“Commission” is Washingtonspeak for Cutting Social Security and Medicare

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Dean Baker
Truthout, December 1, 2009

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The “experts” who could not see the $8 trillion housing bubble that wrecked the economy are now telling us that we have to create a special commission so that they can cut Social Security and Medicare. With much of Washington’s punditry behind this effort, they could succeed.

The basic story is straightforward. There is a determined clique, led by Wall Street investment banker Peter Peterson, that has been trying to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits for at least the last two decades. Peterson, a cabinet member in the Nixon administration, is especially important in this story because he has personally bankrolled much of it.

Peterson started the Concord Coalition for this purpose back in the early 90s. He has written numerous books calling for cuts in these programs. He uses his vast Wall Street fortune to publicize these books, thereby ensuring that they are reviewed in major media outlets and reach a wide audience. More recently, he has pledged a billion dollars to support a foundation that is devoting considerable resources to bring about cuts in Social Security and Medicare.

Peterson and his crew have been peddling a story of fiscal calamity to advance their agenda. They try to scare young people with tales of enormous deficits driven by Social Security and Medicare.

The grain of truth in the Peterson story is that Medicare is projected to pose an enormous burden on the country in future decades. However, this is due to the fact that costs in the U.S. healthcare system are projected to continue to spiral out of control. The Medicare horror stories assume that per capita health care costs in the United States increase from twice the levels in other wealthy countries to four or five times the levels in other wealthy countries.

If health care costs spiral out of control as these projections assume, then the economy will be devastated regardless of what we do with Medicare. There will be many more General Motors and Chryslers as companies that pay for their workers’ health care insurance will find themselves unable to compete. Tens of millions of workers will find themselves uncovered and unable to afford health care themselves.

In this context, serious people would focus on fixing the country’s health care system, but the Peterson crew focuses on cutting Medicare. One obvious way to both cut Medicare costs and start to get U.S. health care costs under control would be to allow beneficiaries to buy into more efficient foreign health care systems, but the Peterson crew doesn’t seem interested in proposals that don’t cut benefits for working people.

It is especially outrageous that the Peterson crew would be leading this crusade to cut Social Security and Medicare. In part, because when they were running around yelling about deficits projected for 2050, those of us who were trying to warn about the $8 trillion housing bubble could not get attention. The Peterson’s crew imaginary horror story helped to conceal the real disaster that was about to blow up the economy. Now this gang has the nerve to use the deficits created in part by their own incompetence as a reason to push their agenda for cutting Social Security and Medicare.

Peterson’s effort in this area are especially offensive because he personally has profited enormously from the “fund managers’ tax break,” a loophole in the tax code that allowed Peterson to be taxed at a lower rate than most school teachers and firefighters. Peterson not only personally profited from this tax break, he has lobbied Congress to ensure that it remains in the code for future Wall Street tycoons. No doubt much of the money he is using to cut retirees’ Social Security and Medicare are attributable to this loophole.

So now we face the prospect of Congress creating a commission to cut Social Security at the behest of a person who has personally profited to the tune of tens of millions of dollars from a special tax loophole that his friends in Congress slipped into the tax code. This is corruption at its worst. The Wall Street crew simply will not rest until they have sucked the last dollar away from everyone else and Congress appears ready to help.

Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy. He also has a blog on the American Prospect, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues.