There has been a concerted effort by the wealthy class in the US to get the media to think that cutting the debt is the biggest issue facing the nation and that there is only one way to do that and that is by cutting earned benefits. Peter G. Peterson, the billionaire former commerce secretary and co-founder of the Blackstone private equity group, is one of the leaders of this movement.
Peterson, however, is hardly a disinterested and dispassionate observer of such discussions. In fact, he is now beginning his fourth decade of arguing that there is no alternative to enacting “entitlement reform” (read: cut Social Security and Medicare) and “tax reform” (read: raise regressive taxes and lower progressive ones) in the name of curbing the country’s “unsustainable” debt and deficits.
(Thankfully, president Obama seems to have abandoned his bizarre obsession with obtaining a ‘Grand Bargain’ with Republicans whereby the Democrats would agree to cuts in Social Security and Medicare and other earned benefits in return for modest concessions on taxes. Thanks for the collapse must go in part to the Republican refusal to consider any rise in taxes.)
The cuts to Social Security would take the form of changing the way that inflation is calculated to make it lower than the current method but there have also been calls to raise the retirement age even further. It used to be that full retirement benefits kicked in at age 65 but at present those born before 1954 can get full benefits only at 66 (though you can get reduced benefits starting at age 62) and it is already scheduled to go up to 67 for those born in 1960 and later.
The argument for raising the retirement age is that life expectancy has increased. While that is true, what is also true is that life expectancy has risen almost entirely for the top half of income earners and has been essentially flat for the bottom half. Given that the bottom half are more likely to be employed in work that is hard on the body, they are doubly disadvantaged by raising the retirement age.
When race is also factored in, the disparity increases even more. As this study shows:
We found that in 2008 US adult men and women with fewer than twelve years of education had life expectancies not much better than those of all adults in the 1950s and 1960s. When race and education are combined, the disparity is even more striking. In 2008 white US men and women with 16 years or more of schooling had life expectancies far greater than black Americans with fewer than 12 years of education—14.2 years more for white men than black men, and 10.3 years more for white women than black women.
For most people, work is soul-killing drudgery, while those glibly arguing for raising the retirement age tend to have nice, comfortable, white-collar, interesting jobs. As a result, what we are seeing is that the very people who should be retiring because they have spent their lives in hard jobs are the ones are being forced to continue working longer because they cannot afford to retire As Edward Siedle writes, the Social Security ‘crisis’ we face is not ballooning expenditures but that we are approaching a time when large numbers of old people will be too frail to work but too poor to retire.
But there is also the disturbing fact that many people are retiring before the age at which they get full benefits. Why? Given that Social Security benefits alone are hardly enough to live on and that people tend to not have much savings, it can’t be that these early retires are mostly heading off to a life of leisure and travel. For a few, perhaps. But for others, early retirement is forced upon them for many reasons. Going on working may be just too hard and they give up and accept the lower benefits and greater poverty in their old age.
Why is there such a strong desire among the wealthy to cut Social Security? It is part of a package with cutting welfare benefits, food stamps, unemployment benefits, and other government programs. We may see them as mechanisms to stave off some of the worst effects of poverty. But that is not how the so-called deficit hawks see them. They see those programs as helping to keep people out of the workforce. The rich need more and more of the poor to keep working so that they can live off them since the more workers there are, the lower the wages. As Voltaire pointedly put it many years ago, “The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor.”
I think that the retirement age should actually be reduced. That way, more people can retire, opening up jobs for young people. The extra costs would be borne by removing the cap on the income that is taxable for Social Security. Kevin Drum suggests other ways to pay for Social Security.
Paul Ryan gives a clear explanation of who the oligarchy thinks are the parasites on society.
(This clip aired on January 23, 2013. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)