Picture: Ints Kalnins/REUTERS – An elderly woman clenches her fist during a rally demanding more social security benefits and higher pensions from the government. Any politician who expresses concern about Social Security’s finances without being willing to tax the rich is a phony. Nothing but a phony, says the writer.
By Richard Eskow
Like they used to say in the old neighbourhood, some things ain’t complicated. If your senator or representative won’t tax the wealthy to protect and expand Social Security, then they care more about America’s 728 billionaires than they do about the 66 million children, disabled, and older people currently receiving benefits—or the many millions that will follow them. They don’t deserve to stay in office if they can’t represent their own people.
Social Security is a vast, highly successful program. That makes it sound complicated. It’s not. It was built on simple moral and operational principles. Among them was universality, the idea that the program should include everyone, and the notion that everyone should pay their fair share. Unfortunately, the millionaires and billionaires plundering the economy aren’t pitching in the way they should.
That makes the choice for our elected officials simple, too: Are you going to make the wealthy step up or are you going to hide behind word-salad speeches and sleight-of-hand legislation? One thing is clear: any politician who expresses concern about Social Security’s finances without being willing to tax the rich is a phony. Nothing but a phony.
We’re looking at you, Mitt Romney.
The commission that worked on Social Security’s finances in the 1980s raised the cap on the Social Security payroll tax, with the expectation that it would capture 90 percent of the income earned in this country. As Linda Benesch notes, however, rising income inequality has caused that number to plummet. As of February 28, 2023, a person making a million dollars per year has finished paying into Social Security for the year. (I calculated that figure for Jeff Bezos once; he was done paying his “fair share” about 28 seconds after the New Year’s Eve ball dropped in Times Square!) Moreover, wealthy people earn the lion’s share of their income from non-payroll sources like investments and business revenue. That isn’t taxed for Social Security at all.
Social Security is a vast, highly successful programme. That makes it sound complicated. It’s not.
Meanwhile, here in the real world, people making less than $160,200 annually—that is, the vast majority of American workers—will be paying this tax all year.
That’s why the idea of “scrapping the cap” on this tax is so compelling. Senator Bernie Sanders‘ Social Security Expansion Act would re-impose this payroll tax on income above $250,000 and would add in the kinds of non-payroll income that mainly benefit the super-wealthy. In the House, a bill from Democrat Representative John Larson would scrap the cap on income above $400,000.
Both bills substantially expand Social Security while bringing in substantial new revenue. The Larson bill would provide a sizeable down payment and the Sanders bill would fully fund Social Security, something politicians like Senator Mitt Romney claim to be concerned about. Romney has wept crocodile tears over the programme’s expected revenue shortfall for years, but he’s ruled out tax increases.
People say we live in a divided country, but Americans are united on this subject – 71 percent of voters polled after the last election want Congress to “protect Social Security and Medicare”. The message to Capitol Hill is simple: do your damned jobs.
Romney’s proposed bill, which in an Orwellian flourish is called “the TRUST Act”, would create “congressional rescue committees” that would meet privately to determine the fate of critical social programs. Since Romney (who is extremely wealthy himself) opposes revenue hikes, that leaves only benefit cuts.
It will take ongoing political pressure to protect and expand Social Security. But it will be a great day when it happens.
Romney and his cosponsors hope to elude responsibility for their actions by hiding behind as-yet-unnamed committee members and their backroom deliberations. That includes some Democrats. The bill’s Democratic backers, including Joe Manchin, are more likely than Romney to say that they’re open to hiking taxes on the wealthy. But they’re supporting a ‘bipartisan’ process with Republicans who will never go along with that.
These Dems know that. They’re trying to have it both ways — sounding reasonable while promoting a process that’s designed to lead to cuts and cuts alone.
And make no mistake: that’s the play. Romney’s bill uses a well-worn playbook for trying to cut popular programs. As the bill’s summary says, “Congress must use specified expedited legislative procedures to consider legislation that is approved and submitted by the rescue committees”. In other words, it gets rushed to the floor for a vote for an immediate up-or-down vote, without committee review or the chance to revise it.
That’s an attempt to circumvent democracy. Public trust in our democracy has plunged to frightening lows as the wealthy buy more and more custom-designed legislation. The TRUST Act is designed to make an undemocratic and unaccountable political process even more undemocratic and unaccountable.
That’s what the Simpson/Bowles Deficit Commission tried to do during the Obama administration. It’s part of the old anti-government playbook laid out by billionaire Pete Peterson and the astroturf anti-social-welfare organisations he funded for decades. One pro-TRUST congressional Dem even used a Peterson-funded, consultant-designed phrase to defend his actions. If I hear the words “we have kicked this can down the road for too long” again I won’t be responsible for my actions. Maybe somebody’s can should get kicked, but it ain’t yours or mine.
Don’t count the double-talkers out. There’s a lot of money riding on this, and it’s all with the billionaires. It will take ongoing political pressure to protect and expand Social Security. But it will be a great day when it happens. Taxing the wealthy will have other benefits, too. It will strengthen the social contract when the public sees their country’s oligarchs being forced to assume some responsibility for the society that enriched them. It might reduce their stranglehold on politics a little, too.
This country’s billionaires gained more than $2.1 trillion in wealth since the pandemic began and now have total estimated riches of $5.1 trillion. Meanwhile, almost half of all Americans aged 55 and older have no retirement savings at all. The average person on Social Security only gets $1,688 per month. And you’re trying to tell us that’s what this country can’t afford?
As we used to say in the old neighbourhood: Get outta here.
Richard (RJ) Eskow is a freelance writer. Much of his work can be found on eskow.substack.com. His weekly programme, The Zero Hour, can be found on cable television, radio, Spotify, and podcast media. He is a senior advisor with Social Security Works.