The GOP’s Anti-Elderly, Pro-Billionaire Agenda

Richard Eskow

Few political advisers would suggest running on a platform of open hostility toward the elderly. Most families include an older person, after all, and everyone who lives long enough will become older themselves someday.

Seniors vote in greater numbers, too.

That may be why the GOP isn’t openly presenting itself as the anti-elderly party. But how else are we to interpret its deeds and actions? Its leading presidential candidates are pushing cuts to Social Security, while its congressional budgets would end Medicare as we know it.

Most older Americans would lose out under these proposals. But billionaires would make out very well indeed.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker became the latest Republican to jump on the anti-Social Security bandwagon this week, and he did so in a somewhat inartful way: by suggesting that benefits cuts should be applied to anybody born later than … Scott Walker.

“We’ll talk about reform,” Walker said, “but only for those — I was born on November 2, 1967 — for anybody older than me, we’re not touching Social Security.”

(“Reform,” in case you haven’t noticed, is a euphemism some people are fond of using when discussing Social Security or Medicare. It means “cuts.”)

Walker foreshadowed his anti-Social Security stance back in April, when he deployed some standard-issue fearmongering in a comment to Talking Points Memo. “Absent significant reforms,” said Walker, “these programs will go bankrupt and the people who have paid into them will be left out in the cold.”

Here’s the reality: Congress could address any long-term funding issues by lifting the current cap on the payroll tax that funds Social Security. That cap exempts all annual income above $118,500 – including that of millionaires and billionaires.

Why wouldn’t Republicans even mention such a simple solution? Perhaps it’s because so many of their financial backers are millionaires and billionaires – most of whom, unsurprisingly, dislike it.

Most of the GOP candidates have tried to present their Social Security cuts in the most palatable and least obvious way possible: as an increase in the retirement age. But, as the Center for Economic Policy and Research has noted, boosting the retirement age is a benefit cut, no matter how it’s spun.

So far, only Mike Huckabee has said he opposes Social Security cuts. As for the other candidates:

Sen. Ted Cruz has called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme,” proposing an increase in the retirement age and other types of benefit cuts. He also wants to privatize the program, as George W. Bush and his fellow Republicans attempted to do in 2005.

Sen. Marco Rubio agrees that it would be a good idea to raise the retirement age and impose other cuts, saying that younger generations must accept that “that our Social Security and our Medicare is still going to be the best in the world, but it’s going to look different than our parents’ Social Security and their Medicare.”

About that “best in the world” part: It isn’t true. Social Security’s benefits are already close to the bottom when compared to those of other developed countries, and will fare even worse if the Republicans’ cuts are imposed.

● Jeb Bush also says he wants to push the retirement age back to 69 or 70 (while displaying a woeful lack of knowledge about the current retirement age).

● Chris Christie has proposed increasing the minimum retirement age as well – from 62 to 64. Christie’s plan would reduce Social Security benefits for seniors making more than $80,000 per year and eliminate them altogether for those who make more than $200,000 per year.

That may sound like fair play, or even like populism. It’s neither. Eliminating Social Security benefits would barely affect millionaires’ or billionaires’ overall income after retirement, and wouldn’t affect it at all beforehand. And the savings would be miniscule. Christie’s proposal is nothing more than sleight of hand, meant to distract us from a better alternative: asking the wealthy to pay the same percentage in payroll taxes as other Americans.

Then there’s Medicare. The Republican House has repeatedly approved budgets that would cut Medicare’s budget and replace it with a voucher system for purchasing private insurance. That would impose severe financial hardship on the average enrollee.

There are alternatives to Medicare cuts. We can reduce the perverse incentives of the profit motive in U.S. healthcare, for example, and allow Medicare to negotiate prices with Big Pharma. But here, too, the Republicans ignore the best solutions.

There’s a through-line between the GOP’s embrace of Social Security cuts and its attempts to cut and privatize Medicare. In both cases, benefit reductions are being offered to distract voters from a simpler and fairer approach. And in both cases, private interests would profit: Wall Street would have more retirement income to manage (for a costly fee), and health insurers would receive a flood of new customers.

Both moves would cost retirees dearly, at a time when they can least afford it. A new report from the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), conducted at the request of Sen. Bernie Sanders, found that “about half of households age 55 and older have no retirement savings and that “many older households without retirement savings have few other resources, such as a defined benefit (DB) plan or nonretirement savings, to draw on in retirement.”

This retirement crisis comes after decades of wealth shifting from the middle class to the wealthy. Wage stagnation has left many Americans living from paycheck to paycheck and unable to save. At the same time, large employers have cut back on traditional pension plans. As a result, the GAO finds that “Social Security provides most of the income for about half of households age 65 and older.”

Many Americans are already facing a retirement crisis. Social Security compares poorly to similar programs in most developed countries. And yet Republicans want to cut its benefits, while at the same time increasing out-of-pocket medical costs for seniors. They want to protect high earners and help corporations at the expense of ordinary retired people.

That’s the anti-elderly, pro-wealth agenda of today’s Republican Party.

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