The new recommendations for Social Security and Medicare released by the Business Round Table are beyond belief. It's as if the people who wrote them never gaze outside of the tinted windows in their limousines.
As I wrote earlier in "Stop Obama's Grand Charade", the newest tactic to impose more austerity measures in the US comes from a group of over 80 CEOs who are starting with $60 million to spend on a campaign called "Fix the Debt". They plan to convince people in the US that not only are cuts to vital programmes necessary, but that such cuts will strengthen them when exactly the opposite is true.
These CEOs are members of the Business Round Table, an elite corporate club that claims to create 7.3 trillion in annual revenues. That gives them a lot of political clout. The real reason for their push to cut spending on important programmes like Social Security and Medicare is so corporate tax rates can be cut further. Of course, they don't say that. They say things like Social Security and Medicare are running out of money and we must preserve and strengthen them (preserve and strengthen sound eerily like the language we used in 2010 when we were fighting cuts by the Deficit Commission). This push for corporate tax cuts comes although corporate profits have grown by 171 percent during the Obama presidency alone, the highest growth in profits since 1900.
Here is a quote from one CEO, Gary Loveman of Caesar's Entertainment Corporation:
Medicare and Social Security were not designed to cope with America's new demographic realities. CEOs are calling for gradual changes that will modernise these programmes and preserve the safety net for future generations of retirees.
Cutting social programmes
His language is slick. It is true that these programmes were not designed to cope with the new demographics. But I'm not talking about an ageing population as he purports (although our life expectancy is actually dropping), I'm talking about the job insecurity, falling wages and increasing wealth divide that exist today. Social Security and Medicare were created as social contracts for a working population to provide for those who need help and for all to have access to income and health care when they retired.
Social Security and Medicare were not designed for a population in which the vast majority of wealth is funnelled to the top 1 percent who avoid paying taxes. The Business Round Table report makes it sound as if the Social Security trust funds will be drained by 2033. What they don't say is that modest changes such as lifting the cap on the Social Security tax or treating investment income the same as income from wages would make Social Security solvent for many decades after that.
Instead they call for raising the retirement age to 70, restricting the growth of benefits and converting the Cost of Living Adjustment to a chained CPI. They also recommend that people save more. In today's economy, in which poverty is increasing, changes that delay or decrease benefits would be just plain cruel. Our older population is carrying high credit card debt and experiencing growing food insecurity. Future seniors are expected to face even greater poverty. They cannot bear further reductions in benefits. And many American families are struggling to meet basic necessities, let alone put money into savings. In fact 38 percent of families have no savings at all.
The Business Round Table is also sounding an alarm on Medicare. Their purpose is to push more people into private insurance and further privatise Medicare while keeping those who need health care services in public programmes. They would do this by increasing the Medicare eligibility age to 70 and opening Medicare up to more private health insurance plans that can be sold across state lines (code for allowing insurers to locate in states with the weakest regulations).
This is wrong on so many levels. Increasing the Medicare age will cause more deaths, especially in minority and low-income communities. And while it would save the federal government some money, it would shift even greater cost onto individuals who are unable to handle that increase. This means seniors would face greater difficulty meeting their basic needs.
The changes put forth by the Business Round Table are destructive, unnecessary and counterproductive. The US already spends a low portion of its GDP on public programmes when compared to other wealthy nations and we are suffering from the results. Restricting social spending further and privatising our social insurances will drive us towards greater poverty, economic stagnation and worse social outcomes. On the contrary, there is strong evidence that investing in social infrastructure stimulates the economy and shortens recessions.
There are real solutions that would address our current crises and actually preserve and strengthen Social Security and Medicare. For example, reclaiming taxes that the wealthy avoid paying would raise enough revenue to strengthen and expand both programmes.
Because Social Security is the most successful and popular pension plan in the US, there is a solid argument that we would be better off if benefits were doubled, a sort of "Social Security Plus". Steven Hill of the New America Foundation describes this in more detail. Hill concludes:
Social Security Plus would provide a stable, secure retirement for every American and contribute greatly toward a solid foundation from which to build a strong and vibrant 21st century economy. All Americans should have retirement benefits they can count on, not the crumbling casino of retirement overseen by the same Wall Street bankers and financial managers who drove the US economy off the cliff.
And Medicare does not add to the deficit, it is self-funded. The primary challenge for Medicare is that it operates within a market-based health system fraught with runaway health care costs. The most popular and effective solution would be to expand traditional Medicare to every person in the US and ban private health insurance. This would immediately institute proven cost controls and create a system that values health of the population rather than profit. Over time, our Medicare system could be improved. Dean Baker estimates that if our health care costs were brought in line with what other wealthy nations spend, nations who have universal coverage and better health outcomes, we would not have a national deficit.
It's up to us to save Social Security and Medicare. These top CEOs have money and political persuasion. We have the truth on our side and greater numbers of people. Let us raise our voices now for a healthier and more prosperous future for all of us.
Margaret Flowers, MD served as Congressional Fellow for Physicians for a National Health Program and is on the board of Healthcare-Now. She is co-director of It's Our Economy and co-host of Clearing the FOG Radio Show.