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Dean Baker

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research

June 28th, 2010 8:09 PM

America Speaks Back: The Effort to Gut Social Security and Medicare Takes a Hit

The opponents of Social Security and Medicare are getting in high gear. After all, it makes perfect sense that after the collapse of a housing bubble has just destroyed the life savings of near retirees that we would cut their Social Security and Medicare. Okay, at least in Washington that makes perfect sense.

President Obama's deficit commission is moving forward with Social Security and Medicare explicitly in their sights. They got a dry run for how this effort is likely to sell with the public on Saturday as the Peter Peterson funded group America Speaks sponsored a series of 19 "21st Century Town Meetings." It seems that events didn't quite go as planned.

The exercise was intended to show convince people that there were no options other than large cuts to Social Security and Medicare to hit their deficit targets. To ensure this result, the America Speaks crew put together a booklet that exaggerated future budget problems (the exercise was for the year 2025) by assuming a worse budget path than the country is currently facing.

America Speaks also excluded the possibility that the Fed would buy and hold more debt, in effect continuing its current course. This would substantially reduce the interest burden facing the country in 2025. While in normal times this could cause inflation, that is unlikely to be a problem in the foreseeable future. In comparable circumstances, Japan's central bank has bought an amount of debt nearly equal to the country's GDP (the equivalent of $14 trillion for the U.S.) and its economy is still facing deflation. There is no reason that the Fed could not follow the same path, unless the goal is to force cuts in Social Security and Medicare.

The America Speaks folks also denied participants the option of reducing public sector health care costs by reforming the U.S. health care system. As they say at America Speaks, everything is on the table, except reforms that would hurt powerful industry lobbies. The America Speaks crew also neglected to mention the Social Security trust fund and that it would have enough assets to pay all benefits through the year 2043, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Given this stacked deck the participants rose up in revolt. They demanded the option to vote on a single-payer type health care system. The idea being to reduce costs by making health care more efficient rather than just cutting services in Medicare and other public sector programs. They also voted overwhelmingly for defense cuts and for every progressive tax option in the book, even though many had been seriously mischaracterized. For example, they listed the potential revenue from a financial speculation tax in 2025 as $30 billion a year even though there is good reason, based on the experience of other countries, to believe that we could raise close to ten times this amount.

Remarkably, even after spending more than 6 hours with the America Speakers, participants were still very poorly informed on several key budget issues. For example, more than 80 percent of the participants thought that the country had large budget deficits in the years immediately before the recession. (The budget deficits were less than 2.0 percent of GDP in the two years prior to the downturn.)

Less than a quarter of the participants realized that average wages are projected to increase substantially over the next three decades. The fact that real wages are projected to be more than 30 percent higher in 2040 would be an important consideration in an issue like increasing the payroll tax. And, less than a quarter of participants realized that the Social Security trust fund is projected to be fully solvent for more than 25 years into the future.

All in all, this was a good day for democracy. The America Speaks gang tried to shove their agenda down the public's throat and the public pushed back. Let's hope that the deficit commission gets the message.

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