Tea Partyers, union members, Democrats, Republicans -- all love Social Security. So let's expand it!

Even Reagan knew better than to try to destroy it. A new book makes the case for strengthening the popular program

Published January 31, 2015 11:30AM (EST)

  (AP/Barry Thumma/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/Barry Thumma/J. Scott Applewhite)

Suddenly, unexpectedly, in the aftermath of the midterms, Democrats seem to have rediscovered their economic populist voice. As I pointed out in my recent story “Now They're Sliming Elizabeth Warren,” there's no single-bullet solution to economic inequality, but there are heartening signs and popular efforts underway on a broad range of fronts: minimum wage, overtime pay, wage theft and more on the raising wages side of things, and on the spending side, increases on infrastructure, education and, above all, Social Security. All these fronts are important, but none more so than Social Security, which has long been under sustained attack from the right, because of, not despite, its success and popularity. If you hate government, there's nothing you hate more than a government program that everyone loves.

But it's not just its right-wing enemies that threaten Social Security; its eager-to-compromise centrist and neoliberal “friends” pose even more of a threat, muddying the waters and trying to silence those who stand up for Social Security unapologetically, calling for it to be strengthened and expanded.

In a recent piece for the Atlantic, Amitai Etzioni did just that with an amazingly convoluted argument, trying to paint Elizabeth Warren's economic populism as “unpopular,” associating it with welfare, in contrast to Social Security. In the real world, Warren has said virtually nothing about welfare. Instead, she is the most prominent senator—joining the likes of Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown—to come out strongly in support of expanding Social Security, even as the Republicans are renewing their efforts to cut it back.

Nothing explains the stakes involved better than the new book "Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn't Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All" by Nancy J. Altman and Eric R. Kingson, co-founders of Social Security Works and longtime experts in the field, who served on the staff of the Greenspan Commission in the 1980s, helping to craft the last major overhaul of the system. They cover an impressively wide range of topics—from a brief history of Social Security's birth and development and attacks against it, to debunking today's most common lies about it, to highlighting the real challenges it faces in meeting the growing needs of a working and middle class in more perilous circumstances than ever before in the system's history. Perhaps most important, at the center of all this, they explain the logic of expanding Social Security—both increasing benefits and adding new ones—and how to pay for it in an equitable manner. Salon's interview with the authors has been edited for length and for clarity.

I mentioned before Amitai Etzioni's article trying to paint Elizabeth Warren and other progressive Democrats as supporting “unpopular populism,” which he identifies with “welfare,” deliberately misrepresenting the actual issues she and other progressives have been focusing on. Etzioni even goes so far as to try to use Social Security—as opposed to welfare—against Warren, despite the fact that Warren advocates strengthening and expanding Social Security. His argument seems to typify the blindness of elite discourse to the actual economic issues of the day, and your book struck me as perfectly illuminating the one program at the center of their blind spot. To those who might be swayed by such arguments, that there's nothing popular that progressive populists can hope to do, what points does your book make to shine a light on what's being missed?

Altman: The beauty of Social Security, the ingenuity of that program, is that it represents basic American values that are shared very broadly. So, as a consequence, Social Security is extremely successful, but it's also extremely popular across the political spectrum.

We found in polling that Tea Partyers support it, union members support it, independents, Republicans, Democrats – it's also widely supported among every demographic group and every age. The younger you are, the less likely you are to think Social Security will be there for you but they do support it, they believe it's an important program ... So this is an issue that, when you've got 80 percent of the country answering polls that Social Security should be expanded, but they do not think it should be cut, they think it's vital, they think it's more important in the future, all of those kinds of things, those kinds of numbers, you know that it's very popular.

Kingson: The reality is most Americans have only Social Security to count on. This is middle-class, working-class people, low-income people, even upper-middle-income people; the core protection they have for the children if they die, for life insurance protection, if they become disabled as workers, and when they retire. So it's critical. The other thing, when I think about Etzioni, I think of communitarianism and the irony here is that nothing gives greater expression to the notion of national community than Social Security. Honestly, this program is certainly about restoring economic security, but it's also about these notions of dignity, holding families together, responsibility to do work, but also to the right to receive just dues as a result. So this is an institution that ties our country together, at the same time that we have many forces moving toward entropy.

You point out that before Social Security came into being, old age and poverty were synonymous, and old age was commonly looked at with dread. Few people alive today have any memory of that, but could you talk about that reality, what it was like, and what kind of difference Social Security made?

Altman: When Social Security was enacted, every state except New Mexico had poorhouses. I know that sounds like Dickens, but this is just 80 years ago. The residents—they were called “inmates”—were not working-age people, or children; they tended to be people who have been independent all their lives, but dependent on wages. When they were no longer able to work, if they didn't have children who could take them in, they literally went to the poorhouse. It was often common at that time that if the worker died, the family would split apart. Orphanages were full of children who still had a parent living who couldn't support those children. Often you'd see people begging on the streets; there were lots of stories about that.

You make the point that bringing Social Security into being FDR and Frances Perkins both framed Social Security in terms of preexisting American values. Could you talk about how they did that?

Kingson: Roosevelt has a quote where he says, "This is not about new values, this is drawing on long-held, long-shared values that we hold as a society,” and I think it built very nicely on notions of responsibility to care for oneself, care for one's family, responsibly, to work, and also a shared vehicle, an insurance vehicle which has enabled Americans to protect themselves against risks we all face—and, at that time, retirement in particular.

Altman: And this wasn't just messaging on his part, or on Frances Perkins' part. If you look at Social Security, the way it's designed, it's reward for hard work—the more you earn the larger your benefit—but it was also an understanding that lower-income workers have less discretionary income, so they needed a larger proportion of that [as benefits]. There's the sense that we take care of each other, that we protect families, pretty conservative management—it has to have a balanced budget, it can't pay benefits unless it has sufficient income to cover costs—everyone pays in, we share risks, we share responsibilities. I think that President Obama in that famous speech that really propelled him when he was running for the Senate and he talked about it as not a question of red states or blue states but the United States, it was that kind of message that rings true today and it rang true then.

Kingson: Just to add something about Frances Perkins. She goes to Washington and she's very clear in saying it's the people who count. There are human beings behind all these program. The changes that are made are terribly important to everyone, to individuals, to whole households. And that's something that's forgotten in today's policy world. We talk very blithely about making "little tweaks," tweaks that will cut someone's long-term security. So I think there was a moral basis that emanated from the White House at that time, and from that administration, that emphasized the well-being of the population above everything else.

Your second chapter is titled "Social Security Works for All Generations." How does it do that? Can you give us a big-picture synopsis of what that means?

Altman: Most people don't realize this, but Social Security is the nation's largest children's program. About 9 percent of America's children get benefits, either directly or indirectly. It's the most important source of support for grandparents rearing grandchildren; it's the most important life insurance and disability insurance that most working families have. So it's a children's program, it's disability and life insurance protection; it also relieves the pressure on families.

Before Social Security, you generally had several generations of families living together, so if the breadwinner became unemployed, you really had children also without anything, any income, and seniors without an income, and there was this pressure on those in the sandwich generation, in the middle. The beauty of Social Security is that it's fine if you want to live with an extended family, there's lots of advantages to that; but seniors don't have to depend on the children, and often they feel they're a burden to their children. So they can live with independence and dignity thanks to Social Security. Adult workers can focus their energies and attention on their children, knowing that their parents have a guaranteed source of income.

Just one more point. In this recent Great Recession, remember how many people were unemployed? [There was] one big difference from the Great Depression, when one out of three were unemployed, which usually meant seniors were out on the street, children were in the street. In this one, Social Security continued to pay and sometimes seniors could help their children and grandchildren, because it provided this guaranteed source of income if their other parts of the family were having trouble making ends meet.

Kingson: A couple of other things. One is that we all rise on the shoulders of generations before us, and we also build to the generations that follow. I often ask my students if they think they've ever benefited from Social Security, and if they have parents who've died, or are disabled, but I have to push it. As well, from day one, you and your parents had life insurance; in almost all cases that life insurance was the equivalent—depending on your age and profile for a very young family—of about a half-million dollars, a little more, in term life insurance. That's the American people's life insurance. So there are these concrete protections.

The other thing I say is we talk about this program at this one moment in time, but when you think about it over time you're in different positions vis-à-vis the program. Sometimes you're receiving, sometimes you're contributing to insurance and you receive it again. The failure of the public policy discussion, in some ways, is to talk about this as a program for old people; the reality is that today's young, middle-aged workers and my grandchild are at much more risk from the kinds of cuts that have been proposed to the core benefits of Social Security than are today's old. So this generational discussion is important but it often goes in the wrong direction.

When Nancy and I worked for the Greenspan Commission in 1982 -- both of us are baby boomers -- we would hear from folks back then saying all those old people are eating up your savings, Social Security benefits, they're living high on the hog, there's not going to be anything left for you. Well, there has been and there will be. Now, today what we hear is all those baby boomers are eating up everything. This isn't how our society works. We work together; we're interdependent. Social Security is built on that notion.

Another point you make in that chapter is that Social Security as wage insurance fills a role that nothing else can produce, in contrast to welfare, private savings or pensions. This is often fuzzy in the public mind, so could you explain it a bit?

Altman: Social Security has all the benefits of a private sector-defined benefit plan but none of the disadvantages. It is virtually universal, it is completely portable from job to job, easily portable—all you have to do is remember your Social Security number, and all the records are kept at the Social Security Administration—and it's incredibly efficient, it returns 99 cents of every dollar that's collected. Defined benefit plans in the private sector and defined contribution plans have all these fees, a lot of them are hidden -- 10 or 15 percent is captured by those fees. So Social Security is incredibly efficient, it's also incredibly secure; the plan sponsor is the United States government, which is permanent. The private sector plan you have to worry that they're making a promise today and 40 years from now it's not going to be around. The government's going to be around 40 years from now, so you don't worry about that.

What's misunderstood, often put out by people who are trying to undermine it, is that it's some kind of forced savings and you can earn more in the stock market, that kind of thing, but it's not. It's a guaranteed income, it's an annuity, it's insurance. It replaces wages the same way life insurance does. Indeed, it provides very generous benefits, the add-on benefits I should say for divorced spouses, so that it's very important to women, and it's important to every segment of the society.

One more thing. Insurance works best when you have the largest risk possible, when everybody's in it and the only entity in our society that can mandate everybody being in is the federal government. And it also is most effective when they don't have what's called “adverse selection,” where you buy life insurance when you find you have terminal cancer. You can't do that with Social Security. Your very first paycheck—whether you're a 16-year-old or 20 years old, whenever you start having a summer job or earning part-time money—you start contributing to Social Security. So that's why it can be so efficient, why so portable, why it works so well.

Kingson: We're talking about a system that works, that in fact we built the system to protect against certain things, individuals and families, that we can't protect against by ourselves. And it's never missed a benefit. In the midst of the recession, the near crash of our economy, benefits were paid. It's a core institution. You mentioned people who don't know the history of the poorhouses and the very significant poverty than older people faced 70 or 80 years ago. This is a critical institution. Over time, we change it when it's clear we need to, like any institution. Think of it like a highway system. Occasionally we have bumps in the highway; we fix it, we don't throw it away. So this system of wage insurance works. Nothing against savings, savings are great, but we know it's not the most stable vehicle for most Americans; with the diminished kinds of private pensions we've had lately, and the loss of home equity, the one thing that we do have—and this is why they support the system—is Social Security.

Altman: Just to add to what Eric just said, he made a very good, very important point: Individuals can save on their own, but unless you're Bill Gates or someone like that, you can't self-insure. You insure your house against fire, you don't just save for that eventuality. The house probably won't burn down, but it does want to have fire insurance. It [Social Security] also ensures against risk like living to age 100. You don't know at age 20 whether you're going to die at 50 or are going to live to 100; you need insurance and that pools all of the risks.

Two key points you make are that Social Security is fully affordable for as far as the eye can see and that it's costing considerably less than other advanced industrial nations commonly spend for similar programs. Can you elaborate a bit on these points?

Altman: The way to measure the cost of a program, a public program, is by the percentage of gross domestic product. It's a measure of how wealthy we are as a society and how much we want to pay for various goods and services. And if you look at Social Security, the cost as a percentage of GDP—and we have a chart in chapter 8 that shows this—is essentially a flat line; it goes up a little bit now with the baby boomers retiring but remains a flat line around 6 percent of GDP, and it actually falls a bit once the boomers are no longer alive. In contrast, if you look at, for example, the historical growth in healthcare ... after 75 years our healthcare expenditures would be 99 percent of GDP. Obviously, you cannot afford something like that and we're never going to reach that point. The 6 percent of GDP is very easy and in fact many of our other industrialized countries spend more than 6 percent of GDP on their old age survivors and disability insurance program -- their Social Security equivalent. They spend a larger percentage right now than we will after 75 years.

Kingson: When you talk about levels of inequality, in society, we've seen huge amount of income and wealth going to the highest 1 percent and .1 percent. It explains, in part, why I think American feel so economically pressured. But we are a very rich nation. We're a nation that has been able to engage in a couple of wars at the drop of a hat around 2001, not thinking about it. We have resources that we can afford to direct toward other areas, and we can also afford to ask those who have done so well in the economy to pay their fair share back into the system. There is, of course, a projected shortfall that needs to be addressed but most of that shortfall could be addressed by asking everybody to pay the same rate on the payroll contributions, the same amount on their entire earnings. Today I think it's $118,500 a year, on earnings above that you stop paying for benefits. If we asked everybody to make the same contributions that their secretary makes, that 95 percent of all other Americans make, we restore about three-quarters of the shortfall. But even more important, there's much we can do to fund extensions of the system. They're not onerous.

Altman: I would add to that, as Eric says, we are the wealthiest nation in the world, we have the highest gross domestic product of any other country, and it doesn't feel that way because of the way there's been an upward redistribution of wealth over the last 34 years. It doesn't feel that way to a lot of Americans because they haven't seen their own wages rise, and also there's been a campaign to convince people it was just math—we can't afford this, aging people and so forth—and the truth is it's not math, it's not demographics, it's about values and what kind of nation we want. We can afford it and the question is whether we want to expand Social Security, want it to stay the same, or to scale Social Security back. That is a question of values and priorities; it's not inevitable what the answer is.

You present a plan for expanding Social Security. I'd like you to outline first what its goals are and then the means, how they would be accomplished, and then why the means are realistic and worthwhile to implement.

Kingson: The story line in the book is the system works. It's a darn good system, and it's popular. Americans don't have as much confidence in it as they have in the past, or as much as they should, understandably, but also it's there and they really like it. Also, the nation faces some very real problems. Today's old are not cosseted as some would have us believe. They're not living high on the hog. Some, of course, are doing very well, but the large majority of older people are either at the very marginal level of economic security or a little bit above it, just one economic shock or health shock away from serious economic problems. So we have an economic problem for current retirees. We have an even larger problem, a real crisis, for people in their 40s, mid-30s, their 50s, their early 60s, who are hoping to retire and facing losses in housing equity, losses in pension protection, that occurred over the last 30 years, the failure of the 401K system, losses of jobs in some cases, relatively small wage increases for most people, and high healthcare costs, student loans ... It's all of these factors, like parents paying for their kids' student debt, or people paying for their own debts. The crisis can only be addressed substantially by at least having a good start in the expansion of Social Security.

We also tell a story about how important families are. But we're the only nation that doesn't provide parents some kind of financial support for the birth or adoption of a child. We're the only industrial nation that doesn't do that at the federal level; we don't provide support to people to give care, that's also a problem. The last problem is this extraordinary inequality in income, and, even worse, of wealth in our society. The number we have in the book, from 1948 to 1979 the bottom 90 percent got two-thirds of the growth of society; from 1979 to 2012 they got nothing, and all the growth went to the top 10 percent. There's something wrong with the economic arrangement. So part of what we say in those four chapters is these are real problems in Social Security, and expansion of it—a judicious, thoughtful and in some ways modest expansion—can make down payments on these problems, or even a dent in the case of the retirement income crisis.

Altman: The conversation around Social Security has been skewed in a variety of ways and one has been the laserlike focus on the financing. Financing is a means to an end. The goal of the program is to provide economic security, and the question is what level of economic security do we as a society want to provide to ourselves, through the public sector, through this public program of wage insurance, and then what is the fairest way to pay for for that.

So we start with the notion of a family protection program. As we talked about earlier, it's efficient, it's secure, it's very fair in its distribution, it's portable, but its benefits are low, very modest by virtually any standard. So we said, OK, it's a great system, but it's inadequate. We've got current retirees they're just one shock away or right on the edge, as Eric said, and we have tomorrow's retirees that for a variety of factors, if nothing is done, are likely to be more on the edge. So we should raise the benefits, and we do that both across the board and we also do that in a targeted way, understanding that certain segments of the population are more at risk than others. So that's part of it.

We also were focused on the squeeze on families, as Eric said, concerned about paternity leave, paying for caregivers, etc., so we have a variety of benefits that are focused on addressing that. For example, it used to be that Social Security provided benefits to children of parents who become disabled. Social Security used to play that role, provide benefits up to age 22 for those children who continue on in college, or vocational education. That was eliminated back in 1981, and now it only provides benefits through high school. So we restore that benefit. We put in a children's allowance, we put in paid family leave and so forth, the idea being that when we say "expand benefits," we both increase existing benefits and we also mean broadening and adding new kinds of benefits. Other industrialized nations already have children's allowances, and it's time for us to add those additional benefits.

The question is what level of benefits do we want, then what's the fairest way to pay for them. We thought the fairest way was to not unduly burden anyone, and to look at current methods of payment and add to those. So, for example, Social Security currently has three sources of revenue. The primary source of revenue is what are called FICA insurance contributions; in market parlance we call them premiums. People tend to call them taxes, and of course government levies it, but really the concept is that this is insurance paid for by workers and their employers through premiums, and this is a conservative way of financing it. What we say is most workers have withholding throughout the year, everyone should have withholding throughout the year. We also have a very gradual and modest increase in the FICA contribution rate, which comes out to an average about 50 cents a week, it's gradually increased.

Kingson: It would raise the payroll contribution by 1 percent over 20 years, about a 20th of the percent, a 20th of that each year, which comes out to about 50 cents, very modest.

Altman: A very modest increase and so that is the major source of the premiums and the major source of financing today and it would remain so. Second, another source that has been there from the beginning is whenever Social Security has a surplus, when it has more income than it needs to pay the bills benefits, that money is invested in helping the American people. Congress in the very beginning said it should be invested in the safest investment, treasury bonds backed by the full faith and credit of the government of the United States. Currently Social Security holds $2.8 trillion of treasury bonds in its trust funds. We say that what most pension trusts do is diversify their portfolio in order to get a higher rate of return, and a number of public pensions do that as well, I think the Federal Reserve Board and the state governments, and Canada's social security system. Individuals have limited time horizons. If the stock market goes down when you're 65 and you're about to retire, you either work longer or else retire on less. But with a public program like this, it's got an unlimited time horizon, it can ride out dips. So we advocate diversifying the portfolio and bringing in additional revenue that way, because you get a higher rate of return. But it's not individual accounts where there's a risk to individuals; you still have a guaranteed premium.

Then the third source: Starting in 1983 Congress introduced some progressive revenue into the system. The premium is a proportionate amount everyone pays, and the diversified trust fund that's an investment strategy; but there's a small amount of progressive revenue and that is the taxation of benefits requiring higher-income beneficiaries to include Social Security above a certain threshold in their income tax. So there is some progressive revenue. Given the upward distribution of wealth, given how much the wealthy have captured benefits from all the public services, police, fire, road, so forth, we say it's not too much to ask that they pay an additional 10 percent on their million and first dollar and above. So the first million dollars of income would be taxed exactly the same, but this new bracket that would be put in at $1 million level. So your million and first dollar you would pay 10 cents more than you pay under current law, and that additional amount would be dedicated to Social Security. So that's the way you pay for all these benefit increases that we discuss. And we think that's all fair and not overly burdensome on anyone

Kingson: I think it's also important to recognize that this comes out of a growing economic pie, over 30 to 40 years we can expect huge ... it's hard to imagine in the world that we've been in the last few years, but over 40 years the pie does expand and so it's not all that burdensome to add these kinds of provisions to the program.

Altman: I'd just like to add, in the last Congress about eight expansion plans were introduced by a number of different organizations; a number of other experts have developed their own plans (they're all listed in appendix C of the book), and ours is another. None of this is written in stone, but what they demonstrate is--all of them together—that there are many ways to expand Social Security, there are many ways to pay for it in a very fair and manageable way.

But so long as there's a conversation that “Oh, it's horrific! This program has to be cut!” it's hard to really argue for the specifics. So we've got to get the concept out. Now, the American people, polling shows, want Social Security to be expanded, it can be expanded, there are variety of ways it can be done—fully paid for, I should add—and so let's have an honest debate about this. What do we want to do? Do we want to expand Social Security? Do we want to cut it? Leave it as is? Let's have an honest debate.

In the book you tell a story about how, for the first 50 years, the opposing forces simply wanted to destroy Social Security, and that two Republican presidents help put the kibosh on that: The first was Eisenhower, the second was surprisingly Reagan. But immediately after Reagan signed that historic deal saving Social Security by establishing the expanded trust fund, a new strategy was adopted that you write about, which tried to destroy confidence that it could work, so all the people attacking it now attack it “in order to save it.” You have a whole chapter devoted to debunking these arguments. I don't want to give too much credence to them, but I would like you to just pick one of them as an example to show what's wrong with the kinds of arguments that people have brought that distract their attention from what's really going on.

Altman: Let me just make a general point and then if you want to pick one to illustrate, it's probably the children and parents. If you go back and look at the history of Social Security there's been a small group -- President Eisenhower called them a splinter group -- that didn't like Social Security on ideological grounds or were very wealthy, and wanted that money to be going to Wall Street. They would make arguments, straightforward arguments, that Social Security is socialism, it's un-American, that they got murdered, they lost in their initial bid; those arguments were made in 1935, in 1936, in the 1940s, in the 1950s, in the 1960s—Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan made them in the 1960s. But then something happened, as if they all disappeared. None of us believe that they suddenly saw the light, but what's more likely is they finally realized that it wasn't getting very far with their ideological thing, what they have to do is undermine confidence, and we talk about the “Leninist strategy” [pdf] in the book.

But the way that you know these arguments don't make sense is that it's a solution in search of a problem. The solution for every single one of these myths is benefits have to be cut, no matter what the method, and some of them don't even make sense—like “the children are being disadvantaged,” so what is it that we do? We cut benefits, not of today's seniors, but tomorrow's seniors, these same children who are the supposed victims!

Kingson: After the 1983 amendments—Nancy and I were both on staff on the Greenspan Commission—as she mentioned, this [Leninist Strategy] article comes out, and you start seeing a new attitude. Firstly, an attitude diminishing the old. Seniors are becoming greedy geezers. It's as if seniors are harming young people. We see another argument that Social Security is unfair. It's unfair to young people. It's unfair to rich people, because they don't get the rate of return that they might get if they put it in their bank. It's unfair to poor people, it doesn't end poverty. They kind of hurl those at you. Then they go forward a little further and George Bush decides to spend his capital in trying to privatize the system, and that doesn't take off, and come the most recent rounds, they tried to use the deficit, even though Social Security doesn't contribute to the federal deficit a single penny, as an argument.

In all these frames they put forward the same kinds of ideas, as Nancy said. One of them is, it sounds reasonable, Americans are living longer, we ought to raise the retirement age, have people like former Gov. Spitzer on his television program saying, “Everybody knows you have to raise the retirement age.” Well, everybody doesn't know that, the facts are incorrect.

Some of the elites, some of the people who have tremendous resources, people who are financially comfortable, they know that; people like ourselves who are professionals who don't have heavy lifting jobs in some ways and are comfortable may know that. But the reality is, you go out to Youngstown, Ohio, you go out to Topeka, where people have lost jobs and they hear from talking heads and Washington elites that everyone knows you have to raise retirement age, a lot of them are thinking, they're in their late 50s or their 60s, "Look, I've been downsized and I've never gotten back into the workforce and my kids are even in worse shape. The only thing we've got is Social Security.” And when you look at the facts, basically, the demographics, on average people are living longer, but that's not distributed equally, it's very mal-distributed by income, class and education.

The other thing they say is this is just a simple little adjustment. While the reality is it's not. It's a benefit cut. No matter when you would take your benefit, it's reduced if the eligibility age goes up. They like to say it's a simple adjustment, but actually, say the [retirement] age goes up to 70, that would mean [retiring at] age 62 someone's benefits would be about 54 percent of what they would get in what we would call “full benefit.” That would be a huge cut, and the same would be at age 70, they would be getting a smaller benefit, by almost a third of what they get today. The rationale here is wrong, but also the implication in terms of distribution is really very negative, harmful particularly to workers with arduous jobs, with modest health problems, who have less opportunity.

Altman: For President Roosevelt, in 1936 during the election when he was being attacked on Social Security, he gave a speech in Madison Square Garden and he commented that—here I'm paraphrasing-- it's an old tactic, an age-old tactic to get the victims to do their fighting for them. And that really is what's going on here. In magic it's called misdirection. It's saying children, young people, the seniors are taking all your money and getting them fighting. It's telling seniors there's competition—the people with disabilities are stealing money from seniors. African-Americans, you don't live as long as white Americans. It's divide and conquer, it's throwing up smokescreens, it's using half-truths, it's using misinformation.

What really is a problem is that we have this upward redistribution of wealth, and it's the very wealthy who don't want to have to pay their fair share, and they're using misdirection, trying to get everybody to look somewhere else. What we're trying to do in our book is say we can afford this program, if everybody pays their fair share; in fact, you can afford to expand it and that's what we should do.

That sounds like a perfect ending.

Kingson: One other piece to add: As long as the American people weigh in on this, the program will not be cut, but more important, politicians will be hearing the American people need the system expanded, they're able and willing to pay for it. The polling data we have says that it's not only people don't want to be cut, not only do they want expansion, but when asked in some polls if they're willing to pay a little extra, they say yes.

So the trick is to take this debate away from the elites and engage the American people and that's what a lot of groups have been doing, and that's one reason why, at least to date, we have been able to hold off the cost of living adjustment change that was supported both by Republicans and even by our president, the chained-CPI, which was presented as a minor technical change, but in fact it had huge implications for people over time over the long run. The voices of Americans, the voices of veterans, came in and told him don't cut my benefits. The more we can educate the American population, the better we're all going to be as this debate moves forward

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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