The dramatic and inspiring occupation of the Wisconsin Statehouse in Madison by angry public workers and their supporters over the past few weeks is an exciting preview of what we can expect to see in the halls of Congress before long, as right-wing forces, funded by corporate lobbies and corporate-funded think-tanks push hard for cutbacks in Social Security and Medicare.
The drive to undermine these two critically important social programs is moving into high gear as the 79-million Baby Boomers this year start to reach eligibility, even as their other assets—their homes and their investment portfolios—are still shriveled by the Wall Street heist known as the “fiscal crisis” and Great Recession.
For years, the right has been gravely warning of the supposedly looming “bankruptcy” of Social Security and the even more imminent “bankruptcy” of Medicare, as though these twin disasters for the elderly were an actuarial imperative. In fact, both programs are political creations, whose problems have political causes and political solutions.
Social Security is starting to draw down the huge reserves it had built up, not because of an increase in retirees (the bulge in retirees hasn't hit yet), but because the share of national income that is subject to the Social Security FICA tax has fallen, from 90% back in the 1980s to just 84% now, as the wealthy have appropriated an increasingly large share of the total national income. If more of the income of the rich were slapped with the FICA tax, to bring the total share of income subject to FICA back to 90%, there would be plenty of money to pay promised benefits into the foreseeable future. The same can be said of Medicare. More taxes on the rich would ensure the funding of that program too.
There is no inherent reason why only the first $106,000 of a person’s income should be subject to the FICA tax. It could be the first $200,000, or the first $500,000, and if it were the latter, we could be talking about improving benefits for retirees, or lowering the retirement age, not just preserving current levels. Benefits could be better still if investment income were no longer exempted from a FICA tax (and the Medicare tax).
But here’s the big point: Corporate America, and its political lackeys in the Republican and Democratic Parties, know that they are about to confront a dramatically more powerful protagonist in their campaign to kill Social Security and Medicare: the Boomer Retirees.
The so-called Senior Lobby is already enormously powerful. That’s why Social Security has so far largely defied concerted efforts by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to undermine it, and it’s why Republicans and conservative Democrats running for national office always hasten to claim they are not going to threaten Social Security or Medicare, or at least that they won’t threaten “current beneficiaries.” It’s why they call Social Security the “third rail” of American politics: touch it and you die (for those of you unfortunate enough to live where there are no subways, the third rail is the “hot” rail that carries the electricity to power the electric trains).
But a Boomer retiree population will be two times the size of the current retiree population. That means that just in terms of the number of potential voters, it will be two times as powerful. But that’s only part of the story. The new generation of retirees are the people who came of political age in the late 1950s during the Civil Rights movement, and the 1960s and ‘70s during the anti-war movement and the feminist movement. We are veterans of both engaged electoral politics (witness that support our generation gave to the insurgent campaigns of Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy and George McGovern, as well as a host of more successful Congressional campaigns), and of powerful and of successful militant street politics.
What we showed back then in our youth and our formative young-adult years was that when our interests were on the line, as they were with the draft, or when we saw a gross injustice, as was the case with Jim Crow, we knew how to fight politically. I'm not suggesting that the people born in the decade and a half after World War II are particularly radical, but I am suggesting that when this age cohort gets riled and the right issue or set of issues sets the spark, we've got the spirit and experience to take that struggle to the streets and the halls of Congress. And clearly both our personal interests and our sense of justice are on the line when it comes to the growing attack on Social Security and Medicare. The other thing is we showed in the '60s that we knew how to broaden our struggle to include generations besides our own.
Just one example of how that can work. I spent a year teaching at Alfred University, a little liberal arts school plunked in the middle of nowhere in western New York State. It was the 1990-91 school year—the year the US invaded Iraq and “liberated” Kuwait. Students who opposed that war came to me and asked me what to do. I didn't want to “lead” them and they weren't asking me to, but they just had no idea where to start. “How can we get students here to wake up?” these kids asked me. I said, “What are you thinking of doing? They replied that they thought they might go down to the main street (the only street!) that runs through the little town of Alfred, and hold signs against the war. “How will that get the students to come out and join you?” I asked. They agreed glumly that it wouldn't help. It was winter, and who'd even be down there? So finally I asked, “What if you marched through campus, calling the kids to leave class and join you?” The kids looked shocked. “March through the campus? Outside? or in the buildings?” I said, “You have to decide.” Again they looked shocked. But that was what was decided. They began marching the next day, with anti-war signs, crying “Join us!” Their numbers swelled. Eventually there were hundreds of them, and so they marched down to Main Street, but instead of just standing on the sidewalk with their signs, they took over the street and shut it down! My role, small enough, was just to remind them of what was possible. They took it from there.
My prediction: As the number of Boomers nearing or entering retirement soars, and the number anticipating or signing up for Medicare soars over the next few years, we will see massive national campaigns grow around not just saving these programs but expanding and improving them. With traditional pensions vanishing, and with IRAs and 401(k) plans having been exposed as the shams they are, we are going to see an irresistable demand grow for Social Security benefits to be raised, particularly for poorer retirees, so that all Americans can have a secure old age. And we will see another irresistable political drive to have Medicare not just improved but broadened to cover all Americans, as we Boomers recognize that it makes no sense at all to have a program that only covers the oldest and sickest of Americans, and not the younger and healthier population (our own kids and grandkids!). We will realize that it is in our interest to have all Americans invested fully in supporting a well-funded national Medicare program.
And if we don’t get it, we will be ready and willing to do what the public employees of Wisconsin are doing now—or more.
Hold on to your seats (and your walkers)! The new Boomer retirees are coming!