If you're an older American -- or expect to be someday -- and you aren’t wealthy, you may have concluded that the Republican Party is at war with you. If so, you’re not wrong. Republicans are pushing proposals that protect and expand the wealth of the wealthy at the expense of the elderly. (The disabled, working people, and the poor are also targets.)
Some progressives are troubled by metaphors of war. But this assault will claim lives, through hunger and inadequate medical care. Not every wealthy person supports it, of course, but those who do have plenty of Republican footsoldiers in Washington.
The motive, to a large extent, is tax avoidance. Taxes in the US are actually low compared with other countries, especially for the wealthy and corporations. But Republicans, including Donald Trump, want to cut them even more -- especially for the wealthy and corporations. (Many middle-class Americans would actually pay more under Trump’s plan.) The Republican push for “entitlement” cuts should be seen in that light: as an attempt to further enrich the wealthiest few at the expense of the elderly and disabled.
This war on the elderly has two primary fronts: Medicare and Social Security. As a candidate, Donald Trump distinguished himself from other Republicans by insisting that he didn’t want to cut either one. Once elected, however, Trump nominated rabidly anti-Medicare partisan Tom Price to become Secretary of Health and Human Services. That was widely taken as a sign that Trump intends to join forces with House Speaker Paul Ryan in Ryan's long-held ambition to abolish Medicare.
About that phrase, “abolish Medicare” -- Republicans and their journalistic enablers take exception to that description, so let’s be precise: Republicans want to shut down the insurance program known as Medicare. Instead, they would issue vouchers for purchasing private health insurance - a program they would call "Medicare." (That seems a little like addressing your current spouse by your ex's name, but maybe that's just me.)
Those vouchers would soon be worth much less than Medicare's current coverage, because their value would rise much more slowly than actual health care costs (which increased dramatically last year).
Don't worry, say Republicans. Free-market competition will fix that. Unfortunately, there’s very little competition in a market that is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few powerful players.
Democrats are relishing the Medicare fight, as well they should. Incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and other Congressional Democrats held a press conference about it last week. “Hands off Medicare!” is a good rallying cry, and Pelosi seemed to enjoy leading the crowd in chanting it.
Sanders went on the offensive. “Our job is to expand Social Security,” he said, “not cut it. Our job is to improve Medicare, not to cut it.”
He's right. After decades of growing inequality, these programs – already modest in global terms – do need to be expanded. The American people know that through lived experience. Added Sanders:
“We are not going to allow the billionaire class, or Trump, or anybody else to cut the benefits that the elderly, the disabled, and disabled vets depend on.”
While rhetoric about “the billionaire class” makes a lot of people in Washington uncomfortable, it is both rhetorically effective and factually correct. 16,000 people in this country own as much wealth as 80 percent of the population. 0.1 percent of the population – that's one person in a thousand – reportedly holds as much of our nation’s wealth as 90 percent.
Inequality hasn’t been this bad since the 1930s. As a result, many Americans are entering retirement with little or no savings. Moreover, retirees have been plunged into greater financial insecurity by the corporate trend away from pension plans – a trend that was also driven by the self-interest of the “billionaire class.”
Sanders also said, “We want to take on the pharmaceutical industry whose greed is hurting millions of Americans.”
Many in that class also hold investments in for-profit health corporations, which is probably why supposedly thrifty Republicans resist any cost-saving reforms that might crimp these companies' earnings. Some are Big Pharma corporations. Others run hospitals, pharmacies, and even physician offices. These entities have driven up the cost of healthcare, including Medicare and Medicaid, without incurring the ire of the supposedly cost-conscious right.
Nor have Republicans forgotten about Social Security. Last week a senior Republican in Congress, Rep. Sam Johnson, unveiled the most ambitious anti-Social Security program since the GOP’s 2005 privatization attempt. Johnson’s proposal slashes benefits, without asking the wealthy to pay a nickel more in taxes. In fact, it actually gives them a tax cut.
Unless we do something, the problems of the elderly will only get worse. 6.4 million people seeking full-time employment are trapped in part-time work, and will be increasingly vulnerable as they grow old. Our nation's loss of upward mobility means future generations of Americans will enter old age with even less financial security than their struggling forebears.
"A life of dignity until somebody leaves this earth is deserved and earned," Rep. Tony Cárdenas said at last week's press conference. Dignity, health, and security are endangered by this war on the elderly -- a war that must be resisted, in Rep. Cárdenas' words, "in Congress and on the streets of America."