Saturday, September 12, 2015

Big Ideas: Social Security, Medicare

Voters have short memories, it would seem. But I heard on NPR this morning for half of all retired Americans, half of their income comes from Social Security.

Social Security was a big idea which gained traction during the Great Depression and Franklin D. Roosevelt got it through Congress, Democrats sweeping away a failed Republican presidency and failed Republican ideology that all America needs is stalwart self reliant people. The idea underlying Social Security is the concept that people are short sighted fools who are typically so hard pressed to pay today's bills they will not put aside money for their own retirement which seems far off. Cross-that -bridge-when-you-come-to-it mentality prevails in youth and actually, throughout life. So people have to be forced to put something away today for the future they can never believe will actually ever come.  

Republicans promulgate two main falsehoods about Social Security:

1. The "I Could Do Better Myth:" They assert confidently allowing the government to play this paternalistic role is an affront, that if you really want to assure a secure financial future, you ought to be allowed to fend for yourself in the stock market.  The fact is, even today, no investment you could make in stocks would repay you as well as Social Security.

2. The Sky Is Falling, "This Thing Is On It's Last Legs Myth:"  Every Republican loudly asserts Social Security is sinking beneath the waves in insolvency and trying to save it will take down the entire federal government and the nation with it. Of course, this is wrong. Yes, if Congress does nothing over the next 20 years, Social Security might go broke, but the Congress can do something, and  will have to do something, even if it's a Republican Congress; it will do something because the options available are so simple and painless, even for a Republican Congress, and refusing to feed Social Security, starving it to death will provoke a revolution, even among white, Southern Republican ignoramuses, once they see those checks stop coming.  Those "keep your government hands off my Social Security check," folks will get smarter in a hurry.

These painless solutions are obvious:  Congrress  could raise the retirement age, to 67, which would fit modern demographics. When Social Security was passed in the 1930's people didn't live much past 70, so they were only getting pay outs for 5 years or maybe 10. And there were a lot more young workers to support the retired workers then--the country had more young people and fewer older people and those younger people did not have to support the elderly for more than 5 years.

Or, the government could "raise the cap" and assess taxes on salaries over $118,000, which is to say, it could ask the wealthy to pay more toward the system. Currently, if you make $400,000 you only pay social security taxes on the first $118,000. If you make $400,000 you probably can afford to pay more in social security payroll taxes without much of a crimp to your lifestyle. Maybe you don't have to fly first class to Aruba for your winter break holiday, maybe business class.

Or, as Mike Huckabee has suggested, you might fund some of Social Security through a sales tax. Mr. Huckabee likes this idea because it galls him that prostitutes and drug kingpins who do not declare income or pay payroll taxes can get Social Security. Actually, I'm not sure Mr. Huckabee is right about this--I have known plenty of people who did not work enough in jobs which connected them to Social Security to be eligible for retirement benefits. 

The fact is, Social Security is not on the critical list. It is hale and hearty and people love it and that is what really gnaws at the Republicans. They have been trying to kill Social Security by "privatizing" it for years but even the most apathetic, ignorant and non political citizens can see it's a big idea that worked. Government doing something for its citizens.

The other thing which really inflames Republicans from John Boehner and Mitch McConnell to Ted Cruz and Ben Carson is Medicare. In a rare moment of frankness, Mr. Boehner remarked the big problem with Obamacare is that it would work so well the public would grow to like it as much as Medicare and then we'd have a nation of slackers who have grown soft sucking on the government teat.

This, of course, is a variation of that old line, "You know what happens when you feed a stray dog? It follows you home and you can't get rid of it."  That's the line you hear a lot in the South about any "entitlement" program.  Very folksy. Gets a lot of laughs. So now Social Security beneficiaries and Medicare beneficiaries (who have paid into the system for years and by virtue of that are, in fact, entitled) are stray dogs.

When Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare in 1965, it was a very modest program: It paid only for doctors' visits to patients in hospitals, not for any X rays or treatment the patients might get, not for office visits.  But that was enough to send the American Medical Association into a rage of righteous indignation, to bring the wrath of the Republican party down on all those who voted for what was sure to be the end of Western Civilization, the beginning of  socialized medicine, the opening of the door to socialism and and the casting of a deep stain on the soul of the nation.

Of course, now try to find an American doctor or hospital CEO or average citizen who can imagine what life would be like in this country without Medicare.  All you have to say is this:   If your parents didn't have Medicare, they'd be bankrupted by their first illness and they'd have to move in with you. Without Social Security, the'd have to move in with you even sooner.  How would  you like that?  Still want to vote Republican?

Sad to say, although it's the Democrats who have had the big ideas, it's the Republicans who manage to sound like they are the ones with big ideas.  Bernie Sanders is one of the few Democrats who does not run away from Democratic virtues. But he's an avowed Socialist and next to Mad Dog, he  may be one of the most un electable people in the country.  

What we need is a Democrat with guts, or "balls" as some would say. So far, Elizabeth Warren seems to be the only Democrat out there with balls and that makes a lot of people uncomfortable and we are not  talking transgender here.

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