Last month the independent financial and political journalist and activist, Eric Laursen, spoke at the Tucson Book Festival about his work, The People’s Pension: The Struggle to Defend Social Security Since Reagan. I attended, and afterwards bought the book, an 800 page epic history and exposé, which describes the battle to dismantle the Social Security Program (SSP) from 1981 all the way up to the Obama Administration. The book was published in 2012.
His talk at the Book Festival was recorded by C-Span and you may watch it here. In the lecture, Laursen argued that we are witnessing a manufactured crisis with regard to Social Security. There is no actual existential threat to the Program. Beneath the current edition of the theatrical set of the Social Security drama is the very real and present crisis of our nation’s weak financial system. There is also a political crisis as to whether the "governing class" wants to support Social Security anymore, and whether there is enough political power in popular support to defend it.
Laursen illustrated one aspect of the political crisis by differentiating between Progressive and Beltway-Very Serious People (VSP) ideas for dealing with future funding for the SSP. Progressive ideas include having Congress raise the Cap or even eliminating the Cap, as Bernie Sanders has suggested. Another Progressive option is to raise the Estate Tax, or another, raise the payroll tax very incrementally.
In contrast, Laursen called the ideas of the VSP a three headed monster. The heads are as follows: Raise the retirement age; set up Means Testing; utilize Chained-CPI. This third head is, as we all now know, the current favored choice of the Obama Administration. It is a cut. This third head is stepping right on the third rail, and should consequently get zapped, as will all of its supporters come election time. All three of these heads will exempt the wealthy while placing the burden on those least able to take it. These are fundamentally unfair ideas, all of which need to be defeated.
How would this unfairness manifest if the cuts go through? Laursen described how important the SSP is to Americans. He said 66% of Americans now depend on Social Security for survival with average monthly payments of $1300.00. The program keeps 20 million Americans out of poverty. As of 2012 there are already 46.2 million Americans in poverty, a number of people presently far too high. If anything, the SSP should be expanded. That is what leadership interested in fairness would seek to do.
To understand how to combat this manufactured crisis against the SSP and defend what Laursen calls the People’s Pension, it is critical to review and understand the history of the struggle against the program from the Republican Right who has now been joined by the Democratic Center-Right and/or Neo-Liberals. This is where Laursen’s book is an excellent guide and resource. From his prologue:
The story that unfolds in the following chapters –a story of thirty years of American political life- is populated with episodes like this one: of deals made and not made, of ideological grandstanding and self-righteousness, of spin control aimed at inoculating politicians from the public response to their own ruthlessness. The scenario plays itself out over and over: Republicans and center-right Democrats search for common ground that can offer them a way to cut Social Security without having to pay a political price … Caught in the middle is a program set up to provide a basic income for retirees, the disabled, and their dependents. For over seventy years, it has been a fundamental element of American workers’ livesThe origins of the SSP evolved from Mutual Aid Societies during the Great Depression. It was not and is not a welfare program, but an earned benefit program. The origins of the anti-SSP came to fore with Pete Peterson’s founding of the group “Americans for Generational Equality” while Secretary of Commerce for the Nixon Administration. Under the George W. Bush Administration, the emphasis was on privatizing the program rather than cutting, but due to typical Dubya incompetence that effort failed. Now, under the current Center-Right Democratic Administration of President Barack Obama, we are back to struggling against cuts.
Like most everything in politics, what drove the pushback against State-based social programs –including the war against Social Security- was a combination of self-interest and ideology. The right and the center-right in the U.S. represented, in varying degrees, the interests of the affluent and the corporate establishment- and especially, in recent years, the financial services sector. The overriding concern of these groups was to maintain and, they hoped, expand the low-tax regime that their representatives had been putting in place since the Carter Administration. Their fundamental opposition to programs for the aged stemmed from their fear that these people would absorb a bigger share of government spending in coming decades as the population aged-necessitating, at some point, higher taxes.Petitions have been delivered to the White House. The “Left” is playing its dutiful role, myself included, posting articles, blogs, letters, tweets and making calls, to give Obama something to “Center” himself against, or throw under the bus, whichever perspective you hold. Wednesday Obama released his official budget, and so far our efforts seem to have fit the bill the President and the VSP wanted. These are all short term moves though, not the stuff of the long haul that has any meaningful impact. All this short term activity is simply more theatrics, masks, costumes, arias and soliloquies, signifying not too much in long term tangible good. We may threaten to withhold our votes now, but by the time elections roll around how much impact do our vote threats really have in comparison to the impact of big PAC spenders?
Social Security wasn’t just the biggest program for the elderly; it was also symbolic of the nation’s commitment to them. As a form of social insurance, it assumed a position above politics. It was always understood, then, that the first step in protecting wealth from the threat represented by an aging population was to eliminate the features that made Social Security and Medicare ‘social insurance’ – to turn them into welfare or ‘social assistance’ programs that could more easily be cut back. The many, many plans, proposals, and legislative schemes that Washington produced in the decades we’ve explored in this book- whether they focused on private investment accounts, means testing, raising the retirement age, or some other gambit- were all concocted with this goal in mind.
Here are a list of longer term strategies that Laursen suggests could do some actual good. These are the long-term steps we need to take.
What to do
1. Revive the Labor Union Movement.
2. Encourage and motivate the young into activism, participatory direct action. Today’s young will be hit the hardest of all given current economic conditions. They need to be notified, educated and motivated about this.
3. Not just more jobs, Better jobs (not to mention better politicians). People need jobs with livable wages.
4. Raise the minimum wage to a livable level. I offer kudos to President Obama for suggesting this himself. I’d like to see him pursue this more forcefully and with some immediacy.
5. Finally, if government does fail us, begin to rebuild mutual aid societies and co-operatives so that working class people can regain control over their lives, and some dignity.
We are all in this together. That is the fundamental core Democratic value I was raised with from generation upon generation of Democrats. One of those Democrats in my family worked in the Roosevelt Administration. Being in it together is a liberal concept, not a radical one. We look after one another mutually as a civilized society. This is what distinguishes Democratic Americans from those who espouse looking out only for number one. Those are the selfish core values espoused by the likes of Ayn Rand, the Chicago School of Economics and Right Wing Conservatives. Those are the values of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Pete Peterson and Paul Ryan. Sadly, it has become apparent that those are also becoming the values of the Center-Right Democrats, including the President, at least on this issue. Perhaps others as well. Those are not my values and I do not believe they are yours. We must stand up and fight to defend our society from this harm, mutually.
Again from Laursen’s book:
In the decades following Regan’s election, as we’ve seen, mass support for Social Security mobilized itself again and again – successfully-when the program was under threat. From whence might a similar upsurge appear in the Obama years? Perhaps from some of the same places where the new president had drawn his support. ‘The authentic hope of the Obama campaign,’ wrote Noam Chomsky, ‘is that the grass-roots army organized to take instructions from the leader might break free and return to the old ways of doing politics, by direct participation in action.’
Deliberately or not, Obama’s advisors had done everything possible since the election to demobilize the activists who had rallied around him during his campaign. But some of these people were still searching for ways to reactivate the ‘old ways of doing politics.’
One word: Wisconsin.
A few more: Occupy Wall Street
We Can Do This! Start with convincing your neighbors.
Other Related Reading
People’s Pension Blog
DailyKos Blogathon -- Week of April 8th
(All times are Eastern, diaries published by the Pushing back at the Grand Bargain group)
Monday, April 8
10:00 a.m. Roger Fox
12:00 noon eXtina
2:00 p.m. Guest crosspost by Yves Smith
4:00 p.m. Horace Boothroyd III
6:00 p.m. slinkerwink
8:00 p.m. joedemocrat
Tuesday, April 9
Wednesday, April 10
Thursday, April 11
Friday April 12
1. Call your senators and representatives and tell them "Hell No!" with a priority on contacting senators. U.S. Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121. You can find email contact information here
2. Contact the White House and tell them "Hell No!". Switchboard: 202-456-1414. Email contact page is here.
3. Petitions. There are a number of petitions available. Choose from the following or preferably sign them all.
a. White House petition calling for no cuts to Social Security.
4. Social Media. Share this diary and promote this blogathon on Facebook and Google+ using the buttons at the top of the diary. Send this out on Twitter and add the hashtags #HellNo and #NoGrandBargain.
Blogathon diaries you might have missedMonday:
Hell No! #NoGrandBargain: "Pushing back at the Grand Bargain" by Roger Fox
Hell No! Chained CPI will reduce eligability for EITC #noChainedCPI by Roger Fox
Hell No! Dan Pfeiffer: "The President's Budget Shows That He is Serious About Solving Deficits" by eXtina
Guest Crosspost, Yves Smith: Obama Wants to Be the President Who Rolled Back the New Deal by Yves Smith via joanneleon
Hell No! Stop crushing the poor by Horace Boothroyd III
Hell, No! Social Security Contributes Nothing To Deficit by slinkerwink
Hell No! No Grand Bargain: Chained CPI: Social Security Means So Much To So Many by joedemocrat
Hell No! No Grand Bargain Liveblog 2014 Budget press conference by joanneleon