Opposing the American Death Panel
Nancy Altman and Eric Kingson Co-Directors of Social Security Works have written an article called “Has Obama created a Social Security ‘death panel’? In the article they raise questions about the composition, process, and intentions of the President’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform and say:
”We write to raise questions and encourage press inquiry now, before the commission reports, at which point its recommendations could be on track and moving fast.”
And the questions they raise include:
”Q. Have the members of the Commission made up their minds, at least with respect to the broad outlines, making the whole exercise simply an effort by elected officials to escape political accountability?
Q. Why is the Commission apparently working so closely with billionaire Peter G. Peterson, who served in the Nixon administration and who has a clear ideological agenda?”
”Q. Why the urgent focus on Social Security? In the past, Social Security has always been considered under the normal legislative process, with the opportunity for full amendments. According to the program’s actuaries, it is able to pay all benefits in full and on time for over a quarter of a century. Even its most diehard critics, who try mightily to convince the rest of us that the program is in crisis, can’t mount an argument that there is a problem for another five years or so. So what is the rush? What is the need for such an unaccountable, fast-tracked process when one has never been needed before? Why, in spite of the evidence that Social Security is working as intended and that there is growing need for the kind of broad and reliable protection provided under the program, is it being singled out by Bowles and Simpson and seemingly by the White House for a major trimming?”
”Q. The American public has stated in a number of polls that they prefer to increase the program’s revenue, even if it means them paying more, rather than reducing the benefits that are so vital to almost all its beneficiaries. . . . So why does the commission seem so determined to ignore the views of the American people, and insist that there must be benefit cuts?”
”Q. The members of the commission wrap themselves in the mantle of their children and grandchildren. . . . but what about everyone else’s grandchildren? Especially those lacking privileged backgrounds; those more likely to need strong retirement, disability and survivorship protections as they grow and raise their own families and hopefully eventually reach retirement age? If these commissioners’ focus is on all grandchildren, shouldn’t they be more focused on investments today to ensure that their parents have good-paying jobs and that they can receive a first rate education? Why do they seem so intent on cutting the benefits of that future generation?
”Q. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, are there efforts to buy off the press? Just in time for this commission, Mr. Peterson, not content to buy access, has now used his fortune to establish his own news service, so the story gets reported his way. . . . “
In addition to these very important questions, Altman and Kingson, include another paragraph labeled “Q” that mentions Peter G. Peterson’s long term fight against Social Security, his funding of Commission Staff, America Speaks and other current activities indicating his close relationship to the Commission. But they never actually put a question about these activities.
All the questions raised by Altman and Kingson are very good ones, and are certainly questions the Press should look into (especially, since, as they also point out there are indications that the Commission is preparing an austerity agenda in secret that it will hide until after the Congressional elections, and then will try to ram through the lame duck Congress before it adjourns). But, curiously, the most important questions of all for the Press to investigate were left out of their article.
Those questions are:
1) Is there really a deficit problem for the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform and the US Government to respond to in the first place?
2) Is there an emerging solvency problem either for any of our entitlement programs, or for any other US Government programs? Or, in other words, are we, as the President, and the other deficit terrorists say: “running out of money”?
3) Will there be a need for an austerity program, or any solvency risk for any of our Grandchildren, if the Government continues to run deficits indefinitely?
And 4) Is the whole deficit terrorist position of the President, The Commission, and the Peterson Foundation and related interest groups based on an erroneous and misleading analysis of our economic situation?
Altman and Kingson are not the only ones who won’t ask these last very central questions. Jane Hamsher in a blog post calling attention to the Altman/Kingson article says:
It’s going to be important to tell the tale of Peterson’s inexorable march and diffuse the notion that the Commission is simply responding to temporal economic factors. This is class war, pure and simple. The rich against the poor. Hedge fund billionaires and defense contractors against senior citizens struggling to get by. Altman and Kingson have done us all a tremendous favor by opening up the discourse and asking important questions that need to be answered before the Commission makes its report on December. That’s just in time to jam it through a lame duck Congress before the Christmas break, something both John Conyers and John Boehner have warned about — a repeat of what Bowles planned to do in the 90s.
Just so. That is what they’re fixing to do, or at least try, and it is a class war, or at least one of an emerging plutocracy against the rest of us. And because it is, it is very important to recognize and defeat one of the primary ideological tools that the elites use against the rest of us. That tool is the belief that fiscal responsibility and fiscal sustainability require balancing the budget, reducing the national debt, or failing these things, maintaining a certain arbitrary, pre-specified, public debt-to-GDP ratio. That is what Peterson and his allies are preaching, and that’s what underlies their arguments about why SS and Medicare must be cut.
One can argue effectively against Peterson, by raising the questions of Altman and Kingson, or as Jane does, by attacking the process involved in the Commission’s deliberations and Peterson’s involvement in and influence over the process and by making the point that the whole thing is very undemocratic. One can also point out that even from the point of view of the concerns of the deficit terrorists, there is no real problem with SS. One can also point out that far from cutting Medicare, it would be better for the American economy if Medicare coverage were expanded. All these things are true, and arguments like these and others may defeat Peterson and his allies this time and save SS and Medicare.
However, if we want to win the "class war" we need to do more than just save SS and Medicare. We need to raise the additional questions that Altman, Kingson, and Jane Hamsher haven’t raised about the legitimacy of the deficit terrorists’ whole conceptual framework. We need to undermine and defeat the neo-liberal notion that deficits, the national debt, and debt-to-GDP ratios somehow measure fiscal responsibility or sustainability, and also that they are important as causes of our poor economic condition. These ideas are false. They are pure myth. They are based on a confusion between the Federal Government and other entities including States in our Federal system, Eurozone nations, and households that aren’t sovereign in their own currencies. They are a distraction from the broader question of what the Government should be doing to enable and facilitate achieving public purposes, and they are also a distraction from evaluating all legislation from the viewpoint of its impact on achieving these purposes.
There’s a growing literature questioning the legitimacy of the foundations of the Peterson/Administration position. In a comment on Jane’s post, selise refers us to Randy Wray’s very good recent piece on deficits. Captjjyossarian adds two other references. Other important statements are here, here, and here.
These advance the contrasting point of view on fiscal sustainability. The point of view that was expressed in the Fiscal Sustainability Teach-In Counter-Conference, that is expressed in the audios and presentations offered here, and that will be expressed in the videos and transcripts from the Teach-In which will be released soon. That point of view is important because it strips away all the fiscally-based excuses of the Administration and the elite for not meeting existing American problems with legislative programs that will be effective, but will cost money. It relates not only to the non-existent solvency problems of Medicare and SS, it also relates to the programs we need, but will not legislate, relating to full employment, adopting enhanced Medicare for All, fixing our broken educational system and our infrastructure, protecting our environment, acting against global warming, and developing alternative energy foundations for our economy.
I ask that Altman and Kingson, Jane Hamsher, and others who want to oppose the deficit hysteria, consider and eventually use the alternative point of view I’ve referenced in pursuing their critique of “the cat food commission,” the Administration, and their allies. Asking the more fundamental questions about whether we really have deficit, or solvency problems won’t detract from the power of other current critiques, but it will broaden the scope of the issues and make clear that “the cat food commission” is not just about what might happen to SS and Medicare. It’s also about lost decades, ruined futures, and an America in continuing decline.
And beyond America, since much of the world follows our examples, both good and bad, it’s also about lost decades, ruined futures and regress for people all over the world who follow the deficit terrorist example the United States may set. It’s about the Eurozone splitting apart because the people of its member nations lose patience with an austerity imposed on them by an elite who doesn’t think that austerity applies to them. It’s about an Australia whose Labor Government betray its roots and insists on austerity, whatever the impact it may have on employment. It’s about a United Kingdom that in the name of austerity will cut back on the welfare state and expose its middle class and working class citizens to wholly unnecessary hardships. In short, “the Cat Food Commission” is about much more than simply a threat to SS and Medicare. It’s about the continued triumph of an economic ideology that threatens both real democracy and the betterment of the human condition all over the world.
To save Social Security and Medicare permanently, and to create an open future for all of us in the bargain, we need to defeat that ideology and its view of the world, and to come to understand that there are no fiscally responsible excuses for the Governments of nations to avoid taking the measures needed to solve the problems of the nations over which they preside.