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The Looming Battle for Real Social Security Can Spawn a New Progressive Movement

Optimistic Thought for the New Year

by DAVE LINDORFF

I don’t care if you are 75 and retired, 61 and just about to reach the age when you become eligible for Social Security, 50 and looking out 15 or 20 years to the time when you’ll need to retire, or 25 with grandparents collecting retirement benefits and wondering what will be there when you get old. Whatever your age, don’t let anyone tell you Social Security is in trouble, or that it “won’t be around” when you need it.

That’s a hoary lie that has been pushed by Republicans as far back as 1935 when Social Security was being established, by leaders like President Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and by corporate lobby groups like the Business Round Table and the US Chamber of Commerce. It’s also been pushed by Democrats like President Clinton and President Obama.

Some, like Bush, have tried to use the lie to convince people to support getting rid of Social Security and replacing it with private investment funds. Others, like Clinton and Obama, have used the lie to try to get the public to agree to cutbacks in Social Security benefits, or to delays in the age of eligibility for benefits. In the most recent iteration of the scam, President Obama has been calling for a shift in the way the Social Security Administration calculates inflation in setting new benefit levels each year, substituting a so-called “chained” Consumer Price Index for the traditional CPI. (In the chained version, appropriately called the cat-food index, instead of looking what has happened to a “market basket” of goods and services people typically use, economists would substitute cheaper or lower-quality goods for goods whose price had risen too much — for example chicken for steak, beans for chicken, Fiats for Fords, bus and subway tokens for commuter rail tickets, smaller apartments, etc.)

The truth is that there is not a chance in hell that Social Security is going to go bust, or get cancelled. There isn’t even a chance in hell that Social Security benefits will be cut, at least over the long term. Why? Because there are 78 million Baby Boomers — one fourth of the entire population of the US — a group whose older members, born between 1946 and 1951, are already old enough to start collecting benefits, and who will increasingly be filing for benefits (technically the Baby Boom is a wave of babies that were born between 1946 and 1964).

Today, there are some 40 million people in the US who are 65 or older. That’s 13% of the total population, and about 25% of the adult population. That number will double to 80 million by 2030, while the total US population, according to the Census Bureau, is expected to rise by only 13% to 358 million by then. This means that the retirement-age elderly that year will constitute nearly 25% of the population, instead of just half that share as they do today. Now consider the impressive political power of the current “senior lobby,” as it is called, and ask yourself whether a lobby nearly twice that size in percentage terms could be stomped on by Washington.

The answer, even if the Baby Boomers of 2030 were to prove as relatively politically passive as todays’ retirees, is “no.” But I think it’s safe to say that the population that came of age politically in the 1960s and 1970s is not going to be as passive and submissive as the generation that preceded it, i.e. their parents. Remember, we’re talking about a generation that marched and fought for civil rights, to end the Indochina War, and to demand women’s rights, that shut down schools and universities across the nation in 1970 after the Kent State massacre (and that made marijuana essentially a household product in the face of massive official repression!).

Critics may say that the Baby Boomer opposition to the Vietnam War was motivated by selfishness. As a participant and a draft resister, I know that is not true. For one thing, half the protesters against the war were women, who were exempt from the draft, and besides, there were just as many men marching on Washington with draft lottery numbers safely in the two hundred and three hundred range as there were those like me in the double digits, and there were returned veterans marching with us. But even if we were to assume for sake of argument that the anti-war movement was an act of self-interest, that should terrify a ruling class that wants to gut Social Security. Why? Because the battle to save, and to improve the benefits of Social Security will also be in the self-interest of those same Baby Boomers.

The main difference I see between this struggle and ones that came before is that when these new protests begin in earnest — and they will — these new grey-haired and hirsute marchers and sit-in protesters will not be unarmed and unprotected against the inevitable police assaults as were protesters of yore. Many will be equipped with metal walkers that will entangle the steeds of mounted police, and metal canes that will provide protection against police clubs. Significantly, our numbers will also include many veterans of America’s years of protest in the ’60s and ’70s, as well as many veterans of America’s foreign wars, reminiscent of the Bonus Marchers of the 1920s.

The enemies of Social Security will not be able to demonize these protesters as “Commies” or as traitors to America, as they did demonstrators in the ‘60s. This time the protesters will be the parents and grandparents of ordinary Americans, who will be there too to support their parents’ and grandparents’ — and their own — right to a decent retirement. (Have you ever met a young person who complained about the size of her or his grandparents’ Social Security check? I haven’t.)

My usually spot-on Counterpunch magazine colleague Mike Whitney recently wrote a piece [1] in that publication warning that no one can count on being able to retire anymore, but while I usually agree with Mike’s analyses, I think he’s dead wrong on this one.

The desperation that the enemies of Social Security are showing lately is because they realize that the tidal wave of Baby Boom retirees has already started to hit the beach, and will soon wash them away like the flotsam of Fukushima. They had hoped to already have buried Social Security by now, but it’s too late. Already we are witnessing a growing number of elected officials like Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren calling for expanding Social Security. Already a significant caucus in both Houses, their numbers will only grow.

Inevitably, Americans will start to look abroad and discover [2] that in European countries, employers are paying into those nations’ social security schemes taxes equal to 17-30% of payroll, compared to the measly 6.2% FICA tax paid by US employers. They will also see that in European countries, public social security typically is the only retirement funding people have, and that it doesn’t leave them in or on the edge of poverty, but rather allows them to continue their pre-retirement standard of living. They will also notice that this is being accomplished without making these countries “uncompetitive in world markets” — the common cautionary cry of the corporate leadership in America.

The battle to defend and to expand Social Security and to put an end to the fraud of 401(k) do-it-yourself retirement is at hand, and it will surely be bitter, but the working and retiring public has the upper hand. The more the politicians and their corporate paymasters seek to attack Social Security, the broader and more powerful the progressive defenders will become, for this is a battle that affects every worker in America.

In fact, I see the looming struggle for real social security as the key to the birth of a new American progressive movement — one that can finally erase all the artificial divisions of religion, sex, sexual orientation, race, region and class that have been used over the past few decades by the ruling classes to defeat progressive change. And as those artificial divisions fall away, there will inevitably be an opening to introduce other progressive issues that also concern most people — the need for Medicare for all, for quality education for all, for an end to tax breaks for corporations and the rich, for dramatic cuts in the military budget and for an end to US Empire, to militarized police and to the National Security State, and finally, the need for real action to combat that terrible threat to our children and children’s children: catastrophic climate change.

A battle over Social Security? Bring it on!

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).