The phony social security crisis-5: Raising the social security retirement age

(Continuing a series from March 2008.)

If you want to implement policies that really stick it to poor people, you have to do it when the Democratic Party is in power. The reason that Democratic administrations are the most useful vehicle for harming the poor is that those who call themselves ‘liberals’ are far more vigilant when Republicans are in power, rightly seeing them as out to serve the interests of the wealthy. But the Democratic party, while serving the interests of the same oligarchy, has fooled people into thinking that they are in favor of economic justice, so when they attack the poor, liberals are caught wrong-footed and do not mount a vigorous counter-attack.

That is something that the oligarchy that runs America realized some time ago but hasn’t quite sunk in with liberals because of their fixation on shoring up the Democratic Party’s electoral fortunes. This interesting comparison between those who call themselves liberals and those who say they are progressives is worth pondering. One key difference is that “Progressives pursue issues; liberals support candidates”. Liberals who think they must support Obama at all costs because otherwise his opponents will benefit at the polls are falling into the same trap as with Bill Clinton, and will end up enabling policies they should oppose.

Despite Ronald Reagan railing against so-called welfare queens, he met vigorous opposition when he tried to pursue policies that harmed the poor. It was only after Bill Clinton’s election that we had so-called ‘welfare reform’ that resulted in a lot of poor people, including single mothers with young children, having their meager benefits cut off. (It was also Bill Clinton who signed the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act.) Barack Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are pursing education policies that would have aroused strong opposition from liberals if Republicans had proposed them.

But the biggest prize that the oligarchy seeks is to destroy social security as a government program and safety net for the poor. George W. Bush wanted to privatize social security and got such a fierce response that it forced him to abandon the attempt. But now during the Obama administration and with Democrats controlling both houses of Congress, we hear a lot of talk about reducing Social Security benefits, primarily by raising the retirement age for full benefits from the current 65 to 70. Although Republicans like John Boehner have initiated discussions on this, key Democrats are also going along with it.

Like he did with health care reform where he sabotaged the public option, Obama is handing off to others the unpleasant task of cutting the social security benefits of poor old people so that he can avoid responsibility. In this case he has appointed a commission (called the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform but is derisively referred to as the ‘Catfood Commission’ because its likely recommendations will force old people to eat cat food to make ends meet) comprised entirely of elites (with one exception). As one blogger says:

[T]he Obama Administration appears to have chugged the austerity/jack rates/cut the deficit Kool-Aid insanity by forming the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. They stuffed it with offensive idiots like Alan Simpson whose sole purpose is to screw the little people out of their social security savings. Hence the sickening nickname, the Catfood Commission.

This blogger is, however, still trapped in the ‘liberal’ mindset, saying, “I still find this hard to comprehend happened under a Democratic Party administration.” He does not realize that this is not an anomaly but precisely the role that the Democratic Party plays in the system.

The arguments in favor of raising the retirement age are presented in economic and demographic terms and in terms of fiscal responsibility. We are told that the social security trust fund will be unable to keep pace with the demands of retirees because we are living longer than we were when the program was started. That is true but the state of the trust fund is nowhere near as dire as it is often painted.

Also, while it is true that life expectancy has increased by 12 years (from 65 to 77) since 1935 when the program was established, that is not the whole story. Life expectancy has gone up because we have had success in reducing infant and childhood mortality with the development of vaccines and other medicines. The relevant figure for the social security discussion is the amount by which life expectancy has increased for people who reach the age of 65. Susan Gardner quotes from Nancy Altman’s book The Battle for Social Security: From FDR’s Vision To Bush’s Gamble:

For Social Security purposes, the correct question is not how many live to age 65, but rather how long those reaching age 65 live thereafter. Here the numbers are not as dramatic. In 1940, men who survived to age 65 had a remaining life expectancy of 12.7 years. Today, a 65 year old man can expect to live not quite three years longer than he might have in 1940, or 15.3 years beyond reaching age 65. For women, the comparable numbers are 14.7 years beyond age 65 in 1940; 19.6 years in 1990. [Emphasis added.]

The second major issue that is being ignored is that the people who are blithely suggesting raising the retirement age are well-to-do people who work in jobs that are interesting, pay really well, and are not physically demanding. It should be no surprise that Members of Congress, media personalities, corporate executives, Larry King and Andy Rooney, etc. are able to, and want to, work well past 65. They work indoors in air-conditioned buildings with legions of assistants to take care of the drudge work. They have plenty of vacation time and the money to relax how and when they feel like it. For such people, retirement would likely mean a less enjoyable life. Why would you want to give those things up? Furthermore, the rich are the very ones for whom the social security benefits form a negligible part of their retirement income. What they lose in social security benefits is negligible compared to what they gain on tax cuts.

Furthermore, life expectancy is much greater for those who are well off (and thus working at easy jobs) than for those who are worse off and thus likely to be working at difficult jobs, and the gap is increasing. For males age 60 in the bottom half of the earnings distribution, life expectancy only increased from 77.7 in 1972 to 79.6 in 2001. In contrast, the corresponding increase for the top half of earnings distribution went from 78.9 to 85.4.

So the people who work the hardest are the ones who already have the least time to enjoy retirement.

Furthermore, nowadays it is very hard for older people who get laid off to get another job and raising the retirement age would consign them to an even longer period of poverty. I also do not see the point of keeping older people working longer because that would mean fewer jobs for younger people, exacerbating the unemployment problem.

POST SCRIPT: Retirement is for losers

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow on raising the retirement age.


  1. says

    Nice analysis both on the “raise the retirement age” and on the Democrats are the ones to limit social programs.

    Note also that it sometimes works in reverse when it comes to foreign policy; e.g. it was Nixon that reached out to China and Reagan that negotiated with the Soviets.

    A Democrat might not have gotten away with it.

  2. peter lafond says

    what i realised about 2 days ago is that white privalage is the problem. ie last week i asked you why non-whites immigrating to america seem to sucede ( and implied the ” why are not native born non-whites suceding”) only a white person could think like that. anyway i digress the DNC has the same problem as the GOP they support white privalage ( the GOP tries to make common cuase with poor and rich whites ) and western civilazation. the upshot is that either side is the same side of the coin- western white elites are never wrong or at the very least always right. Also western civilation being based on totalitarian farming always needs a serf class. i think the first thing government official are taught is the axiom . ” you can always get on half of the poor to kill the other half of the poor.”

  3. says

    Interesting points. I suspect that many progressives have been disappointed, partially because expectations were so high, and partially because they often tend to be idealistic. I think many expected Obama to give support to the public option for health care, and have been scratching their heads ever since that dream fell flat.

  4. says

    Mano, we can’t commment on your article about prophetes. It says : “Your comment was denied for questionable content.” Is that normal?

  5. says


    Sorry about that.

    The spam filter sometimes misfires and blocks comments for no obvious reason. It has sometimes happened to me so don’t take it personally.

    I suggest writing the same idea in completely different words and seeing what happens.

  6. says

    I have been a single mom for almost 14 years now and things were a lot better during the Clinton area. Even if the benefits were a bit lower than now, I had a much easier task to find a part-time job and afford to find a babysitter while I was working.

    When Bush became president it was a terrible situation to be in and the job I had paid so little that I just couldn’t afford a babysitter anymore. My mom had to help out and without her and I don’t know how I would’ve managed.

  7. says

    Interesting insights. I think the lesson we all need to learn is that we really can’t count on the government for anything. If we want to be able to live comfortably in retirement, the ONLY solution is to live well below your means during your working years, and save save save. If you take care of yourself and your future, then these idiots in government can do anything they want without starving you.

  8. Flore says

    What an informative read. For someone like me, just an average blue-collar person, I don’t get much time to try and understand the “politics” of things. But I try to keep up on things of importance and social security is something that I consider important. It doesn’t really surprise me that the wealthy are the ones that always seem to come out on top -- that just seems to be the way things go. I just wish there were some way for real improvements to be made. It seems so unjust that the age keeps rising because of life expectancy from birth. Where is the sense in that? To protect the wealthy again, right? Someone needs to really take a stand for the middle and lower class people of this country. Otherwise, the government is just going to continue to do things to gradually “weed” us out, making life harder and harder as time goes by.

  9. says

    Very interesting points, it’s I was definitely expecting Obama to be stronger on the public option with healthcare unfortunately that didn’t seem to work out how I thought. I appreciate the insight though.


  10. says

    Wow. I’m going to surprise myself and have to wholeheartedly disagree about the “phony Social Security crisis” (ordinarily I agree with you).

    Interesting facts about the increase in life expectancy but you’re forgetting one key stat when it comes to Social Security then and now…

    For every 1 person who needed Social Security when it was first instituted there were approximately 30 people putting money into the “pool” who were not on Social Security.

    But now instead of it being 1:30, it’s more like 1:5 or some stats even say 1:4. And this includes people who are getting SSD (disability and are younger than the official “retirement age”) and apparently you can get SSI if a parent or spouse dies (something I didn’t know).

    And that ratio is only going to get smaller as time goes on.

    I don’t know about you, but most Americans can barely afford to take care of their own household let alone spare any money even with 3 or 4 others splitting the cost to pay for that retiree.

    So I don’t know where you’re getting the idea that this is a “fake” crisis but Social Security and a lot of other social programs are in finacial trouble because of our government’s reckless spending.

    I agree that it’s wrong for them to raise the age and deny people Social Security but I don’t agree that it’s a fake crisis.

    As much as Americans don’t like to hear “no” and “cut spending,” you have to think of America as one big household, i.e., you can’t spend more than what you make or you’ll be in serious trouble.

    Kinda like we’re in now with all the debt this country is in that we’ll never be able to pay back lol. I don’t even know why they pretend they’ll ever be able pay it off.

    So they’ve got to cut spending somewhere but I think politicians all need to take pay cuts, spend less on costly armed conflicts, and less on these ridiculous bureacratic agencies—government has gotten too big.

    Before Roosevelt’s New Deal, the federal government was 3 percent of the economy; today it’s over 26 percent. But when you add in local and state government, and all the agencies it makes up 50%.

    And if you don’t believe it, just take a look at how much of your paycheck is taken for taxes, not 50% but I’d venture to say that at least 25% goes to taxes maybe even more.

    People seem to keep forgetting that anytime the government does something it costs the taxpayers money (and that would be us).

    And don’t forget the sales tax that businesses of course aren’t going to eat the cost of but pass onto their customers instead.

    So the government needs to cut the budget somewhere, I just don’t think it should be social programs like Social Security.

    Because the “deficit spending” (printing our dollars to oblivion) can’t continue because that also hurts the poor through inflation.

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