Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Good Day to Meme

I saw this meme on Facebook today, just a day after I read Richard Seymour's post on memes at Lenin's Tomb.  As is sometimes the case, it's fair enough as long as you keep your partisan blinders on: yes, the Republican candidates are not good on Social Security and Medicare.   But neither are the Democrats.  Obama also wants to raise the retirement age and cut benefits for future generations; as I've already mentioned, he has been quite open and consistent about this, and we can expect him to make a move after the elections, no matter how they turn out.  Former President Bill Clinton, who's been getting a lot of adulation from Democrats lately, was interested in privatizing Social Security until he got entangled in the sex scandal that almost cost him his office.  Obama even said during the first presidential debate that on Social Security, he suspected that he and Romney have "a somewhat similar position."  So what's his grade?

Go back to that last link for a moment, where Obama declared his agreement with Romney on Social Security.
Indeed, Romney, in his book "No Apology," said he backs changing the payment structure for Social Security benefits and said that there is a "certain logic" to increasing the retirement age at which one begins to receive Social Security payments, while protecting those who may be physically unable to work.

"Many older Americans are healthy, vital, and want to stay engaged in meaningful work," he wrote. "If we increased the retirement age, we would encourage seniors to stay healthier longer, keep their minds active and alert, and at the same time, we would relieve the terrible Social Security burden our children and grandchildren face."
That's some interesting sleight-of-hand going on there.  It reminded me of something an old friend from high school said the other day on this very subject: he also said that he wasn't interested in retiring, he wasn't happy unless he was working.  He said he'd retire when his health failed and he could no longer work.  But "the retirement age" doesn't mean the age at which you must retire; it means the age at which you can retire, if you wish to and if you can afford it.  Someone like Joe doesn't want to retire yet, so he doesn't have to.

This same move kept turning up during the fuss earlier this year, over the requirement that employees' health care plans must include contraception coverage.  The Right talked as though employees would be required to use contraception, whether or not they needed or wanted to.  But they wouldn't, any more than I have to have surgery every year just because my insurance plan covers it.  Do Republicans actually believe that "the retirement age" means mandatory retirement at that age?  Some do, I suspect.  So, I suspect, do some Democrats, and if Obama moves to raise the retirement age as he has said he wants to do, many of them will use exactly this argument to defend him.

I retired last year at the age of 60, and began drawing my state pension but not (yet) Social Security.  Quite a number of my age mates had done so at the same age or younger, not because they were infirm (though some were), but because they were eligible for a pension, or (like me) took advantage of an early-retirement incentive plan.  Yes, employers, public and private, often want their high-seniority workers to retire early, and will sweeten the deal with lump-sum payments and other incentives.  I know US military personnel who retired after twenty years -- which means, in their forties -- with full pensions, often quite comfortable since they were officers.  Some of them started new careers while continuing to draw their pensions.  Would Romney or Obama care to tell them that they are contributing to the tax burden of their children and grandchildren?  (If so, I'd enjoy watching.)

If anything, it's raising the retirement age and cutting benefits -- the same thing, really, in different guises -- that will increase the burden on coming generations by increasing the numbers of indigent seniors.  As Dean Baker wrote recently, cutting benefits "might be reasonable policy if we had some cause to believe that workers in the future will be better prepared for retirement than current retirees; however there is no evidence to support this view."

Earlier retirement, say at 62, doesn't contribute to any burden of present or future taxpayers anyhow: Social Security is fully funded by the contributions that go into the Social Security Trust Fund.  The same is true of the state pension I'm now drawing, as far as I know.  The currently diminishing interval before the Social Security fund will start giving out more money than it takes in is due in large part to drastically lower growth in the US economy.  I recall seeing, when I first began paying attention to this issue a decade ago, that the official estimates were based on the assumption of 2 percent growth per year -- which at that time was a very conservatively low assumption: growth was higher than 2 percent at that time.  Thanks to the economic policies that produced the crash of 2008, economic growth has slowed to less than 2 percent per year.  I'm not saying that was deliberate, but it was convenient for opponents of Social Security, and the overall lowered growth hasn't hurt the rich.  So one way -- practical and better in the long run, though unpopular among the richest Americans -- to protect Social Security would be policies that foster economic growth.

Another would be meaningful job growth, by which I don't mean minimum-wage, no-benefits jobs of the kind that most people are scrambling for since Reaganism took over this country in the 1980s.  Whether this is possible given the current political climate, it is necessary.  I've been seeing more journalists and economists raising the same question that a working-class interviewee in one of Michael Moore's films asked years ago: If all the jobs go overseas and people in the US can't earn a living wage, who's going to buy the products of American companies?  The answer, it turned out, was people overseas, buying products made by American companies in other countries: automobiles made by Jeep in Chinese factories for sale in China, for example, where the profit margin is higher.  Which is fine for the people who'll rake in those profits, but not for the rest of us.  (True, computers and other electronic gadgets have gotten progressively cheaper, which is fine as long as you have electricity; but try eating them.)

The US economy could support Social Security easily, and probably Medicare too.  The trouble with Medicare is that our privately-controlled profit-driven health insurance system is wasteful and, well, profit-driven, not directed by people's actual health care needs.  The Medicare system is cost-efficient itself, but is not allowed to have much effect on the costs of health care and medication.  Private insurance companies, even constrained slightly by the Affordable Care Act, are about making money, not about people's health.  And in these areas, there really is little if anything to choose between Obama and Romney.  I give them both an F.