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Would You Trust Henry Kissinger with Your Social Security?

Thursday, June 16th, 2016

Years ago a political scientist said that the mass media can’t influence what people think, but it can influence what people think about. Today it does both. If you’re a billionaire who wants to manipulate public opinion, that means you’ll keep feeding it stories that serve your ideology and self-interest.

Hedge fund billionaire Peter G. “Pete” Peterson is a master of the art. At a time when 47 million Americans (including one child in five) live in poverty, when our national infrastructure is collapsing and the middle class dream is dying before our eyes, he’s managed to convince a few voters, a lot of politicians, and far too many major-media journalists that our most urgent problem is … federal deficit spending.

They don’t just want you to be concerned about it. They want you to be afraid.

The front for this effort (one of many assembled by the Peterson Foundation) is called “The Coalition for Fiscal and National Security,” and they’ve assembled a list of prominent figures to promote it. Let us consider the message, and the messengers.

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The group’s mantra is a statement that retired Admiral Mike Mullen first made when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

“The single biggest threat to our national security is our debt.”

That’s a surprisingly bold and naive proclamation, especially from someone of Mullen’s stature. It takes a lot of imagination, and some highly implausible assumptions, to believe that our national security is really endangered by federal deficits.

The Peterson Foundation provides both, of course. Unfortunately its manipulated facts and figures fail to make their case, even when taken at face value.

What would a rational list of nonmilitary risks look like? Climate change would almost certainly top the list. Many military experts already consider it a grave national security threat. A bipartisan group of 48 defense leaders and experts – including, perhaps paradoxically, some of the Peterson group’s signatories – signed a full-page ad let year entitled “Republicans and Democrats Agree: U.S. Security Demands Global Climate Action.”

One defense expert called climate change “the mother of all risks.”

It’s easy to see why. Rising sea levels threaten many of our coastal towns and cities, including most of lower Manhattan. Millions of Americans are likely to become internal refugees in their own country, posing the risk of widespread lawlessness and instability.

Climate change is expected to trigger a number of future conflicts around the globe, as nations and peoples compete for increasingly scarce resources. Some scientists believe that climate change contributed to the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Wealth inequality also belongs near the top of the list. Extreme inequality makes a society unstable. Today millions are trapped in poverty while the20 richest Americans own more wealth than half the entire nation – some 150 million people in 57 million households.

Persistent poverty plagues minority communities, while the 400 richest Americans own more than the nation’s entire African-American population (plus one-third of this nation’s Latinos). There are growing rates of suicide, opioid overdose, and deaths from alcoholism among lower-income whites. Economist Anne Case calls them “deaths of despair.”

What will happen if the middle class continues to collapse, if poverty remains inescapable for generation after generation, if most people face working years filled with dashed hopes and retirements plagued by penury?

Despair can turn to rage, sometimes without warning.

That’s one reason why it’s especially imprudent for the corporate-friendly “Coalition” to target Social Security, along with the rest of the social safety net. Sure, they try to sound reasonable. They even mention cutting the military budget (although they tip their hand by emphasizing military health care and payroll expenses, rather than cost overruns or expensive weapons systems.)

But they always turn to social programs, sometimes with not-so-subtle transitions like this: “Defense spending is the largest single category of discretionary spending… In 2015, it was second only to Social Security spending.”

See what they did there?

There’s little chance of getting tax increases or cuts in military spending through this Congress or the next, and they know it. The drumbeat for lower deficits only serves to undermine the social safety net – when we should be spending more to rebuild our economy.

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When a group uses prominent people to promote its arguments, it’s prudent to ask: Who are these people? Can we trust them? Are they wise and just?

Well, there’s former Michael Hayden, who headed both the NSA and the CIA. History will remember Hayden for giving sworn testimony to Congress that contained numerous falsehoods, as documented by the Senate Subcommittee on Intelligence. (Experts say it’s very difficult to convict someone for lying to Congress, but it’s still wrong — and illegal.)

Hayden signed off on detainee abuses that he argues were not technically“torture.” He insists other torturers have done much worse, in case that’s your moral standard.

Madeleine Albright’s on the list too. She was widely criticized for answering “we think the price is worth it” when asked about the Iraqi children who died as the result of sanctions against Iraq.

But the most prominent name on the list is Henry Kissinger’s. Is Kissinger credible?  It’s true that he’s popular among media and political elites, but that sad fact only serves to remind us that some memories are short – and that, for some people, the ties of social status outweigh those of morality and decency.

It was Kissinger who reportedly fed confidential information to then-candidate Richard Nixon – information that was used to sabotage the Vietnam peace talks, extracting a massive toll in human lives just to boost Nixon’s election chances.

It was Kissinger who delivered the illegal order to bomb Cambodia and Laos. More bomb material rained down on these tiny nations than was used in all of World War II. His actions cost countless lives and gave rise to the mad, massacring Pol Pot regime.

It was Kissinger who ignored the pleadings of a US diplomat and gave the green light to Pakistani atrocities in what is now Bangladesh, praisingPakistan’s dictator for his “delicacy and tact” while ridiculing those who “bleed” for “the dying Bengalis.”

“Yahya hasn’t had so much fun since the last Hindu massacre!” Kissinger said of Pakistani dictator Yahya Khan. (The government of Bangladesh reported that 3,000,000 people died in the “fun.”)

Kissinger supported the violent overthrow of the Chilean government by a right-wing dictator. Kissinger gave the go-ahead to the Indonesian government’s massacre of from 100,000 to 230,000 people in East Timor. (Estimates vary.) Kissinger’s other offenses and blunders are too numerous to list here.

His intellect is overrated, too. Princeton professor Gary Bass writes that “Kissinger’s policies were not only morally flawed but also disastrous as Cold War strategy.”

Would you trust this man with your Social Security? Do you think he’d make wise and humane decisions about our society’s priorities?

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Sure, there are some decent people on the Coalition list. But they’ve been misled by tricksters and lulled by the groupthink that comes from decades inside a bubble of insular privilege.

And what a bubble it is. It’s a glassy gold bubble that filters out every color of the rainbow except its own, bathing its occupants in a warm autumn-colored glow as strangers shiver in the cold blue daylight outside. The bubble speaks with the voice of false authority. It’s a floating oracle with the soul of a confidence man.

But the crowd is thinning out. There are real threats to face outside the bubble: poverty, inequality, a crumbling infrastructure, a dying planet. It’s time for the bubble to disappear, as all bubbles eventually do, by blowing away on the wind or vanishing with a soft pop in the light of the midday sun.

This blog originally appeared in ourfuture.org on June 16, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Richard Eskow is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future and the host of The Zero Hour, a weekly program of news, interviews, and commentary on We Act Radio The Zero Hour is syndicated nationally and is available as a podcast on iTunes. Richard has been a consultant, public policy advisor, and health executive in health financing and social insurance. He was cited as one of “fifty of the world’s leading futurologists” in “The Rough Guide to the Future,” which highlighted his long-range forecasts on health care, evolution, technology, and economic equality. Richard’s writing has been published in print and online. He has also been anthologized three times in book form for “Best Buddhist Writing of the Year.”

Social Security’s Enemies Are Down – But They’re Not Out

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016

Not so long ago, Social Security was endangered by a “bipartisan” consensus that sought to cut its benefits – already lower than those of comparable countries – as part of a “grand bargain.” President Obama even put a slow-motion benefit cut into one of his proposed budgets, in the form of a reduction in cost-of-living increases.

And nobody talked much about raising taxes on the rich. That, they said, was “politically impossible.”

Things have changed dramatically. The Democratic president, virtually all of his party’s senators, and both its presidential candidates now say they want to expand benefits. An idea that was widely dismissed when it was proposed by Bernie Sanders is now the Democratic position. The “bipartisan” anti-Social Security army seems to be in ragged retreat, its campfires dying and its tents torn down.

But this isn’t over.

The president’s declaration is a major win for the left, as Nancy J. Altman and The Huffington Post political team explain. But the counterattack has begun.

It’s true that the anti-Social Security contingent seemed to be struggling last month at its annual convocation, the austerity-pushing “Fiscal Summit” funded by right-wing hedge fund billionaire Pete Peterson. Peterson’s been financing this movement for decades, aiding friendly politicians in both parties and backing a variety of messaging vehicles designed to disparage government’s role in the social contract.

(They include “The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget,” “Fix the Debt,” and my personal favorite, “Budgetball.”)

Peterson’s Fiscal Summits were once all the rage with luminaries on both sides of the aisle. Former President Bill Clinton’s been a frequent attendee. (Not this year, though. Wonder why?)

This year’s event wasn’t the same. Sure, some politicians showed up. But a melancholy torpor seemed to hang in the air. It didn’t get much coverage (Clinton’s absence undoubtedly hurt). Three or four bored reporters munched on sandwiches in the press room while being barraged by rock music like they were Manuel Noriega under siege, except that the song choices were relentlessly upbeat – “Beautiful Day” by U2, “Gimme Some Lovin” by the Spencer Davis Group, “Eye of the Tiger” by whoever sang that, “I’d Love to Change the World” by Ten Years After.

(I don’t think anyone at the Summit vetted that last song’s lyrics, which include the line “Tax the rich, feed the poor/until there ain’t no rich no more.”)

But Social Security’s adversaries are still out there. Republicans still embrace the economic austerity that has wounded Europe and hamstrung our own recovery. Democrats at the Summit kowtowed to their hosts’ fiscal fixations. And the media personalities in attendance (were they paid?) offered chipper testimonials – pitches, really – for deficit reduction.

“To paraphrase Mark Twain,” said Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin, “everybody talks about the deficit but nobody does anything about it.”

“You’re somebody who’s trying to do something about the debt and not just talk about it,” CNN’s Dana Bash said to Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) before praising the “Simpson-Bowles” deficit reduction plan – an impractical, unpopular and ultimately failed austerity proposal from former Sen. Alan Simpson and Clinton administration official Erskine Bowles – as a “solution.”

CNBC’s John Harwood recounted a “depressing” lunch with a former aide to Sen. Mitch McConnell he approvingly quoted as saying, “We can’t (fix) Social Security” – presumably a euphemism for “cut” – until “the baby boomers retire and the crisis is upon us.”

All of this fiscal folklore has been heavily promoted by Peterson-backed outfits.

Later, predictably, The Washington Post editorial board slammed the president. Democrats want “fatter checks for the elderly,” wrote the editors, for whom increasing a grandmother’s slender stipend is apparently a form of moral obesity.

The Post drew on the above-mentioned “Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget” and another Wall Street-funded group, “Third Way,” for discredited tropes like “the government spends six times as much as seniors as it does on children.” Statements like these are designed to fuel the notion of a “war between generations,” even though Social Security cuts would hurt younger people more.

Unfortunately, a lot of people in Washington still take these fictions seriously. Social Security’s adversaries are well-funded, their myths are deeply embedded in our political culture, and they’re not giving up.

Harwood, Bash, and other journalists in the Peterson umbra will keep reporting on these issues, skewing public perception.

If the Republicans win all three branches of government, Social Security will be in immediate mortal danger.

And while the rhetorical shift among Democrats is welcome, they’ll need to be held to it. Hillary Clinton’s website says she would “expand Social Security for those who need it most and who are treated unfairly by the current system.”

That’s not enough, given the current retirement crisis. The Sanders proposal, which is detailed and covers everyone, must be written into the Democratic platform. And activists must send the message that there will be dire political consequences if it isn’t honored. Otherwise, a new “grand bargain” is still a very real possibility.

The Peterson crowd’s expressed concern about government debt rarely leads them to propose tax increases on the wealthy, and never with any conviction. They’re cutters, not builders – even when it comes to Social Security, which is forbidden by law from adding to that debt. If they were real budget hawks they might consider that fiscal proposal from Ten Years After:

“Tax the rich, feed the poor …”

Say what you will about its politics, but it wouldn’t add a penny to the deficit.

This blog originally appeared in ourfuture.org on June 7, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Richard Eskow is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America’s Future and the host of The Zero Hour, a weekly program of news, interviews, and commentary on We Act Radio The Zero Hour is syndicated nationally and is available as a podcast on iTunes. Richard has been a consultant, public policy advisor, and health executive in health financing and social insurance. He was cited as one of “fifty of the world’s leading futurologists” in “The Rough Guide to the Future,” which highlighted his long-range forecasts on health care, evolution, technology, and economic equality. Richard’s writing has been published in print and online. He has also been anthologized three times in book form for “Best Buddhist Writing of the Year.”

Read our lips: Americans want to expand Social Security - not to raise the retirement age

Sunday, October 25th, 2015

seiu

The recent presidential debates reminds us that Democrats and Republicans are polar opposites when it comes to Social Security.

While many of the Democratic candidates want to bolster the program and increase benefits, GOP candidates Chris Christie, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have all called for cutting Social Security’s modest benefits by raising the retirement age.

Raising the retirement age may not be a big deal for the wealthy Americans who finance political campaigns or even politicians proposing these cuts. However, it would have a devastating impact on Americans who live paycheck to paycheck, including Patricia Walker of Tampa, Fla.

“For me as a home care worker, I couldn’t work until 70. I already have problems with my knees. I’m already trying to make it,” says Walker, who’s in her early 50s.

Although she works long hours, Walker’s low wages prevent her from being able to purchase a car let alone save money for her golden years. Social Security will be her only plan for retirement.

If Walker and other working Americans apply for Social Security’s retirement benefits before they reach the full retirement age, their benefits will be permanently reduced. For example, when someone retires at age 62, their benefit would be about 25 percent lower than it would be if they waited until they reach full retirement age.

This is a Social Security cut Republican presidential contenders seemingly want to avoid discussing while on the campaign trail.

These same candidates also seem to be ignoring the voices of voters who want lawmakers to expand Social Security; not cut its already modest benefits.

A 2014 poll from the National Academy of Social Insurance found 69 percent of Republicans, 84 percent of Democrats and 76 percent of independent voters support Social Security and they don’t mind paying higher taxes to preserve benefits for future generations. The poll also found 71 percent of Republicans, 79 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of independent voters oppose raising the full retirement age to 70.

Republicans calling for raising the retirement age may be willing to ignore the fact that income levels and life-expectancy rates remain stagnant for the poor as well as the needs of nurses, home care providers, construction workers and others with strenuous jobs that would suffer under their proposal.

One thing any presidential candidate can’t ignore is the retirement crisis looming over the United States. Our country’s next president must be willing to put ideology aside and focus on policies to deliver retirement security to more workers. That includes increasing Social Security benefits, especially for low- and middle-income workers.

Wonder what your full retirement age will be or how your monthly benefits may be reduced if you retire before your full retirement age? Click here.

This article was originally printed on SEIU in October, 2015.  Reprinted with permission.

A New Dream for Memphis Sanitation Workers

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

seiu-org-logoOn the eve of his death, Martin Luther King Jr. told a group of striking Memphis sanitation workers: “We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through.”

And that’s what Cleo Smith and other veteran Memphis sanitation workers who participated in the 1968 strike have done. After nearly 50 years, they’re closer to realizing their dreams of a dignified retirement.

Last month, Memphis City Council passed an ordinance authorizing the creation of a supplemental retirement benefit for current and future sanitation workers. Before the action, the workers only had access to Social Security upon retirement; leaving some working into their 80s because they can’t afford to retire in one of the poorest large cities in the country

The supplement retirement benefit is part of an agreement labor leaders reached recently with the mayor of Memphis. This agreement also includes a series of cost-saving measures for the sanitation department which will help fund the supplement.

It will take some time before Smith and other veteran sanitation workers receive their retirement benefits but they’re excited to have the opportunity to retire with dignity as well as honor MLK’s sacrifice.

“We’ve committed the majority of our working lives to making sure Memphis’ waste is taken care of,” Smith said. “We’ve suffered on the job injuries but pushed through year after year. Now, we’re finally getting the respect we deserve.”

This article was originally printed on SEIU on January 17, 2014.  Reprinted with permission.

Author: Keiana Greene-Page

What You Need To Know About The Michigan GOP’s ‘Right-To-Work’ Assault On Workers

Monday, December 10th, 2012

On Thursday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) backtrackedon his commitment to avoid so-called “right-to-work” legislation and by the end of the day, both the Michigan House of Representatives and the Michigan state Senate had introduced and passed separate bills aimed at the state’s union workforce.

Michigan Republicans claim the state needs the measure to stay competitive with Indiana, where lawmakers passed “right-to-work” last year. In reality, though, such laws have negative effects on workers and little effect on economic growth. Here is what you need to know about the state GOP’s campaign:

THE LEGISLATION: Both the state House and state Senate passed legislation on Thursday that prohibits private sector unions from requiring members to pay dues. The Senate followed suit and passed a different but similar measure that extends the same prohibition for public sector unions, though firefighters and police officers are exempt. The state House included a budget appropriations provision that is intended to prevent the state’s voters from being able to legally challenge the law through a ballot referendum. Due to state law, both houses are prevented from voting on legislation passed by the other for five days, so neither will be able to fully pass the legislation until Tuesday at the earliest.

THE PROCESS: Union leaders and Democrats claim that Republicans are pushing the legislation through in the lame-duck session to hide the intent of the measures from citizens, and because the legislation would face more trouble after the new House convenes in January. Michigan Republicans hold a 63-47 advantage in the state House, but Democrats narrowed the GOP majority to just eight seats in November. Six Republicans opposed the House measure; five of them won re-election in 2012 (the sixth retired). And Michigan Republicans have good reason to pursue the laws without public debate. Though the state’s voters are evenly split on whether it should become a right-to-work state, 78 percent of voters said the legislature “should focus on issues like creating jobs and improving education, and not changing state laws or rules that would impact unions or make further changes in collective bargaining.”

THE CONSEQUENCES: While Snyder and Republicans pitched “right-to-work” as a pro-worker move aimed at improving the economy, studies show such legislation can cost workers money. The Economic Policy Institute found that right-to-work laws cost all workers, union and otherwise, $1,500 a year in wages and that they make it harder for workers to obtain pensions and health coverage. “If benefits coverage in non-right-to-work states were lowered to the levels of states with these laws, 2 million fewer workers would receive health insurance and 3.8 million fewer workers would receive pensions nationwide,” David Madland and Karla Walter from the Center for American Progress wrote earlier this year. The decreases in union membership that result from right-to-work laws have a significant impact on the middle class and research “shows that there is no relationship between right-to-work laws and state unemployment rates, state per capita income, or state job growth,” EPI wrote in a recent report about Michigan. “Right-to-work” laws also decrease worker safety and can hurt small businesses.

Union leaders are, of course, aghast at Snyder and the GOP’s right-to-work push. “In a state that gave birth to the modern U.S. labor movement, it is unconscionable that Michigan legislators would seek to drive down living standards for Michigan workers and families with a law that will do nothing to improve either the state’s economic climate or the quality of life for Michigan residents,” RoseAnn DeMoro, the executive director of National Nurses United, said in a statement.

This post was originally posted on December 7, 2012 on Think Progress. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Travis Waldron is is a reporter/blogger for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Travis grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and holds a BA in journalism and political science from the University of Kentucky. Before coming to ThinkProgress, he worked as a press aide at the Health Information Center and as a staffer on Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway’s 2010 Senate campaign. He also interned at National Journal’s Hotline and was a sports writer and political columnist at the Kentucky Kernel, the University of Kentucky’s daily student newspaper.

Social Security COLA at Risk with Chained CPI Proposals

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

Today’s announcement that Social Security recipients will receive a modest increase (1.7%) in their cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) was a small but welcome boost for seniors who are seeing prices increase on necessities, from health care to food. However, even this modest increase could be jeopardized if proposals floating around in Washington to “tweak” the current COLA formula by tying it to the so-called “chained CPI” are passed.

Senior advocates and retirement experts say the current formula, the CPI-W, is already inadequate. Higher health care costs and expenses seniors face are not accurately addressed in the CPI-W.

The Alliance for Retired Americans Executive Director Edward Coyle says:

The current formula, used for today’s announcement, already badly understates the inflation experienced by seniors and disabled Americans, who make up the majority of Social Security beneficiaries. However, the change some in Congress want would exacerbate this flaw in a way that is particularly damaging for women who, because of their greater life expectancy, receive benefits over a longer period of time.

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare says:

The typical 65-year-old, who filed for benefits at 62, would lose about $130 per year in benefits. By the time that senior reaches 95, the annual benefit cut will be almost $1,400, which is a 9.2 percent cut.

The AFL-CIO, along with the Strengthen Social Security coalition, sent a letter to Congress today expressing its opposition to the chained CPI:

The purpose of an inflation adjustment is to ensure that the value of Social Security and other modest but vital benefits does not erode over time. The proposal to switch to the chained CPI would, over time, slash the benefits of both current and future beneficiaries. Specifically, it would cut the basic benefit—currently averaging a modest $13,500 for all beneficiaries—and break the bipartisan promise not to cut the benefits of current seniors.

Although some in Congress may say this is a modest tweak or a change to more accurately reflect inflation, nothing could be further from the truth.

A chained CPI means cuts are larger the longer you receive benefits.

Says the Strengthen Social Security coalition:

One of the most problematic aspects of the chained CPI is that the cuts are larger the longer you receive benefits – meaning that the chained CPI would disproportionately hurt many women, veterans, people with disabilities, and others. For example, veterans wounded in combat and others disabled at young ages would be disproportionately hurt. Seniors, especially women, who live long lives would also be hurt disproportionately.

The AFL-CIO Executive Council supports an across-the-board increase in Social Security benefits.

This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now on October 16, 2012.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jackie Tortora recently joined the AFL-CIO as the blog/social Media editor. Before that, she was a Social Security and Medicare advocate for a national seniors’ organization.

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