The phony social security crisis-7: Who are the hard workers?

As I said in the previous post in this series, the elites who work in comfortable conditions in well-paying jobs have no idea of what work is like for the vast majority of people. And they live in this cocooned world where the media feeds their inflated sense of self-worth. The ever-oblivious New York Times columnist David Brooks is one of those people who serves the needs of such people, someone who can say with no sense of irony: “I was going to say that for the first time in human history, rich people work longer hours than middle class or poor people. How do you construct a rich versus poor narrative when the rich are more industrious?”

The rich are more industrious? How clueless can you get? Does he have any idea how hard manual laborers like farm and construction workers or waiters work, on their feet, each and every day? I’ll let Matt Taibbi dissect him:
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The phony social security crisis-6: Retirement and the nature of work

The doomsayers have managed to persuade the majority of people that they will not receive anything from social security, though that is completely false. The idea that the only way to solve the overblown social security ‘crisis’ is to raise the age of full benefits eligibility from 65 to 70 is wrong. There are other ways to fix social security other than raising the retirement age. The most obvious is to remove the cap that limits the social security payroll tax to only those incomes below $106,800 (the ceiling for 2009). Currently all incomes above that limit do not contribute to the social security trust fund. But there should be no upper limit. As Kevin Drum points out in a handy chart, that one move alone would solve the Social Security problem but there are other ways.

Of course, lifting the cap on earnings that are subject to the social security tax is one of those solutions that will adversely affect only rich people who will hardly notice it but since it is this same group that forms the oligarchy that runs the government and the media and sets policies, such policies are not even considered because this greedy group cares only about increasing its wealth even more, aided in their attempts by the media ignoring this systemic feature. The New York Times recently ran a disapproving article about how the elites in Pakistan avoid paying taxes: “That is mostly because the politicians who make the rules are also the country’s richest citizens, and are skilled at finding ways to exempt themselves.” I wonder when the NYT will realize that the US is not much better?

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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.

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The phony Social Security crisis-4: What needs to be done

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

While Social Security is not in a crisis, it does require periodic adjustments to make it work, as the economy and demographics of the population change. It can be made solvent with minor tinkering at the edges such as removing entirely the cap on payroll tax income or increasing the rate of taxation by small amounts or by lowering the annual cost-of-living increases in benefits or, in the worst case, by slightly reducing the benefits. We are not facing the catastrophe the doomsayers predict.

The major problem with Social Security is not with the retirement benefits part but with rapidly rising Medicare costs. Currently the Social Security tax (the part that goes towards retirement benefits) is 12.4% of income up to the cap, which is $102,000 for 2008. The tax rate for Medicare is 2.9% of your gross income. Your employer pays half of this 15.3% total, unless you are self-employed in which case you are responsible for the entire amount.

It is the Medicare costs that are already outstripping Medicare revenues and rising rapidly, and thus straining the government’s finances. But this is largely a health care costs problem, caused by the hugely wasteful profit-making health system that currently exists in the US that has resulted in per capita costs that are at least twice as much as the costs in other developed countries and yet produces worse results. Introducing a single-payer system like that which exists in France or Canada would result in savings, greater ability to control costs, and better health care overall. (See the series of posts on health care where these arguments are presented in more detail.)

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The phony Social Security crisis-3: More realistic views of the alleged ‘crisis’

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In deciding whether Social Security is in trouble or not, it is important to bear in mind different measures. Let us start by assuming that no changes at all are made in the system and that current projections for future demographics hold for the next fifty years. This is a very big ‘if’ indeed, but a starting point for analysis. The alarmists look at the year in which projected Social Security benefits paid out in that year exceed the revenues from the payroll tax that same year. That is expected to occur around 2018. But that alone does not constitute a crisis. Social Security has been running a surplus all these years so by that time the trust fund will have about 3.7 trillion dollars in reserve. This fund earns interest and the interest can be used to supplement the payouts following the year when the expenditures start to exceed the revenues. At a 4.5% interest rate on the US treasury bonds, the accumulated trust fund can generate an annual growth of about $170 billion due to interest alone. Using this interest to pay benefits can be done for some time during which the size of the trust fund will remain the same or will still be increasing, though more slowly.

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The phony Social Security crisis-2: Double talk on Social Security

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

We currently see this curious double-talk taking place about the US bonds that form the assets of the Social Security trust fund. When trying to scare people about Social Security, people in this administration talk about the bonds in the trust fund being ‘worthless’ pieces of paper. But when trying to actually sell the bonds in international markets to finance its deficits, the government talks about how robust the US economy is. Like all double-talking politicians, the two different faces are presented to two different audiences, with the hope that the audiences will not overlap.
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The phony Social Security crisis-1: Understanding the system

There are many who would have you believe that Social Security is in dire straits and that it will go broke soon, so that younger people who are paying into it now will not get any benefits when they retire. While Social Security regularly requires tinkering to remain solvent, this kind of rhetoric is misleading but has been systematically promoted to make young people think that they are being swindled by the old, and thus generate intergenerational warfare. It is the tried-and-true divide-and-rule strategy. The goal is to scare people into agreeing to give private investors access to the money in the Social Security trust fund. (For a fascinating history of how the various forms of social safety nets, including eventually the Social Security system, came about, see here.)

Social Security is designed as a ‘pay as you go’ system, with the money being taken in now in so-called payroll or employment taxes (officially called FICA taxes) going to pay the benefits of those currently retired. It is presently running a surplus (i.e., each year it takes in more money than it spends) so that there is an increasing accumulation of reserve funds in the account, which is called the ‘trust fund’.

The confusing thing about understanding the government budget is that since Social Security is not an independent financial entity, the money that comes in as Social Security revenue is not kept separately from other government revenues, i.e., the ‘trust fund’ is not a separate vault of cash. What the government collects as revenue in any form (Social Security taxes, Medicare taxes, income taxes, import duties, etc.) can be used to fund general government expenditures.

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Biden outmaneuvers Republicans on Social Security and Medicare – for now

Joe Biden sometimes surprises me. I never had a high opinion of him, seeing him as epitomizing the neoliberal centrism of the political establishment, a caretaker of the status quo and an appeaser of the right wing. My support of him during the last election was driven by my horror at the thought of the lying, grifting, narcissist Donald Trump getting to be president for another four years. But I must admit that Biden has done better than I expected. True, he is no Bernie Sanders when it comes to advancing progressive policies but he has managed to push through some important pieces of legislation in his first two years that have made real improvements in the lives of ordinary people.

A big test is the one that will occur this June or so when failure to raise the debt ceiling will reach a crisis point. Republicans were clearly planning to use that issue as a hostage to obtain cuts in spending. What cuts? They refuse to specify but their target has always been programs that benefit those who are in need. (For a list of the programs that they are likely targeting, see here.) But their main target has always been the Big Three: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. These programs are expensive but extremely popular and cutting them will cause a backlash. Republicans know this and thus they seek to create a crisis so that cuts to them will be seen as inevitable and have Democrats share at least part of the blame.
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Hands off Social Security and Medicare!

One of the astonishing things about the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ negotiations is how many politicians and people in the media talk of raising the marginal income tax rates on the highest earners by a small amount as a quid pro quo for raising the retirement age for Social Security (currently 67 for those born in 1960 and later) and the eligibility age for Medicare (currently 65). They seem to treat those as if they were somehow equal-valued chips in a game. [Read more…]

How Monica Lewinsky saved Social Security

(For previous posts about the oligarchy, see here.)

I have repeatedly said that progressives have to be most on the alert when Democrats are in power. It is under Democratic administrations that the oligarchy tries to achieve major goals because the party’s base, ever-vigilant to guard against encroachments when Republicans hold power, falls asleep when their own party is at the helm. We see Obama doing things in the name of national security that would have evoked howls of protest if Bush had done them. We see Obama treating Wall Street with a generosity that would be loudly protested if a Republican did it.

The big prize for the oligarchy is, of course, Social Security. The privatization of Social Security has been a long-cherished dream of Wall Street anxious to get their hands on that trillion-dollar account. In general, Republicans have been thwarted when they tried to do it. George W. Bush tried to privatize it in his second term but was beaten back and gave up on it. The Democratic Party has long been seen as the defenders of Social Security, which is why the oligarchy sees it as a better agent for achieving its goals.

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