One could easily be forgiven for thinking the Baby Boomers appeared out of nowhere. The way it’s presented in the media, it would seem they just suddenly appeared -- near retirement, of course -- with their hands cupped firmly open, waiting to be paid. They’re going to break Social Security! Ever since I can remember, this has been the spin. Because “big government” can’t do anything right, all the money you paid in is hopelessly lost. This is a fundamental, and cynical, misunderstanding of Social Security. It’s a distortion of both what it is and how it works -- and convenient cover for those who want to dismantle and privatize it.
But first off, what about those Baby Boomers? Did people really not notice they were packing four or five lunch boxes instead of two or three after the second World War ended?
Well, of course they did. And so did the government. In fact, it was the now infamous but then-rockstar Alan Greenspan, along with the conservative movement’s water-walker, Ronald Reagan, who sought to “fix” the problem. What they did was to increase the amount of money that comes out of our checks to pay for the benefits of future retirees.
But it should be noted that this is a tax primarily paid by the working class. Any income made in excess of a little over one hundred thousand dollars is not taxed at all. The money put into the system is mostly wealth created by ordinary workers through their labor. In effect, it is a pool of deferred wages, to be paid out upon retirement.
In any case, a big surplus was created. This money was to be set aside in order to pay for the upcoming influx of Social Security recipients. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the free market champion Ronald Reagan gave that surplus away to the rich in the form of a government subsidy cleverly called a “tax cut.” Reagan, and the legion of unoriginal sycophants he has inspired, love to rail against the “redistribution of wealth” when a single mother gets some food stamps, but when the rich take billions of our dollars from a trust fund supposed to provide a safety net for our parents and grandparents, it’s called supply side economics. Really, it was theft. Theft that was approved by Congress and signed by the Gipper himself.
Social Security, however, isn’t simply being attacked from one side. Besides Reagan, we all remember a few years ago when George W. Bush attacked the program. The liberal activists were ready to riot. But, as some of the more honest pundits have pointed out, it was Bill Clinton who first sought to privatize Social Security. After he got done taking George Washington’s cherry tree-chopping axe to welfare, he held a few public meetings entertaining the idea of investing Social Security funds in the stock market instead of US Treasury notes. It was only America’s puritanical obsession with Clinton’s sexual habits that led to his plan falling by the wayside.
Now we see President Obama on the attack. Granted, he talks less about privatization and instead focuses on cuts and forcing people to work longer before receiving benefits. But there’s nothing coming from the White House about getting rid of the taxable income cap, or the host of other common sense tweaks to the program that could be discussed to keep it solvent. Instead it’s the same pill, just a bit smaller. They hope they can shove it down our throats with less resistance this time.
According to economist Dean Baker:
“This threat [to cut Social Security] comes not just from the Republican Party, but from the top levels of the Democratic Party as well. Rep. Steny Hoyer, the majority leader in the House, explicitly called for raising the retirement age to 70 in a speech earlier this summer. Erskine Bowles, the co-chairman of the deficit commission appointed by President Obama, also explicitly said that cuts to Social Security would be on the agenda of the deficit commission.”
So why the attacks? Is it because of the deficit? Earlier I mentioned that Social Security is a tax primarily paid by the working class. This is true. But Social Security could probably be better described as a social contract. So long as there are workers working, there will be benefits paid out. It’s an agreement between those who are working and those who are retired. And it is immensely popular. Social Security shows that Americans, even those in the “Tea Party“ movement, are not only capable of sharing, which is essentially what it is, but that they depend on it and even enjoy it.
In addition to the massive profits to be made by privatizing, cutting, or otherwise “restructuring” the system -- with the help of highly-paid private consultants -- the main reason for the attacks is that it’s a bad example. This sort of thinking must be stamped out as soon as possible.
If we actually stop and take a look at the numbers, Social Security is not at all on its death bed. Right now, according to a recent Social Security Board of Trustees report, it will be able to pay future benefits through the year 2037 with no changes at all. That hardly sounds like the urgent crisis we keep hearing about. Especially considering everything else the American bourgeoisie has on its plate. If they are really serious about reducing the deficit, there are several far more logical areas they could cut. From military spending to the newly revamped, but still wasteful for-profit health care system, not to mention corporate bailouts and their own inflated salaries and benefits packages.
The bottom line is that Social Security is not safe with either a Democrat or a Republican in the White House or controlling Congress. This is not surprising, given that this issue is so infused in class relations. Social Security is often the only thing that keeps people who have worked hard their entire lives, often for minimal pay, from being thrown out on the street. It’s the difference between many of our loved ones going hungry or having something to eat. Just 75 years ago, it didn’t even exist. Its implementation was a major victory for the working class.
So there really is no wonder why the political parties of capital are attacking it. Just as the ruling class has all but ended traditional pension plans in the private sector, and replaced them with complicated and unstable stock investment plans, they’ve been foaming at the mouth trying to get their hands around the neck of the most successful government program ever created.
This is why the working class needs our own political presence, a mass party of labor, in order to defend our basic social programs, let alone to expand and improve them. The bourgeoisie across the world are using the current crisis of capitalism, which looks to be heading into yet another downturn, as an excuse to roll back hard-fought gains. They are stretched thin and it shows. They simply have little to no room to give.
We must patiently explain that economic planning, done democratically by the people who actually do the work, is the only thing that will protect our standard of living. Moreover, it’s the only thing that can give the millions of people across the United States and around world who needlessly wallow in poverty something that could reasonably be called a life.