Taking Aim at the Elderly
The outcome of the "fiscal cliff" did not impress many in the corporate media, who have long favored some sort of Simpson-Bowles "grand bargain" that would pair tax increases with spending cuts to so-called "entitlement programs." The last-minute tax deal fell well short on both counts--but the failure to cut benefits seemed to bother more pundits than anything else.
On Meet the Press (12/30/12), NBC's Tom Brokaw complained that Obama "could help himself a lot if he were tougher on the AARP"--by which he meant tougher on seniors, raising the retirement age for Social Security (which is really a cut in benefits--Extra!, 12/12) and "means-testing" Medicare. (When the discussion was taxes, Brokaw insisted that "$250,000 doesn't make you rich," but proposals to means-test Medicare assume that elderly retirees with incomes as low as $85,000 aren't paying enough for healthcare--FireDogLake, 12/14/12.)
Brokaw went on:
I think it would have been helpful to him this morning to have said, "Look, we get this tax deal done, I'm here to help on Medicare and Social Security reforms." We've got to address those, instead of just saying, "I'm going to protect the seniors who are there and the Medicare and Medicaid recipients." Give a little something. Show good faith about what needs to be done on deficit reduction and the entitlement programs.
In the Washington Post (1/3/13), David Ignatius raised the canard that the self-funded entitlement programs are connected to the budget deficit, arguing that Obama should have
come to the table with a grand vision of his own--a real strategy for cutting the deficit and the entitlement programs that drive it.... He didn't formulate a plan for long-term solvency partly because he didn't want to give up the political weapon of Social Security before the 2012 election.
Ignatius concluded that "it's Obama's job to lead the party toward entitlement reforms and other policies that will be painful but necessary."
The Post's Fareed Zakaria (1/4/13) agreed that the "administration did not go far enough on entitlement reforms, and the Democratic Party as a whole is too obstinately opposed to reform in this area."
New York Times columnist Tom Friedman (1/6/13) was more hopeful that Obama would still come around to cutting benefits:
Maybe Obama has a strategy: First raise taxes on the wealthy, which gives him the credibility with his base to then make big spending cuts in the next round of negotiations. Could be. But raising taxes on the wealthy is easy.
Friedman added that "Obama has spent a lot of time lately bashing the rich," and that it was time for him "to stop just hammering the wealthy."
In Time magazine (1/21/13), Joe Klein complained of Democrats:
There is a smugness and lassitude to the party right now, an absence of creative new policy thinking, a tendency to defend corroded industrial-age welfare and entitlement programs. They even blocked a modest money-saving change in Social Security's cost-of-living index. And this is where the real challenge of Obama's second term will lie.
And liberal Bloomberg columnist Jonathan Alter (1/3/13) criticized Obama's progressive critics before arguing:
Just as Republicans must learn to live with tax increases, Democrats must learn to live with--and vote for--changes in entitlements. They should keep in mind that reforms such as a chained consumer price index, which alters the inflation calculation applied to Social Security, and means testing the benefits of wealthy retirees, do not threaten the social safety net.
Neither Franklin Roosevelt on Social Security nor Lyndon Johnson on Medicare was wedded to any of the particulars of those programs--only the principle of guaranteed support from the government.
It is worth mentioning that Obama did, in fact, support cutting Social Security benefits, endorsing Klein and Alter's idea of a bogus change to inflation measurement in order to siphon money away from older retirees (FAIR Blog, 12/19/12). And the Affordable Care Act has reduced the projected Medicare trust fund shortfall by two-thirds--something that too often escapes media attention.
Beyond that, there are plenty of ways for the federal government to honor its commitments to Social Security recipients and to pay for Medicare without punishing those who rely on these programs for their retirement and their health. The Medicare funding problem is a matter of reducing healthcare inflation--which could be addressed by limiting the growth of payments to doctors and allowing the government to negotiate for lower drug costs, for starters.
Far from being too tough on the rich, the fiscal cliff tax deal was enormously beneficial to the wealthy--with breaks on estate tax and investment income (Washington Post, 1/8/13; CBPP.org, 1/4/13; CTJ.org, 1/10/13). Other potential sources of revenue, like a tax on Wall Street transactions, were basically off-limits.
But these arguments basically do not exist in the corporate media, where well-to-do pundits piously argue that the poor and the elderly should sacrifice retirement benefits or pay more for healthcare as they age.