There was this at the Senate debate in Iowa last Sunday:
“I will fight hard to protect Social Security and Medicare for seniors like my mom and dad because our Greatest Generation has worked so hard for the American dream for our families,” said Republican Joni Ernst.
Like many conservatives, Ernst supports some sort of privatization in the Social Security program. She’s a little hazy on the details. But we do know that the Greatest Generation is the name that Tom Brokaw gave to the Americans who came through the Depression and spent their young adulthood fighting World War II. They would actually be Ernst’s grandparents.
There are two possible interpretations to her statement:
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A) She wants to portray Social Security and Medicare recipients in the noblest light possible.
B) She is promising to protect benefits for everybody older than 85.
I detect some anti-boomer sentiment. Ernst is 44, and like most people born after the mid-1960s, she probably resented having to grow up under our self-absorbed shadow.
“But many of those boomers, now in their late 60s, depend on Social Security, especially after the Great Recession,” said Brokaw, who always takes the high road on generational matters.
Maybe Ernst just identifies the whole 60-something generation with Hillary Clinton, considering her husband once referred to Clinton on his Facebook page as a “hag.” Although that incident was less about Social Security than about the inadvisability of giving political spouses access to social media.
The Senate race in Iowa is one of the tightest in the country, and the debate drew so much attention that it got a segment on The Daily Show. Jon Stewart highlighted the part where Ernst got personal with her Democratic opponent, Rep. Bruce Braley. (“You threatened to sue a neighbor over chickens that came onto your property.”)
We are not going to have time to delve deep into the controversy that is known to political junkies as Chickengate. We are focusing on Social Security! We haven’t talked about this issue for a long time, and it ought to be part of our election-year repertoire.
Conservative Republicans still tend to hew to the theory that the system is “going bankrupt” and needs to be turned into some kind of private retirement investment account. They also generally promise to protect people 55 or older from any change.
“I’m not going to take away your Social Security. Don’t worry about it. Anybody over 55 doesn’t have to worry about any reform measure,” said Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas in a recent debate. He added: “You don’t have to worry about doing anything with Social Security in the next part of this session. Harry Reid will block that real quick.”
Mentioning the mendacity of Majority Leader Harry Reid in every other sentence is a verbal tic Roberts has acquired. However, if you break that statement down, what he seems to be saying is that if you’re, say, 52 and want to make sure Social Security stays the way it is, you will have no problem as long as Democrats control the U.S. Senate.
By the way, Social Security is not going bankrupt. In 2033, incoming payroll taxes will no longer be enough to pay for all the benefits. But they'll still cover about 75 percent of the payments and we could take care of the rest of the problem with a few tweaks — like getting rid of the cap on Social Security taxes. (Currently, all income over $117,000 is exempt from the payroll tax.)
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities also helpfully points out that “by coincidence,” the amount Social Security would need to stay completely in balance over the next 75 years is almost exactly the same as the amount the government lost when Congress extended the Bush tax cuts for people making more than $250,000 a year.
And Social Security is a terrific program. It currently lifts more than 15 million elderly Americans out of poverty and provides many millions more with comfort and security they wouldn’t otherwise enjoy. Its administrative costs are well below 1 percent of expenditures.
“It’s much more efficient than private sector retirement programs,” Jason Furman, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, said in a phone interview.
Furman actually thinks Social Security spending should be increased, to create a minimum benefit floor. Elderly women who’ve had an irregular work career due to family demands often wind up losing a critical part of their coverage when their husbands die.
“Even George Bush wanted to extend the minimum benefit,” he said.
If you happen upon a congressional debate in the next few weeks, feel free to ask the candidates what they’re going to do to protect Social Security. Bring along a 54-year-old friend who might helpfully burst into tears when anyone starts promising to protect the 55-year-olds.
© 2014 New York Times News Service