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Some on the left are writing hopefully these days that perhaps President Obama has finally realized he needs to back off on his warlike posture on drones and the War on Terror. They are seeing his talk about scaling back the use of drone killing machines and of reconsidering or having his “Justice” Department “investigate” its own outrageous attacks on the press and its use of leaks by government whistle-blowers, as a sign that he is perhaps regaining his constitutional senses and perhaps even “moving” to the left to rebuild support he has been losing in droves.
Put aside for a moment the fact that so far it’s all been just talk. We know the drones are still flying and killing people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere (and there’s no talk of not opening a new drone piloting base in my home county of Montgomery, PA this October). And the national security spy state is going about its nasty business as usual. But in any case, the big test, I submit, of whether this president is actually moving away from his prior five years as president of selling out his liberal, working-class and poverty-struck base to stand instead for traditional liberal and progressive ideals will be Social Security.
On Friday the Social Security Administration will announce that the Trust Fund of money collected through the FICA payroll tax from working Americans over the course of several generations will reach $2.8 trillion, up from $2.7 trillion at the end end of 2011. The SSA will further report that this fund will continue to grow, as taxes collected remain greater than the funds being paid out in the form of Social Security benefit checks, until about 2020, seven years from now, when they will reach $3.3 trillion. At that point, with increasing numbers of Baby Boomers — that wave of people born between 1946 and 1964 who began hitting retirement age in 2011 — beginning to really pile into retirement, the fund will start to shrink as planned. But even with the unprecedented number of retirees, the report will state that the system should be able to pay promised benefits in full — that’s in full without any changes in the way inflation is factored into benefit amounts — until 2038. And even after that, if no changes were made at all to increase revenues, current taxes paid in by workers at that point would be able to fund 78% of promised benefits indefinitely into the future, even though we’re all living longer than planned back when the fund was being set up.
Hmmmm. In 2038, as a 1949 Baby Boomer, I will be 89 — assuming I live well beyond my expected life expectancy of 76. I would, in fact, be at exactly the age that both of my parents died. Maybe I’ll be lucky, but statistically speaking it’s unlikely that I, or most of my cohort, male and female, born before 1960, will be around at that point. Get that? This is a critical point nobody in the kill Social Security crowd likes to mention, but the truth is that by the time Social Security runs out the Trust Fund, the population it was created to try to anticipate will have basically lived on their benefits and passed on to that great beyond where Social Security checks aren’t needed anymore.
What crisis was that we were we talking about?
So here’s the real test. Will the Great Promiser of “Change We Can Believe In” take the opportunity of the latest good news from the Social Security Administration to announce that he is done talking about gutting Social Security benefits by arbitrarily slashing the annual inflation adjustment in benefit checks through an intellectual fraud called the Chained CPI? Will he stand up and vow he will veto any change Congress tries to make that would increase payroll taxes on workers or reduce benefits to retirees? Will he say he refuses to pit younger generations against their elders by pretending that Social Security is in trouble and by going along with the lie that the program “might not be there” for younger workers when they need it? Will he shrink from demanding that the wealthy and the coupon-clipping classes pay more into the fund than the pittance they currently pay, to make it whole?
If Obama were to do that, I might start believing that he’s a changed man.
Saying he’s cutting back on the drone program when his own military is warning him that the program is counter-productive, saying he is going to have the Justice Department investigate its own unconstitutional snatching of months of AP reporters’ phone records, and its criminal investigation of a Fox newsman’s interviews of a government source, are chump change. These things don’t cost the president anything. They aren’t moral stands, they don’t take any political courage, and they don’t really matter to average Americans, who, sadly, could care less about drone warfare or even press freedom. The drone campaign has killed so many people it is running out of targets, and the attacks on the press are so brazen and offensive that they risk turning even the toady corporate press into actual functional journalism outfits again.
But defending Social Security? Now that requires taking on the financial industry, which wants desperately to get its grubby hands on that $3 trillion in workers’ payroll tax money. To date this president, who has been the beneficiary of record campaign money from Wall Street over the course of his political career, and who has obligingly stuffed his cabinet with the worst examples of greedy bankers or banker sycophants from day one of his presidency, has not shown much interest in doing that.
If he and his Democratic Party want to return to the glory days of control of the White House and of majority control of the Congress, they will have to grab this opportunity to make a U-turn on Social Security, and start, uncharacteristically, defending it without compromise.
Sadly, democracy is so far gone in the US at this point that the public barely matters in Washington’ calculations anymore. Poll after poll shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans of all political persuasions, all ages and all geographic regions want Social Security preserved. Not gutted, not weakened, not altered. Preserved. If anything, people want benefits to be raised — and understandably since 53% of married retirees and 74% of unmarried retirees depend upon Social Security for over 50% of their income (one quarter of the elderly who are married, and hearly half of all those elderly living alone depend on Social Security for over 90% of their income). And remember, all those struggling old people have children and grandchildren who want to have big Social Security checks so they don’t have to support them out of their own pinched resources.
Preserving and improving Social Security could be accomplished easily by lifting the cap on income subject to the payroll tax, currently set at just $113,700 a year, and by also extending the FICA tax to short-term capital gains and putting a tiny FICA transaction tax on high-speed stock trading. The vast majority of Americans, who don’t earn that kind of money, who have no capital gains except in their retirement accounts (which would be exempt), and who don’t trade stocks in their own account, would support such a move. That means in a real democracy, such tax changes would be made in a heartbeat by a popularly elected government. Not so by a bought-and-paid-for government though, it seems clear. The wealthy don’t want to spend an extra penny to help the less fortunate, and the government they buy doesn’t seem to want to make them.
But here’s the real point. If it were true that President Obama is feeling beleaguered by the conservatives on the bench, in control of the House, and in a position to block significant action in the Senate, and if he were genuinely feeling the need to re-inspire the progressive base that elected him to the White House, tinkering with his drone program is not going to cut it. Coming out foursquare in defense of Social Security would.
I for one am not holding my breath.
DAVE LINDORFF is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).