The debate about the future of Social Security has opened, and how progressives respond will decide whether the United States is a civil society or a pirate state where the government's primary role is to take from the poor and give to the rich.
So far, the response has been mixed. The signals from the Obama White House are bad, with the president indicating openness to "compromises" that would compromise the legacies of the New Deal, the Fair Deal and the Great Society. In contrast, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, key Congressional Democrats, labor unions and activist groups are raising all the right objections.
The spark for the debate was the release of a statement from the co-chairs of the president's Fiscal Commission-the high-powered committee charged by President Obama with developing strategies for balancing budgets and addressing deficits and debts-that indicates they are leaning toward implementing the sort of rigid austerity schemes that would ruin the US economy.
The Commission is not due to make any serious proposals until December, at the earliest. But the statement from former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, a supposedly sensible Republican, and former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, a North Carolina Democrat who tried without success to get elected to the Senate, suggests that the commission has adopted the fraudulent calculus that says every federal program is more of less equally wasteful, and thus equally "on the table" for cutting. Those cuts, to their view, would begin with deep cuts in Social Security benefits and a hike in the retirement age to 69. Where would it end? The proposal by Simpson and Bowles to tear the safety net gives Wall Street speculators precisely the opening they have been seeking to make a grab for the biggest corporate-welfare payout ever: privatization of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid.
The White House response did not inspire confidence in the administration's determination to maintain the commitments made by Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
"The president will wait until the bipartisan fiscal commission finishes its work before commenting. He respects the challenging task that the co-chairs and the commissioners are undertaking and wants to give them space to work on it. These ideas, however, are only a step in the process towards coming up with a set of recommendations and the president looks forward to reviewing their final product early next month," said White House spokesperson, Bill Burton.
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee described the statement as representative of the "weak, 'I won't pick a fight on even the most obvious of issues,' loser mentality that will be DISASTER for Democrats if continued through 2012."
In contrast, the group pointed to Pelosi's response as "the type of bold fighting attitude Democrats will need to WIN in 2012."
"This proposal is simply unacceptable," said Pelosi.
"Any final proposal from the Commission should do what is right for our children and grandchildren's economic security as well as for our nation's fiscal security, and it must do what is right for our seniors, who are counting on the bedrock promises of Social Security and Medicare. And it must strengthen America's middle class families-under siege for the last decade, and unable to withstand further encroachment on their economic security."
Those were themes echoed by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who said: "The chairmen of the Deficit Commission just told working Americans to 'Drop Dead.' Especially in these tough economic times, it is unconscionable to be proposing cuts to the critical economic lifelines for working people, Social Security and Medicare. Some people are saying this plan is just a 'starting point.' Let me be clear, it is not. This deficit talk reeks of rank hypocrisy: The very people who want to slash Social Security and Medicare spent this week clamoring for more unpaid Bush tax cuts for millionaires."
"What we need to be focusing on now is the jobs deficit," Trumka continued. "Working families already paid for Wall Street's party that tanked our economy. If we actually want to address our economic problems, we need to end tax breaks that send American jobs overseas and invest in creating jobs by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure and green technologies."
Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Raúl M. Grijalva, also focused on the need to scrap the Bush tax cuts. "Real budget reform must begin by allowing the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest two percent of earners to expire, as they were always designed to do. This would reduce the debt by at least $680 billion over the next ten years, according to the Department of the Treasury," he said. "The middle class has already been hit extremely hard by the ongoing economic downturn and the housing crisis. The last thing we should do is take more money out of their pockets in the name of a conservative tax cut agenda that favors the wealthy over the rest of us."
Grijalva was harsh in his criticism of the commission's approach.
"If the co-chairs of the deficit commission were dead set on gutting Social Security and Medicare from the beginning, they could have saved time and effort by releasing this proposal the day after the commission was formed. Instead, we have waited through nine months of backroom negotiations only to be told that the American people will have to tighten their belts another notch while defense spending continues to grow and corporate bonuses continue to expand," he said. "The path this plan would set is not good for the public. Congress should be having a realistic, productive conversation right now about how to reduce our budget deficit and maintain a secure retirement system for those who have earned it. Instead, we're debating a proposal from a commission dedicated to cutting crucial social programs and reducing corporate and upper-income taxes at the same time. This is not a recipe for a healthier American economy."
US Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, promised a fight.
"The Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan is extremely disappointing and something that should be vigorously opposed by the American people. The huge increase in the national debt in recent years was caused by two unpaid wars, tax breaks for the wealthy, a Medicare prescription drug bill written by the pharmaceutical industry, and the Wall Street bailout. Unlike Social Security, none of these proposals were paid for. Not only has Social Security not contributed a dime to the deficit, it has a $2.6 trillion surplus," argued Sanders.
"It is reprehensible to ask working people, including many who do physically-demanding labor, to work until they are 69 years of age. It also is totally impractical. As they compete for jobs with 25-year-olds, many older workers will go unemployed and have virtually no income. Frankly, there will not be too much demand within the construction industry for 69-year-old bricklayers," explained Sanders. "Despite all of the right-wing rhetoric, Social Security is not going bankrupt. According to the Congressional Budget Office, Social Security can pay every nickel owed to every eligible American for the next 29 years and after that about 80 percent of benefits."
The senator outlined a better plan for saving Social Security-and the US economy.
"If we are serious about making Social Security strong and solvent for the next 75 years, President Obama has the right solution. On October 14, 2010, he restated a long-held position that the cap on income subject to Social Security payroll taxes, now at $106,800, should be raised. As the president has long stated, it is absurd that billionaires pay the same amount into the system as someone who earns $106,800," said Sanders. "With the richest people in this country getting richer and the middle class in decline, it is absurd that billionaires pay the same amount into the Social Security system as someone who earns $106,800."
Sanders is right. And President Obama needs to recognize that fact.
To help him do so, MoveOn.org has launched a campaign to: "Tell [President Obama] that Americans will not stand for this Deficit Commission report and he must reject it immediately."
"If we want to get serious about the deficit, we need to get the economy growing again, and make sure the richest 2 percent of Americans pay their fair share. Instead, this plan cuts taxes for the rich and corporations substantially," argues MoveOn. "Slashing health care for seniors and veterans, and cutting Social Security benefits for millions of folks who are struggling, all to pay for lower taxes for the rich is just plain wrong."
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
By John Nichols
Reprinted with permission from The Nation