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.