On Whose Back

Ever since Social Security became the law over 75 years ago, there have been conservatives who wanted to kill it, finding the very notion that elderly or disabled people should retain any dignity or independence after their productive years have passed anathema. If you’re no longer “useful” in their particular definition of the word, then you’ve got a lot of damned gall even thinking you should be able to stay out of poverty.

What the hell right does Grandma have to a flu shot and a living allowance? There are a lot of ways that money could be better spent, so far as they are concerned. It could be used to pay down the debt, or it could be invested on Wall Street. All Grandma does is spend it on rent and groceries and the like. She just pisses it away and avoiding poverty, the parasite.

As best I can tell — I sometimes have trouble translating “bloodless goon” into ordinary, American English — that is at least part of Robert Samuelson’s position in his latest post at /Real Clear Politics/. That, and making sure that the deficit problem that Bush and the GOP Congress created gets solved by making the people who have realized no benefit from the Bush tax cuts and can least afford it pick up the tab:

Suppose we increased the federal gasoline tax by 25 cents a gallon, from 18.4 cents to 43.4 cents. That would raise $291 billion over the decade from 2012 to 2021, estimates the CBO. Or we could advance the ages for early and full Social Security benefits; one suggestion is to raise them (now 62 and 66) by two months a year until reaching predetermined targets (say, 64 and 70). The CBO reckons the decade’s savings at about $264 billion. How about slowly moving Medicare’s eligibility age from 65 to 67. The savings: $125 billion.

Are we finished? Nowhere near. At most, these crowd pleasers would make noticeable dents. Recall that the deficits total almost $10 trillion over the next decade under President Obama’s original 2012 budget. That’s the point: even discounting the effects of the deep recession, prospective deficits are so large that they can’t be cured by tinkering. We should be asking basic questions:

– How big a government do we want? For four decades, federal spending has averaged 21 percent of gross domestic product. An aging population and high health costs mean that average spending, as a share of GDP, will rise by a third or more in the next 10 to 15 years if today’s programs simply continue.

– Who deserves government subsidies and how much? About 55 percent of spending goes to individuals, including the elderly, veterans, farmers, students, the disabled and the poor.

– How much, if at all, should social spending be allowed to squeeze national defense?

– If taxes rise, how much and on whom? What taxes would least hurt economic growth?

Perhaps Samuelson calls an increase in the gas tax a “crowd pleaser” because it would hit those at the bottom of the economic ladder the hardest, since simple economics dictates that the lower the rung one occupies the less likely they are to drive a newer, more fuel-efficient car — and cashiers and construction workers don’t have a telecommute option to exercise. But let’s not get distracted with the gas tax issue, because what he really wants to do is eviscerate the social safety net.

He is being disingenuous at best and deliberately dishonest at worst when he says “the deficits total almost $10 trillion over the next decade under President Obama’s original 2012 budget. That’s the point: even discounting the effects of the deep recession, prospective deficits are so large that they can’t be cured by tinkering.” That same CBO that he touts in his very first ‘graph also says that if nothing is done, other than simply letting the Bush tax cuts expire and tax rates return to the Clinton-era levels, the deficit disappears.

Now let’s answer some of those questions that he says no one is asking.

When he asks how big we want our government to be, he is starting from a faulty premise. It isn’t the size of government that matters, it is the quality. When he asserts that our “aging population and high health costs mean that average spending, as a share of GDP, will rise by a third or more in the next 10 to 15 years if today’s programs simply continue.”

What he is surely smart enough to know, but is betting that his target audience isn’t, is that he just made the perfect argument for single-payer healthcare, most easily achieved by expanding Medicare to cover everyone and then allowing Medicare to negotiate the price of medications and assignment schedules. Healthcare is the problem, and we are decades behind the rest of the developed world in coming to that realization and moving away from the ridiculous “market based solutions” that conservatives are so fond of.

Then he asks just who, exactly, deserves to be subsidized by the government and how much subsidy they deserve. I answer that question with “children and the elderly” and I believe that human beings deserve more investment than the “defense” budget that currently eats up more than half of every dollar the government spends, either killing or preparing to kill other human beings.

When he asserts that currently, 55 cents of every dollar the government spends “goes to individuals” he is deliberately and dishonestly fudging his numbers. He is including Social Security in that number, but Social Security is not part of the general fund. It is a separate, self-funding entity. Workers pay in a few dollars from every paycheck on the first $106,800, and at retirement start receiving a monthly benefit. As it currently stands, the Social Security trust fund is perfectly solvent for at least 25 more years — if we do nothing. It would be solvent in perpetuity if the earnings cap was raised and high-earners paid in on all of their income.

His next question, though, really cuts to the heart of what really drives every conservative – how much should social programs “be allowed” to “squeeze” the spending on the military? What drives conservatives is fear. They are different from you and me. They are fearful and scared and will pay any price to feel “safe” in a world that is constantly changing and evolving and moving on without them. It is a sad and specious strawman argument. The United States currently accounts for 42.8% of all of the military spending in the world, but we only have 5% of the world’s population. Compare that to China, the most populace country in the world, which accounts for a mere 7.3% of global military expenditures.

It’s simple math — the biggest piece of the pie is the place to start cutting off slivers. The military budget is the biggest piece of the pie — and after a certain point, the amount of money we spend doesn’t make us more safe, but instead does just the opposite.
When he asks how much taxes should rise, and on whom, and which ones would least hurt economic growth, we know his answer. He gave it to us at the start: He has no problem at all with taxes that disproportionately hit those who can least afford it. Conservatives like to pretend that taxing the rich would keep them from creating jobs. Yet during the Bush years — and he pushed through two rounds of tax cuts in his first term – American jobs disappeared, not to be replaced, every single year, we didn’t gain them.

Raising taxes on those at the bottom, on the other hand, hampers economic growth. The less money one has, the faster they spend it when it comes in. They buy groceries and clothes and gasoline, and they pay rent and utilities. Those are dollars that circulate through the economy locally and add a little stimulus at every stop along the way.
Samuelson concludes with the familiar palaver about means testing and raising the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare – even though Social Security is not part of the general fund, and the cost of health care is the underlying problem that is causing our money woes.

If we actually did what he suggests and put off Medicare eligibility a couple more years, it would be a false economy. Imagine all the people who would be wiped out financially by medical bills between the ages of 65 and 67…assuring that many more seniors would pass his odious “means test” before accessing that which they paid into all their working lives.

*****

This post originally appeared at Show Me Progress and is part of a series I am writing as a blogging fellow for the Strengthen Social Security Campaign, a coalition of more than 270 national and state organizations dedicated to preserving and strengthening Social Security.

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