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From the category archives: entitlement reform

The Social Security Disconnect Between Congress and Everywhere Else

It’s that time of the year (just days before Election Day) when every Congressional candidate extolls the virtue of Social Security.  Too many of these candidates will then return to Congress (with your vote) singing a different tune lamenting that America simply “can’t afford entitlements” like Social Security and Medicare.  Only after Election Day will you discover that “save” actually means “slash” and “protect” means “privatize.” They’ll claim your benefits must be cut or programs privatized to “save” the programs for future generations.  The problem is...that’s simply not true and the American people of all political parties, ages and incomes don’t believe that cutting benefits is the best way to strengthen Social Security.

This Social Security disconnect is illustrated in a big way in a new report released today by the National Academy of Social Insurance“Americans Make Hard Choices on Social Security” shows that Americans’ support for Social Security is unparalleled and they are willing to pay more in taxes to stabilize the system’s finances and improve benefits.  We highly recommend you read the entire study (it’s important!) but here are some key highlights:

To gauge Americans’ policy preferences, the survey used trade-off analysis — a technique that is widely used in market research to learn which product features consumers want and are willing to pay for. The trade-off exercise allowed survey participants to choose among different packages of Social Security changes. As lawmakers would do, they weighed how each policy change would affect workers, retirees, and the program’s future financing gap, and then chose among different packages of reforms.

Seven out of 10 participants prefer a package that would eliminate Social Security’s long-term financing gap without cutting benefits. The preferred package would:

  • Gradually, over 10 years, eliminate the cap on earnings taxed for Social Security. With this change, the 6% of workers who earn more than the cap would pay into Social Security all year, as other workers do. In return, they would get somewhat higher benefits.
  • Gradually, over 20 years, raise the Social Security tax rate that workers and employers each pay from 6.2% of earnings to 7.2%. A worker earning $50,000 a year would pay about 50 cents a week more each year, matched by the employer.
  • Increase Social Security’s cost-of-living adjustment to reflect the inflation experienced by seniors.
  • Raise Social Security’s minimum benefit so that a worker who pays into Social Security for 30 years or more can retire at 62 or later and have benefits above the federal poverty line.

Again, not only do Americans value Social Security they are willing to pay to sustain and improve it.  This package was preferred by large majorities across political parties and income levels. 68% of Republicans, 74% of Democrats, and 73% of independents favored this no-cuts plan, as do 71% of study participants with incomes above $75,000 and 68% of those with incomes under $35,000. 

We suggest that if you see a political candidate on the campaign trail between now and Election Day ask him/her about this plan and its support by the vast majority of all Americans.   Will they support fixing Social Security’s long-term solvency while also improving benefits without cutting the program?

It can be done, if only there was the political will to do it.

Why a Medicare Flat Line is Good News for Seniors

While a flat line in the medical world is usually bad news...when it comes to health care costs in Medicare, this flat line is a good thing.  We reported earlier on the latest Congressional Budget Office forecast for Medicare and why that news is being ignored by Washington’s well-financed anti-entitlement lobby and the fiscal hawks they support in Congress. 

Today, the New York Times provides even more good news for Medicare and bad news for anti-Social Security and Medicare scolds:

“Medicare spending isn’t just lower than experts predicted a few years ago. On a per-person basis, Medicare spending is actually falling.

If the pattern continues, as the Congressional Budget Office forecasts, it will be a rarity in the Medicare program’s history. Spending per Medicare patient has almost always grown more rapidly than the economy as a whole, often by a wide margin.”

 

For years now, Wall Street funded fiscal hawk groups have been promising fiscal Armageddon unless Congress immediately cut benefits to middle-class seniors and their families. Contrary to that billionaire-financed bluster, the truth is there are clearly ways to see savings in Medicare through lower health care costs, not just by slashing benefits:

“The recent pattern reflects two main factors. One is that the baby boom generation is entering the program. In the long term, that’s a problem for Medicare’s finances because the number of people it must care for is going to surge. But in the short term, it skews the group enrolled in Medicare toward a younger, healthier population.

The second factor is more surprising and consequential. Over the last few years, Medicare patients have been using fewer expensive medical services, particularly hospital care and prescription drugs. The budget office is increasingly persuaded that such a pattern is going to last for a while.”

And there are even more proposals that could be enacted which don’t single out seniors for benefits cuts.  How about allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower drug costs like the VA does for veterans?  Or fully allow the proposed reductions in billions of dollars in federal overpayments to MA private insurance companies to be enacted, as proposed by the Affordable Care Act?  This CBO report clearly proves there are ways to manage costs beyond the benefit-cutting or privatization schemes preferred by Congress’ self-proclaimed deficit hawks:

Joan McCarter at Daily Kos sums it up best this way:

“Here's what's particularly significant in this: "Reductions made in the last four years alone are responsible for 10-year savings of more than $715 billion, which dwarfs nearly every deficit-reduction measure currently under discussion." Take that, Paul Ryan.

Here's the thing. Medicare is going to be facing issues when the baby boom cohort gets older and sicker. But this trend in shrinking costs gives policymakers time to look at reforms that do not require benefit cuts, that don't require pain for Medicare patients. That means there's no reason for another Paul Ryan budget that slashes the safety net or for another catfood commission calling for raising the Medicare eligibility age or more cost-sharing by patients. Take note, Democrats, and stop with the deficit fetish already.”

Cutting Social Security & Medicare = Economic Patriotism?

If you had any doubt about just how stark the differences are between the Republican and Democratic approach to fixing our economy, these dueling letters between Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and GOP Senator Orrin Hatch should clear that up for you quickly.  At issue is the idea of “economic patriotism.”

First, some background...

There’s currently a loophole in our tax code that allows American companies to dodge paying taxes by renouncing their corporate citizenship, leaving operations here but claiming an overseas address. This legal tax dodge costs our nation billions of dollars each year.  

“The practice has become known as “inversion.” But what it really amounts to is desertion. And it could cost Americans tens of billions of dollars. There are 47 firms in the last decade that have exploited this loophole, according to new data compiled by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. But it’s a hot topic again because at least a dozen U.S. firms are currently considering taking advantage of it.”...Center for American Progress

The President’s 2015 budget would make it harder for firms to reap the benefits of being an American company while simultaneously dodging their tax obligations by requiring a minimum 50% foreign ownership to avoid U.S. taxes (it’s currently only 20%). This week, Lew sent a letter to Congress urging quick action (okay, try not to laugh...) to pass inversion legislation.

“Congress should enact legislation immediately...to shut down this abuse of our tax system. What we need as a nation is a new sense of economic patriotism, where we all rise and fall together.  We know that the American economy grows best when the middle class participates fully and when the economy grows from the middle out.  We should not be providing support for corporations that seek to shift their profits overseas to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.”

Sounds reasonable, right?  Not according to the ranking GOP member of the Senate Finance Committee who penned a testy letter in reply.  Not only does Senator Hatch reject the legislative fix offered by Senate Democrats to recoup the billions lost to corporate scofflaws he also redefines the idea of “economic patriotism” by shifting the target from known corporate tax dodgers to American families who depend on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program:

“I must disagree with the administration's position that we should, in the short term, enact punitive, retroactive policies designed to force companies to remain domiciled in the United States.”

“My hope is that your definition of "economic patriotism" is not so narrow as to only include a particular business practice ... I hope that you share my view that "economic patriotism" includes a desire to fix the problems that are truly ailing our country and threatening the livelihoods of future generations. Non-partisan watchdogs and rating agencies have been issuing warnings about our ballooning national debt and runaway entitlements for years now. These issues represent the greatest threat to our fiscal and economic security...”

Welcome to Washington, where you’re an “economic patriot” if you turn a blind eye to corporate tax dodgers who owe this nation billions of dollars and instead take it from middle-class benefits paid for by average Americans , the truest patriots of all, who worked a lifetime building the economy that fuels those corporate profits to begin with. 

Real Retirement Security Solutions or More of the Same?

It’s easy to become cynical if watching Washington work (or not work, as is often the case) is your job.  So forgive us for not popping a cork in celebration of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s new Personal Savings Initiative.  Don’t get us wrong, it’s the right idea for the right time.  We’ve been saying for a long time that our nation is facing a retirement crisis far greater than the fiscal Armageddon promised by conservatives if we refused to take their advice to slash middle-class benefits. As NCPSSM President/CEO, Max Richtman, has written before:

“Three decades of stagnant middle-class incomes, disappearing pensions, limited ability to start and maintain personal savings, and the failure of the 401K experiment lay the foundation for a retirement crisis that could further threaten millions of older Americans and their families.

According to the New School for Social Research, 75 percent of Americans nearing retirement have less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts. Almost half of middle-class workers will be poor or near poor in retirement and living on a $5-per-day food budget. The National Institute for Retirement Security reports four out of five working families have retirement savings less than one times their annual income and 45 percent do not have any retirement assets at all.

While Washington has been obsessed with the federal budget deficit, there's been virtually no Congressional conversation about the $6.8 trillion retirement savings deficit. What will happen to the millions of American families who are ill-prepared for retirement? There's almost no conversation about how to prevent this retirement crisis from impoverishing our families or about how younger generations will handle parents and grandparents who cannot support themselves. In spite of this current and growing retirement crisis, Social Security and Medicare, programs vital to a basic secure retirement, continue to be the favored targets for some in Congress who are determined to use benefit cuts to reduce the federal deficit.”

While the Pete Peterson funded Bipartisan Policy Center’s stated goal is to address personal savings, Social Security benefits received an inordinate amount of attention in today’s kickoff event.  Not so surprising when you consider that this group is chaired by former Democratic Senator and fiscal hawk Kent Conrad and Wall Streeter/former Bush appointee, Jim Lockhart.  The group is dominated by conservatives and center right former politicians and staffers, Republican political appointees, industry reps and think-tankers.  As was the case with the failed Bowles-Simpson Fiscal Commission, there are a few members who break that mold and will no doubt find themselves swimming against the tide once the discussion turns to Social Security.  Which the Chairmen made very clear today, it will, since “everything is on the table.”

Sound familiar?  It should since that’s Washington-speak for get ready for middle-class benefit cuts -- but this time they’ll be wrapped in a package to increase personal savings and strengthen retirement security?  It’s no wonder we’re cynical. 

How About Giving the Truth about Social Security "Equal Time"

Attempts to reignite the intergenerational warfare campaign against Social Security --  led by the billion dollar austerity lobby -- seem to have hit a new high.  Alternet highlights just a few of the recent instances:

A string of recent examples—rants [3] from MSNBC’s wealthy young commentator, a notorious elderly-attacking [4] House candidate, think tanks promoted [5] on NPR—generational warfare cheerleaders are proclaiming that America is heading toward an epic and immoral conflict as better-off seniors are robbing millennials of shrinking federal dollars because retirement programs cost too much. That’s simply false, as Social Security is solvent [6] through 2033, and spending on all mandatory programs as a percentage of GDP is close to [7] where it’s been since 1975, at 21 percent. 

This line of attack isn’t in a political vacuum. It comes as some Democrats are reframing [8] the debate on Social Security and campaigning [9] for increased benefits. Nor is it a new argument, as a right-wing club of libertarians, Wall Street bankers and deficit hawks have tried for decades to undermine and privatize the program.

For MSNBC’s, Abby Hunstman, this is the second time in as many weeks that she’s taken to the airwaves with a monologue chock-full of errors and political rhetoric heavy of drama and light on the facts.  NCPSSM’s Equal Time, joined the Los Angeles Times and others in pointing out just a few of those errors in her first attempt to “educate” millennials:

Millennials Face Big Problems – Abby Hunstman, MSNBC

 “Here’s the reality, at the rate we’re spending, the system (Social Security) will be bankrupt by the time you and I are actually eligible to get these benefits.”

“We can’t afford it.”

“While we’re living two decades longer we haven’t made any changes.”

MSNBC anchor Abby Huntsman (daughter of GOP Presidential Candidate Jon Huntsman) clearly misunderstands Social Security’s funding  and twists both life expectancy data and worker ratios to the breaking point to build a false case for cutting Social Security benefits for millennials.   Contrary to Huntsman’s claims, there is not a single scenario or economic projection in which Social Security goes bankrupt, most  Americans aren’t living 20 years longer and there have been numerous reforms to Social Security in the past,  including raising the retirement age.

If Washington does nothing at all by the time the Trust Fund is depleted in 2033, millennials and generations after them will receive a 25% benefit cut.  Huntsman urges raising the retirement age to 70-75 on top of that which means an even larger benefit cut for our children and grandchildren.  Unfortunately, rather than educating her fellow millennials with the facts,  her “fix” for Social Security comes straight from the multi-billion dollar anti-entitlement lobby’s talking points.   There are ways to fill the funding gap without hitting future generations with huge benefit cuts. Rather than gutting Social Security under the guise of “fixing it”, Congress should lift the payroll tax cap and enact other meaningful reforms to strengthen the program for future generations. 

Inexplicably, rather than address her mistakes Huntsman then chose to double-down on them with a second error-laden missive.  Michael Hiltzik with the Los Angeles Times tried, a second time, to help her with the “basic math” she claims to understand:

Huntsman complained that I called her out for asking how we're going to pay the rising costs of the health and social insurance programs, as though "even raising the question means you're automatically anti-Social Security or against the elderly."

No. I called her out for raising the question using bogus numbers, such as life-expectancy rates from birth, which have risen sharply since the '30s but aren't relevant to Social Security's fiscal health. Instead, the key figure is life expectancy from age 65, which hasn't risen very sharply. (Huntsman appears to accept this point.)

Huntsman offered several possible remedies for rising costs in these programs -- means-testing benefits, increasing the retirement age, raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67 from 65 -- and complained that we're not even debating these options.

That's where she really goes off the rails. We have been debating those options, for years. They've all been studied, measured, calculated and scored. The reason they haven't been implemented is that none of them is simple. None of those she listed would have an appreciable positive effect on the fiscal health of the programs, and some, such as raising the Medicare eligibility age, might make the overall federal budget picture worse.

Economist Dean Baker also gave it a try:

“The far greater risk to the living standards to the people of Huntsman's generation is the risk that we will continue to see the upward redistribution of income over the next three decades that we have seen over the last three decades. As a result of this upward redistribution of income, people like Ms. Huntsman's father have benefited enormously, while most workers have seen little or none of the gains from economic growth. If this pattern continues then most people in Ms. Huntsman's cohort will not fare well financially even if we eliminated their Social Security taxes altogether.”

So Huntsman continues to take her cues directly from the billion dollar Wall Street campaign to paint Social Security & Medicare as the biggest threat to future generations while ignoring the income inequality which will curse millennials for a lifetime.  


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