August 2010, Week 4


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Wed, 25 Aug 2010 22:10:17 -0400
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The Latest Bi-Partisan Attack on Social Security

Let Them Eat Cat Food 

James Ridgeway
This Can't Be Happening
August 23, 2010

President Obama's Deficit Commission is all smoke and
mirrors. Its members are making a big show of laboring
over "painful" choices and considering all options in
their quest to bring down the deficit. But  inside the
Beltway everyone knows what's going to happen: The
commission will reduce the deficit on the backs of the
old and the poor, through cuts to Social Security,
Medicare, and Medicaid. Some opponents have taken to
calling it the Cat Food Commission, since that's what
it's victims will be forced to eat once the commission
gets done slashing away at their modest entitlements.

In fact, the true intent of the Deficit Commission was
evident before it was even formed. That intent was only
driven home when Obama appointed as its co-chair Alan
Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming who
is well known for voicing, in the most colorful terms,
what Paul Krugman calls the zombie lie" that old-age
entitlements will soon bankrupt the country.

So why the big show? Because neither Obama nor the
Congress wants to get caught cutting Social Security
and Medicare in public, certainly not before the
November elections. (Medicaid will be cut as well, but
politicians tend not to worry so much about poor
people, since they don't go to the polls in the numbers
we middle-class geezers do.) So instead, they are
foisting off this unpleasant task onto the Deficit
Commission, showing what the lawyers call "due
diligence," sucking their thumbs and pretending to
study how to cut the deficit. They've got $1 billion in
walk-around money to pay for propaganda so the PR
industry ought to be plenty happy. So too, should
billionaire Pete Peterson, as he and his foundation
lackeys push forward towards a victory in their
longstanding attack on so-called "entitlements."

Quite frankly, if the Republican Right could get itself
together and shove the Tea Party nuts back into their
cave-as Reagan did with the crackpots hanging around
him-they too could reap the benefits of the Cat Food
Commission's work. Ever since the New Deal, the Right
has been kicking and screaming about Social Security.
Things just got worse in the 1960s with Medicare and
Medicaid. And now, thanks to our supposedly "socialist"
president, they are within a few inches of cutting a
nice hefty hunk out of the largest social programs this

But just when it looks like the right wingers have
collected themselves, the nutcases throw spanners into
the works. This time it's not the TeaParty, but
economists from the Federal Reserve and intellectuals
from NYU and Harvard. Four of these people have united
to publish an 8-page paper via Boston College's Center
for Retirement Research last month entitled ``What is
the Age of Reason?''

This paper is about what to do when old people start
losing their marbles, plunging into dementia,
euphemistically called ``Cognitive Decline among Older
Adults,'' and simply aren't up to such basic tasks as
investing their own money.To save these poor fools from
themselves, the intellectuals propose ``possible policy
choices,'' including such anemic remedies as full
disclosure in such things as mutual fund and 401(k)
fees.The authors doubt disclosure will have much
import. Then there is the intriguing prospect of
``Financial `Driving Licenses," which would require
``that individuals pass a `license' test before being
allowed to make nontrivial financial decisions,such as
opting out of `safe harbor' investment products.''
Another scheme envisions ``mandatory advance
directives. It is described as follows:``One direct way
to address the impact of cognitive decline on financial
decision-making would be to require older adults to put
in place a financial advance directive before reaching
a certain age, so that the management of their assets
could be transferred to a third party in the event of

Get the picture? Cuts in entitlements, including Social
Security and Medicare, will be accompanied by a push to
get people to invest part of their Social Security
income in Wall Street so as to make up what is being
lost in the cuts. And since we are to believe that old
people are going crackers, why then, wouldn't it make
more sense to let Wall Street take charge and invest
the money directly? That would save a lot of hassle and
bring about a windfall in earnings. Remember how we
made so much money in our 401(k)s in the recent
recession that we all went broke? Wouldn't it be fun to
do it all over again?

It's going to take a lot to waylay the likely course of
future events:  The Cat Food Commission will
undoubtedly recommend, and a lame duck Congress will
pass, legislation that looks fairly innocuous: trimming
Social Security a bit, maybe by upping the age by a few
years, and cutting a little from Medicare-none of it
affecting anyone who is over 65 right now. That will
enable the politicians now in office to look like they
are protecting seniors and fending off any drastic
cuts, while at the same time appearing "tough" on the
deficit. But the legislation, in the usual Washington
mode, will gradually widen as the years go by, so that
by the time this bunch of pols are retired (on their
fat pensions) and out of the fray, the new rules will
be eating  into entitlements in a big way.

The other side of this Faustian bargain would appear to
be Congress passing some tax increases. "In setting up
his National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and
Reform," William Greider recently wrote in The Nation,
"Barack Obama is again playing coy in public, but his
intentions are widely understood among Washington
insiders." As Greider puts it, "The president intends
to offer Social Security as a sacrificial lamb to
entice conservative deficit hawks into a grand
bipartisan compromise in which Democrats agree to cut
Social Security benefits for future retirees while
Republicans accede to significant tax increases to
reduce government red ink."

It remains to be seen how "significant" those tax
increases actually turn out to be. But even former
Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan seems to be on
board with this general plan. Greenspan's credentials
include chairing the first major entitlement-cutting
commission back in the 1980s, as well as promoting the
Bush-era tax cuts that helped the deficit grow to its
current proportions. He still says that reductions to
Medicare benefits are necessary-but in a recent
interview in the New York Times, Greenspan also says
that he now wants to remove all the Bush tax cuts.
Seeing as it comes from the champion of "let them eat
cake" economics, this pronouncement must be seen as
predictor of how conservatives could end up voting. In
short, the old and the poor will have to eat cat food,
but the rich might kick in a few crumbs as well.

JAMES RIDGEWAY, an occasional columnist with
ThisCantBeHappening.net, is senior Washington
correspondent for Mother Jones Magazine. For 30 years
he was Washington correspondent for the Village Voice.
He has his own blog called Unsilent Generation


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