Are you surprised that these programs are under attack? The same forces that went after the unions in the 1980s, that relentlessly pushed free-trade agreements while manufacturing jobs evaporated, and that destroyed housing values in the 2000s — they're on the prowl again. If Social Security and Medicare are cut, finance and insurance companies will skim the cream — the wealthier, healthier participants — while leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. Social Security and Medicare, they think, are easy prey, once we've been softened up by scare stories about how they're on the "brink of bankruptcy" and we "can't afford them."
It isn't true, of course. Social Security and Medicare can't go bankrupt, just as the Pentagon can't. They're not in some separate bank account or lockbox — they're government programs that we either choose to pay for or don't. And not only can we afford them, they're a bargain, providing modest comfort and decent care to people who would otherwise financially burden their families — or die.
The attack came right after the election, when the Bowles-Simpson commission on deficit reduction issued its report. It recommended deep cuts in Social Security, in the form of an increase in the retirement age from 67 to 69. This is a direct cut in benefits, targeted in an especially nasty way at minorities and all others who work harder, earn less, and live shorter lives after retirement than, say, college professors or senators.
The cochairman of that commission, former GOP senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, has made his views clear. In an August e-mail to the head of OWL (née the Older Women's League), he called Social Security "a milk cow with 310 million tits." He wants you to think of Social Security as welfare, not something you've earned — a boondoggle, rather than a program that puts money into the economy every day.
The fact is, even if you were never an autoworker, were never in a union, never owned a house, even if you've never been sick and never got anything else from the New Deal — whoever you are, Social Security and Medicare help you right now. They support your business: spending by old folks is part of the income of small and large companies everywhere, an effective and stable support for the economy. Social Security provides survivors' benefits that raise children in your schools. It will keep your parents off your back. And when you do get older, Social Security and Medicare will protect you, and they will protect your children from bankrupting themselves over you. That is, if these programs are protected, now, from their assailants.
The Simpson-Bowles package didn't make its way to Congress in 2010. But it got surprisingly strong support on the panel. And it will surely be back. As Simpson said, "This cadaver will rise from the crypt."
Democrats took a hit in November. But they can still stand in the way. Will they hold the line? Or will they give in to this assault on the last bastion of the American middle class? ^
A version of this article first appeared in Mother Jones.