Recently, (only) 24 Congressional Democrats promised to vote against any cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. That's about 10% of Congressional Democrats, and it's a promise - and politicians don't always keep promises. There may be a few elected officials who will entirely protect these vital programs, but the contrast with large majorities of the public who want these programs protected from any cuts is dramatic.
The campaign to cut Social Security is coming from both Republicans and Democrats, sometimes in subtle ways - such as the plan to change the cost-of-living adjustments so benefits will fall further and further behind inflation each year.
There are a number of excuses used for undermining these popular services. One is that the "baby boomer" generation is a big generation and is about to retire. That is supposed to mean comparatively smaller generations of working people will be paying into the Social Security funds in order to pay the bills for the comparatively larger retired population.
The first thing to remember about this situation is - at worst - it's temporary. As time goes by the baby boomers will pass away. Any solution which may be necessary need not be a permanent one. But clearly, the attacks on Social Security are aimed at permanent changes.
Another point those attacking Social Security will not address is the question of where the funding for Social Security comes from. Its primary source is payroll taxes taken from working people. (To be more precise, a special tax only on wages which is only calculated on wages up to about $100,000. Those who have far larger wages don't have to pay based on their entire salary.) But why should that be? A working person labors for several decades before receiving Social Security and Medicare. That's a large contribution to society - one which deserves rewards, including a decent retirement. A person who is born into a wealthy family, who never works a day in his life, doesn't contribute decades of his life to providing society with goods and services. That person should pay more financially towards government services than someone who labored for decades. But today, that idle rich person pays nothing in Social Security taxes (and his capital gains have a special income tax rate half what would be charged for an equal amount of wages). If we can't afford Social Security for those who worked and paid payroll taxes for it, how can we afford people who never work a day in their lives and live in luxury?
There's another crucial point. We've known for decades the baby boomer generation was larger, was paying into Social Security and creating big surpluses in the Social Security fund while they worked, and would eventually retire and collect benefits.
The strongest advocates of cutting Social Security are the kinds of people who argue that government should be run more like a financially-sound company. Well, what would a financially-sound company do if it knew it had surpluses of money coming in during the present time, but in a number of years would be facing additional expenses? Answer: It would spend that surplus money in a way so its operations would minimize those extra expenses in the future. It would look at what third party companies it was paying to do work that it could do itself. It would expand the company to be able to do what those third parties were doing now - and save money that way.
Social Security could do the same thing. A couple of years ago, CBS 60 Minutes had a segment on fraudulent medical supply distributors. Phantom medical supply companies were stealing tens of billions from Medicare each year by submitting bills for medical supplies they claimed to have provided to Medicare patients. It was tricky for Medicare to catch all of these crooks and ensure that patients got their supplies in a timely manner. If Social Security were to create its own medical supply distribution network, it could eliminate both the billions in fraud, plus simply eliminate the middle man. Rather than paying a business which provides medical supplies to patients, runs a billing department to send bills to Medicare and gives profits to the owners - Social Security would do the job itself. It could save money to keep Social Security well-funded.
There are various other ways Social Security might be able to save money by doing the job itself. If Social Security ran senior apartment complexes, when seniors paid their rent, that money would go back into Social Security. If Medicare produced some of its own drugs, it would be paying itself for its operating expenses rather than paying a for-profit company.
If the government were following this kind of approach to bolster Social Security rather than trying to shrink Social Security, Americans would have confidence that Social Security would always be there. Americans might then see Social Security as a safe place to invest their savings. We don't want personal investments to replace guaranteed Social Security benefits - we've seen that can be disastrous. However, there are Americans who want to put aside retirement saving above and beyond what they will get in Social Security pensions. If they saved that money with Social Security, the Social Security Administration could collect a fee which would help fund the program.
There's one way this might not provide Social Security with additional funds. Some of the people working for private companies may be paid less than people who would do these jobs for the Social Security Administration. But that's not such a bad dilemma. We simply have to choose whether we want Social Security to pay these employees similar to what they'd be paid working in the private sector (which creates more funding for Social Security), or whether we want to provide those employees a better standard of living although it wouldn't contribute as much toward Social Security benefits.
In any case, these are the kinds of choices we could take if our starting point was to provide the best possible lives for the people who work for decades to provide society with food, housing, health care, transportation and all our other needs.
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Those who are more concerned with helping business may argue that the US Constitution doesn't permit the federal government to run the kinds of businesses I suggest Social Security could operate. At best, any such limitation in the Constitution is one which is selectively applied depending on what is convenient to big business.
Those who would argue Social Security could not operate a program for individuals to invest savings, will not tell you it's unconstitutional for the Federal Reserve to lend money to huge corporations at interest rates far below the market rate. Or that it's unconstitutional for the federal government to let regular folks invest in US Savings Bonds and folks with more money to invest in Treasury Bonds.
They'd argue that Social Security can't distribute medical supplies to the sick and disabled, but when private companies can't make enough of a profit on passenger train travel the government can run Amtrak.
They'd say Medicare can't make it's own medications, but it will allow the National Institute of Health to do research which medical companies may later use to make profits without having to do their own research.
When private insurance companies don't want to gamble entirely with their own money, they'll let the federal government get involved in flood insurance.
The only consistency in the application of these rules is to benefit businesses rather than the vast majority of our citizens.
Even if you believe private companies can usually do things better than the government, it would be foolish to think there are no exceptions to the rule. As a matter of fact, we've seen examples of what companies won't or can't do themselves. The duty of the government is to act in the interests of the majority, not the business minority. So, it is the job of the government to do these things at least in some cases. It makes no sense for it to be unconstitutional.
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Does Social Security still have the surpluses to take these actions?
If action was taken swiftly, I think that at least some moves in this direction could be taken. Of course, the reality is, this won't happen at all until our politicians aren't siding with big business as they have been. Businesses have been exerting pressure to prevent these kinds of financially-sound policies which would benefit the working majority in this country. They are the ones who insisted on policies which allowed a temporary decline in the Social Security fund. Those companies profited as a result of government policies that sided with the business minority. If the Social Security fund no longer has enough surplus to do what is needed, then we need to make those companies put more into the fund now.
Whether or not we can get the rich to pay their fair share and support the Social Security fund as they should, we have to demand no cuts now just because they haven't done what they needed to in the past.