earnings. This means we are heading towards a dystopic future when older Americans — initially our parents and grandparents, and eventually we ourselves — will be living in penury, turning to cat food for nutrition or sponging off our struggling kids. Is that what we want as a society? Of course not! And the solution is at hand: higher benefits from Social Security — like they have in most of Europe.

Those higher benefits can certainly be paid, just as they are paid for in Europe, where employers pay more and often workers too. They could be funded by extending the FICA tax to not just earned income, but to investment income, as some countries in Europe do. They could be funded by a small transaction tax on short-term stock and bond trades. Certainly when wealthy people make profits in the stock market or in real estate, they should also pay a FICA tax on those profits. We could exempt retirement investment funds that are invested tax-deferred retirement plans since those are serving the same goal of helping people have a decent life in old age, and since people buy and hold their investments in those funds and don’t day-trade them.

If these reform were implemented, it could finance a dramatic increase in Social Security benefits so that, as in Europe, they would replace 60% of pre-retirement income, not the average 40% currently replaced. This would, in at least a small, if broad-based way, correct the gaping wealth gap that has been developing in the US.

Meanwhile, Medicare too, on which every old person and many disabled people rely to pay for their medical care, is also in danger of running our of funds for the same reason as Social Security. That is insane. It’s a great program that is loved by all Americans who use it or whose parents use it. It works great but is simply underfunded. It needs more money, and since the alternative is people paying privately for their care, which will not work. Better funding is the only and best solution. But why limit Medicare to just the elderly and disabled? It should cover everyone, as some version of it does in every other modern developed country in the world.

But here’s the real issue: If we want rescue and to make these improvements and expansions of Social Security and Medicare, we’re going to need political muscle to do it. The Republicans aren’t going to help They’ve been trying to get rid of Social Security and Medicare since those systems were established. The Democrats won’t do it either. In years past, the party was talking about ways to cut benefits, for example by arbitrarily changing the way inflation is calculated to minimize annual upward adjustments in benefits. And they don’t want to antagonize their wealthy backers by raising taxes on them — even taxes that would be returned in the form of Social Security benefits later. After all, the rich don’t care about getting Social Security checks in their old age. It’s just chump change. As for Medicare, progressive Democrats are calling for Medicare for All, but the party leadership and many Democratic members of Congress will not join them.

No, to make such kind of changes will require a political mass movement outside of the corrupted two-party system. A movement not at election time, but in the streets. It will take repeated marches on Congress and the White House by millions of people. It will take a coalition of young and old, men and women, people of all races to make this happen.

And that’s why this particular battle is so important. It’s not just that we need improved and strengthened Social Security and Medicare for All. This is a political battle we Americans can all fight for together, and that we can win because of that.

And if we do it, we can build on that victory to start winning others too, like ending US war-mongering and slashing the bloated Pentagon budget, properly funding schools for all America’s children, giving America the same modern efficient and affordable mass transit system that Europe and now much of Asia take for granted, and really tackling that greatest of challenges: rampaging climate change.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Dave Lindorff

Dave Lindorff is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. He is author of Marketplace Medicine: The Rise of the For-Profit Hospital Chains (BantamBooks, 1992), and his latest book "The Case for Impeachment" (St. Martin's Press, 2006). He is the founding editor of ThisCantBeHappening.

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