A Future Sacrificed for War
— Nomi Prins
ON A GOOD day, the Bush administration is comprised of a pack of pathological liars. On a bad day, dangerous pathological liars. Both military and domestic policy is riddled with fabrication. Deception has proven a handy political tool, in everything from waging an unnecessary war on Iraq to creating bogus reasons to limit future social security and Medicare benefits a la Alan Greenspan.
But the real problem isn't whether there's enough federal money to secure dependable retirement; it's the shameful lack of responsibility for it. It's a question of will over willful neglect. It's about choice; to provide real retirement security to seniors, or to appropriate their future for an unnecessary unending war.
Indeed, the administration seems to have no problem writing blank checks against the future for 'anything-Iraq.' As President Bush cooed last September on national television, "We will do whatever is necessary—we will spend whatever is necessary—to achieve this essential victory in the war on terror, to promote freedom and to make our own nation more secure."
He means it. On top of the $79 billion and $87 billion in war supplements that Congress approved in April 2003 and October 2003, it's likely an additional $50 to $75 billion handout request is imminent. Those vast sums of money are maintaining programs amounting to target practice on American troops, torture for Iraqi soldiers, and real economic terror for Iraqi civilians.
Officials recently estimated the war was costing $4.7 billion a month. That's in monetary terms. In lives, the toll keeps accelerating. Since the war began, American troops are averaging 52.5 deaths per month and Iraq civilians, 706 deaths per month.
The total of Iraq-related war costs is $191 billion. This includes Bush's latest post-torture-disclosure request for another $25 billion in war handouts made on May 4th. Given Congress's track record, it will likely be approved.
Additionally, this year's military budget is projected to reach $423 billion, $142 billion more than it was when Bush stole office in 2000. The deficit is expected to reach $521 billion. That $351 billion of imperial design extras comprise 67% of the projected deficit.
Given those figures, you'd think that Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan, approaching his own golden years, would suggest curtailing "aggressionary spending," not social spending. But you'd be wrong.
Instead, Greenspan has become the administration's key pillar of bad economic policy support—policy that has institutions like social security and Medicare deemed culpable for the outrageous deficit as opposed, say, to those Iraq-related expenditures which make up a significant percentage of it.
During a February speech before the House Committee on the Budget, Greenspan shocked and blamed the aging American public. Greenspan, by no means a pauper, attacked social security benefits. He proposed raising the pension age (from 65 to 67) and cutting future entitlements to remedy the skyrocketing deficit.
Greenspan's statements launched a flurry of media op-eds. Some commended him for bringing an important problem to light. Others accused him of supporting Bush help-the-rich policies. Of course, there were more socially friendly ways Greenspan could have chosen to address the deficit, like cutting defense spending or rolling back tax cuts for the wealthy. But he didn't.
About a month later, the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Disability Insurance (OASDI) Board of Trustees released their 2004 Annual Report. It stated that the Social Security program will face a $3.7 trillion shortfall within 75 years. A mathematically challenged Greenspan never mentioned that Bush's tax cuts will produce a shortfall three times larger over the same period (between $11.8 and $13.9 trillion).
Political fallout took the form of a Senate bill presented by Senator Jon Corzine (D-NJ) in March. Rather than living "on a binge of tax cuts," Corzine suggested that rolling back cuts for families earning more than $1 million a year would save the federal government $160 billion a year which could be accumulated in a social security reserve fund.
The bill was met with condemnation from Budget Committee Chairman, Don Nickles (R-OK), and ultimately retracted.
Today, 47 million Americans receive Social Security. One of out three American seniors depends on the program for over 90% of their income. That the social security system is in trouble is not news. During the 1990s stock market mania, the major concern (brought up by Greenspan and others) was that the glut of baby boomers would extract their retirement money and deflate the bubble.
It turned out that it was exaggerated earnings and fraud that pulled the plug. Baby boomers, rather than pocketing any surplus, saw their retirement money dwindle by the billions.
Greenspan further stressed his point in a May 6 speech at the Conference on Bank Structure and Competition in Chicago. He said that "we have legislated commitments to our senior citizens that, given the inevitable retirement of out huge baby-boom generation, will create significant fiscal challenges ahead."
Then there are the lies surrounding the Medicare system. When Bush outlined his goals for Medicare last June he said it would help seniors get cheap drugs, "We must protect seniors from high medical costs that can rob them of their savings." He suggested his budget for revamping Medicare would cost $400 billion.
Last December, that related Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 was passed. Bush credited this event to "the strong leadership of a handful of members of Congress." That handful included Tom Scully, the Administrator of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who was fired shortly thereafter for lying to Congress about the information in the bill.
Par for the course of a regime that would have difficulty recognizing the truth if it were scripted for them, the act showcased a prescription drug bill, rumored to save senior money. In fact, the bill accomplished the opposite. It banned negotiations with drug companies for lower prices on behalf of recipients, and subsidized private insurers by up to 20% to administer the program.
Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) said, "The administration made an inexcusable promise that the federal government couldn't use buying power for millions of Medicare users to bargain prices down; while they could for private company and all the people they insure."
This March, reports were released that Medicare, the country's second largest social insurance program, was facing potential insolvency. But the plot thickens. Later that month, news that the Medicare Act actually cost another $140 billion (an amount hidden from Congress) emerged. The bill was passed, not surprisingly, under false premises.
There are many ways to keeps Social Security and Medicare flourishing, despite Greenspan's assaults on them. But they all boil down to one simple strategy: Fund them. Redirecting tax cuts for the wealthy into social programs would help. Installing a progressive tax, which would have Donald Trump paying proportionately into the system, would be another.
We should scrap the 2003 Medicare act, and start over with full information and programs that protect the population, not the corporations. It should not allow pharmaceutical companies to raise drug prices with impunity, which they have been doing so that they appear to be offering 'discounts' without missing a cent of profits.
And let's be allowed to buy drugs in Canada. Federal law prohibits the sale of imported drugs. There are no known deaths caused by Canadian drugs. There are known Iraqi civilian and American soldier deaths caused by war in Iraq.
Even arch-conservative Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, who two years ago tried to derail a proposal that would have legalized importing prescription drugs from Canada, did a complete 360-degree turn. He claimed, "with drug prices so high, I'm sure that more and more Americans will probably determine that getting medicine from outside the U.S. is worth a small risk."
In general, if seniors receive the appropriate protections and adequate means for financial survival, they would transform into consumers instead of debtors. This would, in turn, feed into a healthier economy despite Greenspan's assurances to the contrary. That would be a policy for this election year, one that neither party has adopted.
ATC 111, July-August 2004