AP / Pablo Martinez Monsivais
How deceptive for politicians to stress "entitlements" when they talk about gutting Social Security and Medicare, two programs long paid for by their beneficiaries. The Republicans make it sound as if they're doing us a favor, cutting government waste by seeking to strangle America's two most successful domestic programs. And now Barack Obama seems poised to join their camp in undermining the essential lifeline for most of the nation's seniors, many of whom lost their retirement savings in the banking meltdown.
These threatened programs are not government handouts to a privileged class, like defense contractors and bailed-out bankers, who do feel eminently entitled to pig out at the federal trough. On the contrary, Social Security and Medicare have been funded by a regressive tax that falls disproportionately on working middle-class income earners, while caps in the system leave the wealthy -- most notably the hedge fund hustlers who helped cause today's economic crisis -- largely untaxed.
While there are many plausible ways to ensure the future of Medicare and Social Security -- and extending a fair share of the burden to wealthier individuals is a good place to start -- such changes should not be considered in the context of a bargain to raise the debt ceiling. These programs have nothing at all to do with a national debt that has spiraled out of control in the past four years as a result of untethered corporate greed. In that time the debt -- already inflamed by two wars fought on the credit card while President George W. Bush cut taxes for the wealthy -- rose a whopping 50 percent as a consequence of the deepest recession in 70 years, brought on by the banking collapse.
Indeed, the economic turmoil has put considerable pressure on these programs. In the past two years, expenditures for Social Security exceeded non-interest income for the first time since 1983, as the trustees of the fund reported the deficits "are in large part due to the weakened economy..." The interest earned on the more than $2.4 trillion in the Social Security trust fund held by the Treasury more than made up the shortfall, and the fund will be able to fulfill its projected obligations, even given the strain of the baby boomers' retirement, until 2036.