Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. I’m Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: “Aging population to hit U.S. economy like a ‘ton of bricks’,” reported Reuters in 2021. “AGING IS THE REAL POPULATION BOMB,” the International Monetary Fund cautioned earlier this year. “How an aging population poses challenges for U.S. economy, workforce and social programs,” declared PBS in June. And just this past November, The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell wrote “Why we’re borrowing to fund the elderly while neglecting everyone else.”
Adam: Year after year, it seems American media issues the same warning: the population of the US due to — among many factors — rising life expectancy and falling birth rates, is getting older, which spells doom for our economy and our entitlement programs. A graying public, we’re told, will inevitably upend the labor force, destroy productivity, bleed programs like Medicare and Social Security dry and thus, place an undue burden on younger generations.
Nima: But, the premises for this panic, as we’ll show today, are based on misleading stats, goofy non-sequiturs, and misdirected faux class warfare. So, why do media keep insisting the olds are out for your hard-earned money? Who gets to shape our understanding of what an aging population actually means economically or socially? How does this narrative shift the burden from the state to the individual in terms of managing retirement benefits and systems of care? And ultimately, what are the real harms of treating people over the age of 65 like they themselves are a cancer on society?
Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll examine the narrative that an aging population is necessarily dire, looking at how it’s instrumentalized to gut public benefits for seniors and thus for everyone, advance the financialization of retirement, and reframe the conflict which should be between the rich and poor as one between something more abstracted and tangible like the old versus young.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be speaking with social security expert Nancy Altman. Nancy has over four decades of experience in the areas of social security, Medicare, and private pensions and is currently the president of Social Security Works and chair of the Strengthen Social Security Coalition. She is the author of four books on social security, the most recent of which, co-authored by Eric Kingson, is Social Security Works For Everyone! Protecting and Expanding the Insurance Americans Love and Count On, which was published by The New Press in 2021.
Nancy Altman: In Washington, do they talk about, you know, there’s a war between the old and the young. Most people understand that we’re part of families and that children are not better off if their grandparents are in poverty. The point is that this is really a family plan. And it was one of my favorite quotes of Franklin Roosevelt in talking about Social Security when they were back then, as soon as it was enacted, they were going after it. And he said, it’s an old strategy of tyrants to get their victims to do their dirty work for them.
Adam: This is the spiritual successor to an episode we did in September of last year, the attractive anti-politics of gerontocracy discourse, where we talked about the ways in which class warfare gets flattened into this idea of young versus old. This is a variation on that, specifically about gutting Medicare and Social Security and retirement benefits for the old and instead framing it not as a gut against the rich trying to privatize and cut social programs for the elderly — of course, programs that are by definition going to be used disproportionately by the poor. And reframing that attack not as the rich attacking a welfare state program meant for the poor who happened to be old but actually reversing the oppressor to become the oppressee where it’s greedy, high on the hog, old people that are taking money from you, the young, hardworking, up and coming “taxpayer” or whatever. And this pseudo reverse class warfare, coupled with the obsession with The Population Bomb rhetoric and the upside-down pyramid rhetoric that we hear both in the United States and Western Europe and Japan and elsewhere as this sort of ticking time bomb of insolvency, we thought merited its own episode because again, I think it plays to this kind of youthful vanity in a way that people find superficially appealing because on some superficial level, I think it does appeal to people. They say, oh, well, I work hard, and my generation has gotten screwed over with high home prices and inflation, and all these things and meanwhile, the boomers, they got whatever they wanted. And we thought this aging population boom rhetoric, which has been advanced by the Peter Peterson Foundation, the Urban Institute, which is funded by the Peterson Foundation and other austerity right-wing think tanks had really kind of seeped into the mainstream consciousness that this was something that a lot of people, even people who are on the left or liberal believe or kind of generally believe or sort of feels intuitively true. And we want to explain why that’s not the case. But this is actually part of a broader architecture of argumentation that has been built over decades to gut social programs, one of the few kind of solid untouchable social programs that does exist in this country.
Nima: Not only does this, you know, blaming the old people for taking from the young people misdiagnose what is actually at stake and how these programs operate. But also, so much of the opposition to these social programs, deliberate opposition meant to break them down, meant to make them actually insolvent when they are not insolvent so that they can be privatized. That kind of argumentation is built on not only as I said misdiagnosis but a host of straight-up lies, which we will get into with our guest. But first, a little history. Opposition to the United States’s already-limited retirement benefits has existed as long as those benefits have. The Social Security Act of 1935 established the Social Security program, unemployment insurance, and other such welfare programs as part of FDR’s New Deal. The Social Security program — formally known as the Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) program — was set up to provide monthly payments to people age 65 and older, funded chiefly through payroll taxes on wages up to a certain amount. Now, Social Security was a compromise version of a more sweeping and generous proposal for regular payments for the elderly. But that’s a whole other episode. Now, it didn’t take long for right-wing detractors to seek to dismantle Social Security as soon as it was implemented. Kansas governor and 1936 presidential candidate Alf Landon, for example, campaigned on this issue specifically. Landon’s position was deeply unpopular. He lost nearly every state in the general election against Roosevelt. But that same year 1936, the Republican Party adopted a slightly more savvy approach to trying to sell their efforts to privatize Social Security. As Alex Lawson, colleague of our guest, Nancy Altman, at Social Security Works, stated in a 2022 congressional testimony:
Once Social Security was enacted, Republicans recognized that the support for the economic security that old age pensions brought was powerful and unstoppable. Therefore, the Republican Party chose not simply to oppose Social Security in the 1936 election, but to also offer an alternative. The alternative, included in the 1936 Republican Platform, is the same one offered by opponents today: cut benefits for those deemed to be higher income (i.e., the middle class) and instead provide simply subsistence level benefits.
Since then, the campaigns to weaken and privatize Social Security and other retirement benefits have continued and indeed expanded with many taking the form of warnings about an aging population mooching off a younger population and skewing a putative economic balance between the two.
Adam: Let’s take a look at one example from 1954 in The Cincinnati Enquirer reporting on a conference on the “economic burden” of a growing population of senior citizens who weren’t working but instead living off the government dole. This is the headline from 1954 in The Cincinnati Enquirer: “‘Retirement Relations?’ It’s Challenging in Era of Aging Population.”
Allen W. Rucker of Cambridge, Mass., pointed up the problems in a paper presented at the conference. Said Mr Rucker: By 1975, the 21 million people over 65 in the U.S. will be five times the number of such age in 1910. If they are all unproductive at that time, the economic burden on society in terms of current per capita income would be $50 billion a year. ‘One of the challenges, therefore, is to make out increased leisure from longevity a productive, or at least wisely financial process.
The momentum continued. In 1983, the then six-year-old Cato Institute, funded by the Koch brothers among many other 90-year-old billionaire moguls, the influential libertarian think tank, published a piece in its journal arguing for the gutting of retirement benefits. The piece was called “Achieving a ‘Leninist’ Strategy” in reference to chipping away at Social Security. Apparently, the authors considered themselves the vanguard of the Social Security privatization revolution. This strategy was essentially to pit young against old. Authors Stuart Butler and Peter Germantis sought to convince those on or close to being on Social Security that their benefits would remain untouched and to convince younger people that the program is running out of money. Here’s an excerpt from that 1983 strategy:
The political power of the elderly will only increase in the future. The proportion of the population over 65 will rise steadily from 11.3 percent today to 18.3 percent by 2030. So any proposal aimed at cutting benefits will face increasingly stiff opposition from the elderly, undermining the prospect for genuine reform. Any plan to change the system must therefore be neutral or (better still) clearly advantageous to senior citizens. By accepting this principle, we may succeed in neutralizing the most powerful element of the coalition that opposes structural reforms.
That same year in 1983, the Reagan administration cut Social Security benefits, raising the Social Security retirement age from 65 in 2000 to 67 by the end of 2022, this past year, obviously.
Nima: But as Connor Smyth wrote earlier this year for the People’s Policy Project:
What this actually meant was not that the age at which people could retire and start drawing Social Security benefits changed — that remained at 62. Instead, by raising what’s called the full retirement age (FRA) by two years, the law effectively cut benefit levels across the board, regardless of the age that any particular individual began claiming Social Security benefits. The result is that those retiring at 62 today face a 50% greater penalty for retiring before the change than they would have before 2000.
In 1994, the World Bank published its own report entitled “Averting the old age crisis: policies to protect the old and promote growth.” The report recommended a number of privatization measures affecting pensions and other retirement programs. The report received widespread, thoroughly uncritical attention in major media. Here is one example from Reuters in October of 1994. The headline read, “World Bank Urges Change In Retirement Plans, Taxes.” And the article would say this:
‘The world today faces a looming old-age crisis,’ said the World Bank’s chief economist, Michael Bruno. ‘ Rising life expectancy and declining fertility — welcome indications that development is working — also mean that the proportion of old people in the general population is growing very fast, particularly in many developing countries. The book-length report, titled ‘Averting the old age crisis’ said the challenge was to introduce reforms that were good for a country as a whole in the long run, even if this involves taking expected benefits away from some groups in the short run.
The IMF itself made a similar argument a year later in a 1995 journal article, seeking to privatize pension systems in post-Soviet Eastern and Central Europe otherwise known as “ECE.” This privatization effort was, of course, euphemized as pension reform. Here is an excerpt from that journal article:
ECE demographic trends point to ageing populations in these countries and as their baby boom generations reach retirement age, existing pension systems will simply not be able to support the entitlements, even in countries that have already implemented partial reforms. In addition, the distortions and heavy fiscal burdens embodied in the current systems impede saving and growth, implying that pension reform is a precondition for economic growth and not the reverse.
Adam: Right, so here you have the post-Cold War, triumphal peak mid-90s, late 90s, neoliberal austerity ideology that says we need to privatize everything, right? Because there’s sort of nothing holding us back. The ascendancy of the markets has been proven, and they are superior. Therefore, we need to retire pension, whether it be social security or some other form in other countries. And so this idea that this is the end of history, everything needs to be privatized, that when you pull privatization, it pulls very, very badly, people don’t want to think of their retirement funds are being thrown into some casino.
Nima: That’s the secret here that across the board, Social Security is incredibly popular.
Adam: More popular than Tom Hanks and margaritas. So like, nobody wants to be the one to say we’re gonna privatize this because a) it’s a huge sticky investment opportunity for private interests, hedge funds, etc, who made a killing on privatizing pension reforms and other “less developed countries.” And also, you want old people to work because the more old people are forced to work, the longer they’re forced to work, the greater the labor pool, the lower the wages. This is why people started whiteboarding different ways of approaching this. It wasn’t the rich people are going to privatize the poor people’s social security and pension benefits. It was looking at all these old people, there’s too many of them. There’s this ballooning deficit we have that’s going to explode. Never mind, deficit spending, especially in countries like the United States, never mind raising taxes on the wealthy, we need to start slashing benefits. Now, what a lot of these groups will say somewhat cleverly, The Washington Post, and we’ll get into this a little bit later. They’ll say no, no, we support raising taxes on the rich and cutting benefits, they all say this. The thing is, is that they’re incredibly smart, and they know that if you propose slashing benefits, raising retirement age, and raising taxes, and you sent both to Congress, one of those things is going to happen. And one of them is not going to happen.
Nima: You say all the things to get a compromise to the one that you actually want.
Adam: We did a whole episode, Episode 104. Pete Peterson is also a character in a Broadway show recently called the Lehman trilogy, check it out, it’s pretty good. And they’ll say, oh, no, we support taxes on the wealthy, but they know that’s sort of a nonstarter, that’s not really going to go anywhere, especially with the amount of taxes that we need. And so when you frame it as this idea that there has to be this one-to-one thing where young people pay in one unit of money and old people take out one unit, this is not a formulation we use for any other form of social welfare. For the most part, we don’t say, you know, for each unit the Defense Department spins, the person being protected by the Defense Department or however you want to frame it has to pay into that one-to-one.
Nima: Right, it’s like one either pays into it or gets out of it one unit of safety.
Adam: Yeah, everybody knows that there’s not a purely transactional one-to-one relationship with other forms of social welfare, but they’ve done a really good job framing it like that. So therefore, the conflict becomes the young versus old, right?
Nima: The paying in versus the taking out.
Adam: Yeah. It’s not saying hey, why don’t we increase taxes on the wealthy to pay for this? It’s, look at all these greedy old people.
Nima: Right. We didn’t think there would be so many old people when we started this program. So they’re the problem now.
Adam: And then something that’s good in society, which is taking care of the elderly and advances in technology that keep people living longer and the reduction of you know, workplace accidents and things of that are then framed as this crisis we have to solve the privatization. So the motherlode of this was two decades ago, George W. Bush took aim at Social Security with the usual talking points. In fact, as early as the 1978 congressional run that Bush ran, he’d been suggesting that the Social Security system was unsustainable unless individuals can invest in the payroll taxes themselves. A common refrain of this campaign and throughout his presidency, Bush railed against social security and encouraged privatization. In February 28th of 2002, at the National Summit on Retirement Savings, Bush said:
Some people like their Social Security exactly the way it is, and they’ll be able to keep it exactly the way it is. But for younger workers who want to take advantage of the power of compounding interest, we should allow for personal retirement accounts. Today, Social Security is not a personal savings program. Retirees’ benefits are paid directly from the taxes paid each year by current workers.
Nima: He would return to that line again and again, the idea that Social Security is not a personal savings program. Karl Rove probably wrote that himself because Bush said it throughout his presidency. Two years later, after the quote that you just read Adam, in remarks in September of 2004, Bush leaned into how currently (then) old people will get their checks, right? But young people might not when their time comes to take out of the system.
And he said this quote, “If you’re a senior citizen, you don’t have a thing to worry about when it comes to getting your check.” Adding, “The Social Security trust has got plenty of money to fulfill the promise for our seniors. And baby boomers like me and a couple of others I see here — (laughter) — we’re in good shape when it comes to Social Security. So we need to worry about our younger kids and our grandkids when it comes to Social Security. There’s not enough — (applause). The demographics have changed. [check section] The Social Security trust is weak when it comes to our children and grandchildren.”
Adam: After Bush won re-election in 2004. He made privatizing Social Security the centerpiece of a second term. At the January of 2005, State of the Union address he declared:
George W. Bush: As we fix Social Security, we also have the responsibility to make the system a better deal for younger workers. And the best way to reach that goal is through voluntary personal retirement accounts.
Adam: Nevertheless, most Americans just weren’t into it. They didn’t really see why he needed to privatize something that had worked and worked for several decades, despite the fact that the White House and dozens of op-eds and editorials insisted we are going to run out of money, and the world is going to explode because there’s too many old people.
Nima: Yeah, despite all of the kind of privatization talk being pushed in the mid-2000s, nevertheless, the American public was not buying it. So according to Gallup, public disapproval of Bush’s handling of Social Security actually rose by 16 points from 48 to 64% between his State of the Union address, the one we just heard, and June of that year, 2005. So basically, him talking about it more made people like the program more and oppose privatization. By October of 2005, the Bush administration abandoned its efforts to privatize the program.
Adam: And just today, I was sitting down to record this episode on November 21st of 2023. Catherine Rampell, who’s a columnist for the Washington Post — she’s one of the worst austerity ghouls in all of media — wrote an article with a picture of a bunch of really smug-looking rich, old people sitting in a picnic, like a green pasture, looking very happy and smug and rich. Her headline for her piece, right, “Why we’re borrowing to fund the elderly while neglecting everyone else.” So this is a key component of austerity ideology and propaganda, which is you pit two groups of people against each other. There’s this idea that we’re funding old people, right sort of old people are living high on the hog, which is to say, social security, a government guarantee to make sure old people aren’t living in poverty and in this article, she puts it against a sort of generic fiscal challenge. She doesn’t actually say what government programs she thinks we should be spending money on, except to say that we need to raise retirement age and cut benefits for Social Security, while again, throwing an obligatory raise taxes thing.
Again, this is the same article The Washington Post Editorial Board writes every five minutes, this is the same article a thousand Washington Post columnists had written for decades, even before they were owned by the world’s second richest man. And it positions the whole premise of false austerity. And we saw this with the ways in which the vultures tried to, very much successfully, privatize pensions and a lot of post-Soviet countries or a lot of non-aligned countries after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 90s with the IMF and the World Bank. There’s this idea that we only have so much resources, and the rich are tapped out, we can’t really go to them. So, we have to start gutting the welfare benefits and more importantly, privatizing them, which is to say, take all that money and put it into the casino of the stock market.
Interestingly enough, this is one of the major accomplishments that Bush did when he was governor. In the ‘90s of Texas, the University of Texas had a public fund for 150 years, I think, 155 years, that they set aside when they founded the University of Texas college system and the University of Texas A&M college systems, and they set aside money in West Texas and said, all this money is gonna go to the university system, you can’t touch it, it’s in a vault somewhere. And then in the mid-90s, Bush was spearheading a project to privatize that, and much of that money ended up being invested in Enron and actually cost the fund quite a bit of money. This is the vision that Bush had for Social Security. It’s a vision that no matter how many times they keep trying to fuck that chicken right because nobody wants to do this. It’s just not popular. Usually on this show we’ll take a position that is not popular.
Nima: This is an easy one. [Chuckles] We’re with the mob on this one.
Adam: We are with the rabble on this one. This is something that is literally just top-down for billionaires like nobody really organically wants this, right?
Nima: But you still see it in the pages of The Washington Post all the time.
Adam: They keep trying to fuck the chicken. Catherine Rampell has written this article about 50 times. The Washington Post editorial board has written this article about 50 times where you paint the picture that the old people are living high on the hog versus I don’t know there’s $4 trillion in overseas tax shelters. Maybe we should start there before we start talking about cutting benefits for grandma or making sure that Grandpa drives Uber when he’s 81 years old.
Nima: But the Washington Post loves this shit. Its own editorial board, for example, published a piece in March of 2023, arguing for “social security reform,” now well-established as a euphemism for slashing and gutting the program. The Post recommended gradually increasing the retirement age, meaning again, the age at which a person would be eligible to receive full benefits in accordance with an apparent rise in life expectancy. However, the paper in making this argument didn’t support this claim of rising life expectancy with any numbers, nor did it cite any sources. And this is perhaps because the life expectancy rate in the United States isn’t rising, despite what you hear again and again in articles about Social Security but rather, it is dropping. Between the years 2000 and 2022 when the Reagan-era cuts would go into effect, life expectancy in the United States decreased from 76.8 years to 76.4 years. According to CDC data. The Post repeated this point in March of 2023, stating:
Life expectancy increased from 61 years in 1935, when Social Security was enacted, to 70 years in 1965, to 77 in 2020, according to the World Bank and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means people are spending more time retiring, and they’re spending more money on health care.
But this is a wildly simplistic view. The metric of life expectancy is itself a pretty crude one. It doesn’t account for quality of life during that expected time after retirement, let alone the quality life expectancy after retirement for the poor who make up the majority of those whose life expectancies have decreased per the data. As Century Foundation economist Laura Halsall stated in the same month, a March 2023 column in Barrons: The fact is that the increases in longevity have not been shared equally in the population. The highest-income individuals in our society have experienced longevity gains, while the longevity of the middle and lower earners has remained stagnant or even declined. For example, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine estimates that for women born from 1930 to 1960, life expectancy for those at the bottom of the earnings distribution has declined by four years, while for those at the top of the earnings distribution, it has increased by five years.
Adam: The numbers are especially grim to win when it counts for racial disparities. According to a 2015 Global Policy Solutions report, even using pre-COVID numbers, “Raising the retirement age to 69 would cut Social Security benefits by about 14 percent per month” for Black people in the US. According to even the conservative Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “In 2019, white population life expectancy at age 65 was 19.5 years, while life expectancy for both the Black and American Indian or Alaska Native populations at age 65 was 18.2.” We’ve seen similar arguments in France as well. In April 2023, President Emmanuel Macron passed a law raising the national pension eligibility age from 62 to 64, claiming that the change is necessary to mitigate the effects on France’s aging population. Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt told the French press in mid-December that “We are living longer and therefore (…) we have to work longer.”
That’s not a very French sentiment. How dare you?
Nima: [Laughs] You did a very slight French accent.
Adam: [Chuckles] While many US and European media outlets reported on the profound unpopularity of the policy in France, they also took the Macron government-stated rationale for benefit cuts at face value. In a widely republished Associated Press article, for example, completely uncritically stated on April 17, 2023:“French President Emmanuel Macron said Monday that he heard people’s anger over raising the retirement age from 62 to 64, but insisted that it was needed to keep the pension system afloat as the population ages.” But as is the case in the US, the notion of rising life expectancy is inaccurate and very simplistic. French newspaper Le Monde noted in January 2023:
Living longer does not necessarily mean living better. To take into account the state of health at the time of retirement, another indicator exists: disability-free life expectancy or healthy life expectancy. It is a measure of the average length of time a person will live before being affected by limitations in daily activities. In 2020, disability-free life expectancy reached 64.4 years for men and 65.9 years for women, according to Insee. It increased slightly, in the same proportions as life expectancy. This theoretical age also varies according to job type. Thus, 23% of French people suffered from a physical limitation in their first year of retirement in 2018, according to the Health Ministry. The most affected are blue-collar workers: 34% are constrained in the activities of daily living upon retirement.
So again, it’s not just about some abstract or our catch all life expectancy, it is about a) how long you live after retirement, b) the quality of life after retirement, and c) what’s your class status. Poor people live less long, they’re more likely to have work-related injuries because they’re more likely to do hardworking, backbreaking labor. The quality of life and the injuries of who Social Security is specifically there as a floor to protect is what matters. And so they’re padding their stats with wealthier people, obviously, generally more white populations who are not who the program is a floor for. It is a floor for the poor, the poorest of the poor. And so the way they pad the stats is by using averages for a large percentage of the population for whom we really ought not be focusing our attention on.
Nima: Increased life expectancy is one of the common narratives used to push for the gutting of Social Security. Another one that is alive and well, is that the program is what, Adam? Running out of money. We hear this all the time. We saw it decades ago, and it actually became a rallying cry for Paul Ryan circa the early 2010s while he was chair of the House Budget Committee and Mitt Romney’s running mate during the 2012 presidential campaign. Here’s a clip of Congressman Paul Ryan echoing this deceptive talking point to Charlie Rose in 2010.
Paul Ryan: And I would argue that Social Security is probably the most successful program ever created. And it’s popular because multiple generations value it. If my kids are going to get negative 1% rate of return on 13% of their payroll taxes, basically, you think they’re going to continue to support the program? Let them have the choice of having a personal account like I have as a federal employee, as a member of Congress. It’s not privatized. It’s managed by the government and safe index funds. It harnesses the power of compound interest. So they grow their money at 5 or 6% a year instead of negative 1% a year. They get better benefits. It’s a nest egg that they own and control that goes to their property. My dad died when I was a kid. My mom had to get his benefits. She had to forego all those taxes she paid when she worked as a lab technician in Milwaukee. And she lost that because it went back to the government. So there are inequities in the system right now. I think that can be fixed with personal accounts. And if you don’t like them, if you don’t want them, then don’t have it. I just think it ought to be an additional voluntary option. But it is not necessary to actually solve this problem. I personally think it’s preferential for younger people to have the option so they get a better deal.
Adam: So yeah, they want to just put a little crack in the dam so bad, right?
Nima: If you’d like it the way it is, that’s fine. All I’m saying is that people should have the choice to just —
Adam: It’s just a little bit. Let me privatize a little bit of it. I promise I won’t get any more after that.
Nima: Just be able to invest it yourselves, take it away from the government, and invest in yourself.
Adam: This idea that Social Security is insolvent is extremely popular in many ways largely accepted by our media. The New York Times August of 2021, “Social Security is projected to be insolvent in a year earlier than previously forecasted.” Subhead: “Annual government reports on the solvency of programs underscore the questions about long term viability of Social Security, and Medicare.” Washington Post, of course, four days later, “COVID took one year off the financial life of the Social Security retirement fund,” and of course, it quotes the Pete Peterson Foundation. CNN from February of 2023, “Medicare and Social Security insolvency is right around the corner.” Ah, it’s always right around the corner. So the ticking time bomb is about to go off. March 2023, “Social Security trust funds depletion date moves one year earlier to 2034. Treasury says.” So, we can sort of keep going and going.
Nima: Social Security and insolvency is like the Iranian nuclear bomb. It’s always right there and like actually not happening.
Adam: It’s always six months away. The message has worked. In a 2021 survey by Nationwide found that 71% of people between 26 and 41 years old and 78% of people between 42 and 57 years old are concerned about Social Security running out of funding in their lifetimes. But as many critics have pointed out, despite what media and policymakers have been insisting for decades, Social Security is not running out of money, and it really can’t run out of money.
Nima: That’s the key.
Adam: That’s the key. Social security is self-funded and does not draw from a general federal fund. What pays for it is in people’s paychecks. Well, again, quote Alex Lawson in his 2022 congressional testimony: “Expanding, not cutting, Social Security and restoring it to long-range actuarial balance is a question of values. It is unquestionably affordable… Social Security’s cost as a percentage of GDP is close to a straight horizontal line for the next three-quarters of a century and beyond. According to the most recent Trustees Report, Social Security is calculated to cost just 5.87 percent of GDP in 2100, at the end of the 21st century. That is a lower percentage of GDP than many other industrialized countries spend on their counterpart programs today.” Additionally, one point that’s often buried in these discussions is the fact that the wealthy are effectively exempt from paying into Social Security and that many of the fears around insolvency could be allayed at the very least by demanding significantly greater payments from them. For the year 2023, the maximum taxable earnings subject to Social Security is $160,200. Much of the fear-mongering on Social Security running out of money ignores other options for taxation, namely that of the rich who currently pay basically nothing into it.
Nima: To discuss these tropes, and many more, we will now be joined by Nancy Altman. She has four decades of experience in the areas of Social Security, Medicare and private pensions, and is currently the president of Social Security Works and Chair of the Strengthen Social Security Coalition. Nancy is the author of four books on social security, the most recent of which, co-authored by Eric Kingson, is Social Security Works For Everyone! Protecting and Expanding the Insurance Americans Love and Count On, which was published by The New Press in 2021. Nancy will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
We are joined now by Nancy Altman. Nancy, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Nancy Altman: Thank you so much for having me.
Adam: So, I’m excited to get into this with someone who has been debunking these things professionally for a while. And obviously, I’m sure you’ve heard all the arguments. So we’ll try to present you with some of the main ones, and you can tell us why they don’t make any sense. I want to begin by talking about kind of the primary theme of the show, which is this media and think tank-created, sort of contrived idea that is, I think, somewhat successful. I think people have been trying to privatize Social Security for several decades. And most of the arguments don’t really seem to gain a lot of traction. But I think one that has in the popular consciousness is this kind of faux class war between the young and the old, this idea that grandma is off, like living high on the hog on Social Security while you work a double shift at Autozone. And that the conflict is not between the poor and the rich, but it’s in fact between the sort of old than the young with obviously the sort of assumption that we’re going to run out of Social Security money or the money you’re paying isn’t going to be there or whatever. I’m sure you’ve heard all of them.. The general idea is that there has to be a one-to-one ratio of people paying in and people taking out, this kind of reverse pyramid moral panic, which we can also get into. I want to sort of talk about this popular assumption, what you think is wrong with it, and how it kind of maybe misplaces the ire or the blame away from people paying more in taxes or even deficit spending versus like, again, this assumption that there’s these greedy old people just like you know, playing shuffleboard and getting rich off your hard work.
Nancy Altman: I have to say, I’m so glad you’re talking about that. Only in Washington, do they talk about, you know, there’s a war between the old and the young. Most people understand that we’re part of families, and that children are not better off if their grandparents are in poverty. The point is that this is really a family plan. And it was one of my favorite quotes of Franklin Roosevelt in talking about Social Security when they were back then, as soon as it was enacted, they were going after it. And he said, it’s an old strategy of tyrants to get their victims to do their dirty work for them. And that’s exactly what’s going on here. It’s the wealthy that are not paying their fair share. Social Security, as important as it is, is a retirement program. It’s the nation’s largest children’s program. There are about 8% of America’s children are getting benefits either directly because they have a parent that’s died or become disabled, or they live with grandparents who are getting social security than households with Social Security. So there’s no class warfare. It makes no sense, but it is an effort and in fact, as you know, I’ve been working on this for more than 40 years and when I started in my 20s, I was told I was never going to get social security because all the greedy geezers were taking too much, and they were stealing my money. And the only thing that’s happened is that back then I was the victim. Now, I’m the greedy geezer and it’s my grandchildren that I’m victimizing. I mean, the whole thing is absurd. The young people are going to need Social Security more than current retirees, given what’s happened. And what we need to do is expand Social Security, make sure billionaires pay their fair share who are the ones who, of course, are driving this myth of the old versus the young. Because we’re facing a retirement income crisis. So that’s a sort of very long answer. But the bottom line falls through all of these myths that Social Security is polarized as the American people. We’re united to that Social Security. And the only way to undermine it is to say, we can’t afford it, it’s too much of a burden on children, you know, all that kind of stuff. So, I’m so glad we’re having this conversation.
Nima: Yeah, one of the other popular tropes that we’d love for you to talk to us about, Nancy, is this idea that Social Security as the primary driver of the debt or deficit in this country. I think we kind of see this from austerity-obsessed media and politicians. How many times have we seen like a smug and like mugging Jake Tapper on CNN comparing the federal budget to a family budget, right? The old kitchen table economics, basically showing like big red lines indicating massive credit card debt, and how, of course, that would be super untenable for a family and therefore, it’s untenable to do an allegedly similar thing to our entire nation. You yourself have noted that “Social Security does not and by law cannot add even a penny to the federal deficit. It can only pay benefits if it has sufficient revenue, not only to cover all benefit costs but also the administrative costs associated with the payment of those benefits. And it has no borrowing authority to make up any shortfall.” Can you explain a bit more, kind of dig a little deeper even into this popular trope? And why? Again, it is just wrong.
Nancy Altman: Yes, it’s completely wrong. And again, as you say, you know, I sort of laugh at the Jake Tapper and the family budget because if a family could print money, had control of the money supply, they wouldn’t have the same issues. But the point is that what Social Security is is a pension plan. We all contribute. It’s an earned benefit. It’s part of our deferred compensation. And we contribute, and the money is set aside in a trust. It is separate from the general operating fund. In fact, many people think that Congress has stolen their money. And it’s understandable why they think that because Congress talks about it as if you can offset. This is dedicated revenue. By law, it can only be used to pay Social Security benefits. If you had a private company that commingled its private pension plan with its general operating money, it would be violating the law. It would be violating the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. So there’s actually a great YouTube video of Ronald Reagan of all people making this very point. He makes it very clearly that Social Security has its own dedicated revenue. It is set aside in a trust. Where the confusion comes is that it currently has a $2.8 trillion surplus. Now, we got used to thinking about the government, any government programs having a surplus, but again, because Social Security’s money is dedicated and segregated, it’s accumulated that $2.8 trillion surplus and gets interest from it now. The money is invested. It’s not just put under a mattress. It’s, of course, invested. And since the beginning, Congress has insisted that it be invested in the safest investments on Earth, which are treasury bonds backed by the full faith and credit of the government of the United States.
Adam: So not Enron or… okay, good. Or WeWork?
Nancy Altman: Right, no junk bonds. So actually Social Security is a creditor. And of course, that’s where the confusion comes because it lends the money to the federal government. The federal government is obligated to pay it back. You can see it’s all transparent online. You can see all of the treasury bonds, what their maturity dates are, what their par value is. It’s very carefully monitored and segregated and so forth. And the money’s always been paid back. If Congress ever didn’t pay it back, that would be a default. We just went through the debt limit and everybody’s gonna go oh it’s this, you know, $33 trillion. Well, 10.8 trillion of that dollars are money that all of us, you know, I sometimes tell audiences that they’ve heard of trust babies, well, they’re all trust babies still because they are the beneficial interests of the Social Security trust funds. So, that’s $2.8 trillion.
Adam: So, let’s talk if you can about this fear-mongering about this. Because this is, again, this is a trope. I think that if I like went up to someone randomly on the street and said, like, do you think Social Security is running out of money? I think I think most people would say yes, that’s sort of a conventional wisdom. We got we got the John Stossel, the Jake Tapper. Economics 101 guys who are sort of right-leaning. They always say it’s running out of money, it’s insolvent. Why is that wrong? Why is the reverse pyramid as it were a moral panic that exists in other countries as well. I know people are talking about in China, Japan. Why is that fundamentally off? From our perspective, a lot of it has to do with this idea that somehow you can’t raise taxes on the rich, like it’s sort of not an option.
Nancy Altman: Yeah, so here’s the thing that is the irony. Social security has from the beginning been extremely carefully managed and monitored. First of all, what Social Security is, is insurance. It is, as I say, it’s a pension plan that provides joint and survivor retirement annuities, provides life insurance, and disability insurance. And like any kind of insurance, there are about 40 actuaries who work at the Social Security Administration who are constantly projecting income and outgo. And most private pensions are projected maybe 20 years out. The OECD countries, I think 25 years. Because again, it’s supposed to provide not just benefits, but a sense of security. The trustees project out, not 20 years, not 50 years, but three-quarters of a century, 75 years. It’s only been around about 88 years, but it projects out 75 years. And whenever you project out that far, sometimes you’re going to misshow unexpected surpluses, sometimes unexpected shortfalls. So Social Security is 100% funded for the next decade. It’s about 90%, funded for the next 25 years, then 88% for the next 50 years, about 83% funded after that.
And the reason that projects out so far is to give Congress time. The reason Congress has not acted is because they’ve tried to take action which the American people across the board, whether you’re a moderate Republican or you’re a member of the Socialist Party, you believe in Social Security. You understand how important it is, and you do not want to see a cut. And these members of Congress want to go behind closed doors and cut it. And the billionaires that don’t want to pay their fair share are the ones who have been pushing them to do that. Because again, they don’t want to pay their fair share. The shortfall is quite manageable. There are a number of bills in Congress, all introduced by Democrats that require millionaires and billionaires to pay on all of their income just as most Americans do. And that allows not only enough to make sure that all benefits can be paid in full and on time through this century and beyond but also increase the benefits which are extremely modest.
And that’s what the real fight is that’s going on that the Democrats are now really pushing to expand Social Security. The media is completely ignoring it. They say oh, this isn’t realistic because somehow you can’t get 10 votes in the Senate. Well, if the American people knew what was going on, they would insist on it. So, there is a shortfall that has to be addressed. It’s nothing to be alarmed about. In fact, it should give people assurance that everything is being very carefully monitored.
But to just give you one sense of how ridiculous this is, when Social Security was first started, in 1935, and then it was expanded in 1939, and then we entered World War II and there were supposed to be FICA rate increase. And Congress did not want to do it because we’re in the middle of the war. And there were a lot of people paying more taxes and so forth. The Roosevelt administration wanted it, but Congress said no. But as a compromise what Congress did was say, okay, well, if there was ever a point where the trust funds can’t pay, the General Fund will be a guarantor of last resort, the General Fund can be used. Now, we got into World War II, it was full employment, there was lots of money coming in, and they never had to do that. There was plenty of money to pay benefits. And then after the war was over, they repealed that because as I say, it’s, it doesn’t add a penny to the deficit. And that’s an important core principle of the program. But if Congress tomorrow said, okay, well, if the campaign benefits the General Fund would pay, there’d be no issues, not be able to be able to say social security is going bankrupt. That’s how easy it would be to solve it, but the way to solve it is to enact one of these bills that requires the uber-wealthy millionaires and billionaires to pay more, and we do that, we can expand everybody’s benefits.
Adam: So, let’s talk about that, if you will, which is the sort of vultures swarming around because obviously, this is a huge, sticky multi-trillion dollar federal budget item. The forces on the right either wanted to privatize it and get their greasy paws on it, or, you know, and put it in the casino stock market, or just go reduce it because they want 90-year-olds to drive down wages basically, they want 90-year-olds competing with 16-year-olds to get jobs at Walmart and you know, 35-year-olds or whatever. So I want to talk a bit about those forces and the logic they use. The Washington Post Editorial Board, I think it’s one of the most influential, most consistently demagogic about this, they had a whole piece back in March, a whole section about how they need to “reform.” They do this sort of grand bargain compromise thing, which I know that I think the West being dedicated two episodes to this, this idea that like, we need to meet in private and some backroom, and the liberals need to give some in the right, we need to give some through higher taxes. But then you realize it’s like, well, what they’re doing is they’re asking someone who makes a billion dollars to pay $10, and someone who makes $500 a week to pay $10. That’s the grand compromise, right? Some guy to pay .001% of his income and some schmuck who you know, who can barely survive has to pay 5% of his income.
That’s the sort of grand compromise, but I want to talk about one of the major tropes they push, which in the last three or four years has gotten more egregious, this idea that we live longer. And that because people live longer, that means they should retire later. This is a backdoor way of, of course, cutting Social Security benefits. Obviously, Reagan increased full benefits to 67, based on the assumption that by the year, in 2000, I think it went into effect, and the assumption is that we will be living longer. Now, that of course is not been the case. In fact, people are living less time than when in 1989 when it changes. Life expectancy is where it was 24 years ago in 1999. It’s gone down eight years in a row.
And yet, the Washington Post Editorial Board when they wrote about this as we discussed at the top of the show said that life expectancy keeps increasing, which is not true. The Washington Post itself had a major report two months ago about how life expectancy has gone down so I guess they don’t read their own paper. Can we talk about this myth that a) life expectancy has gone up and therefore, our retirement he gone up. But secondly, to that, even if you accept that premise that people should spend their golden years like instead of writing their memoirs or learning how to sew or traveling, they should go get a job as an Uber driver because I guess that’s how we should spend all of our time until we fucking die. Sorry, forgive my language.
Nancy Altman: So many aspects to that. And this is a little bit complicated for non-experts, but Social Security really has a band of retirement. So you can first claim benefits for retirement age 62. For every month you delay, you get a little bit more because you’re getting it for a month less, they make an actuarial adjustment. So, for every year that what they call the full retirement age goes up, that is indistinguishable from an across the board 6.5 or 7% cut in benefits. Even if you work till age 70, you’re gonna get 6.5% less if the retirement age is 68, rather than 67. And so, the first point is that raising the retirement age is, as they say, it’s a huge benefit cut. And benefits are too low. They are inadequate by virtually any measure, and about one out of three seniors rely on Social Security for virtually all their income. Two out of three rely on it for most of their income. And as I say, with the disappearance of private pensions and with a huge amount of student debt, young people are going to be more dependent on Social Security, not less. So that’s point number one that raising the retirement age is a sort of cute way of not saying directly, okay, we’re going to cut benefits across the board. But the other point is exactly the point you’re making. We sometimes sort of snarkily talk about CEOs are living longer so janitors have to work longer. I mean, it just makes no sense. If you’re in physically demanding job, you cannot work, you know, your body wears out.
Adam: That’s also one point I didn’t mention is that if you actually adjust for things like class, people are not are still not even living long, that it’s actually most of the gains are being made by the rich, especially after a certain age. Sorry, go ahead. I just want to clarify that.
Nancy Altman: Exactly. No, you’re exactly right. And of course, you notice that those who make you know, I call it a solution in search of a problem because what all of these tropes have in common is that the solution is cut benefits. And the idea is that those who are making these arguments, they say everybody’s living longer, and the response is well, all the things you said, including that lower-income life expectancies are going down. Oh, well, for that reason, it’s unfair, and we should cut benefits, you know, they’re paying in and not getting enough out, that kind of thing. So, they never say, well, gee, what can we do? How about universal healthcare to make sure that people get the healthcare they need throughout their lives and can expand life expectancies, as opposed to saying, okay, people are living longer, cut benefits, people are not living longer, cut benefits.
But the point is that number one, we are only living a few years longer than we were in the 1940s. The numbers they throw around are how long people have been living starting at birth. And of course, back in 1940, you had all kinds of infant mortality, very high infant mortality, children’s diseases. If you went through your childhood and you reached your 20s, you generally made it to retirement. And if you look at retirement age at 65, there’s not that much difference between then and now. It’s a few years more, but we’ve increased the retirement age two years. And it’s your point, really, why not have child labor? It’s ridiculous to say that people are living longer so they should work longer. It also says nothing about the quality of their morbidity and so forth, whether they even could work longer. And there’s age discrimination, there are all kinds of reasons. If people want to work longer, they should have the option or the choice to do it. But nobody should be forced to any more than children should be forced to work or that we should go back to 6 day, 12 hour work weeks.
Nima: In your 2018 book, which was entitled, The Truth About Social Security: The Founders’ Words Refute Revisionist History, Zombie Lies, and Common Misunderstandings. And in that book, you mentioned many of these misleading tropes. And the one that I really want to touch on is this concept that each person has an individual reserve account that they pay into. So this is like a really popular understanding, I think, and you know, really fits in with the trope of mooching greedy old people burning through young people’s money, as we’ve been talking about. Can you talk to us about this idea about the individual account and what people get wrong about that?
Nancy Altman: Well, in fact, what we have is better than that, because you can outlive savings, but you cannot outlive Social Security. If you had an individual account, and you live to 110, you might exhaust it. But with Social Security, if you live to 110, you keep getting those benefits, because what it is, is it’s not savings, it’s insurance. And like all insurance, if the insured event occurs, you receive the benefit and so, our money is pulled. One of the things about Social Security, as I said, we are living especially now at a time of such divisiveness and such polarization. But, that is not the case about Social Security. There’s been a literally billionaire-funded campaign to undermine confidence in Social Security because it shows the best of government really works. And people really do value and appreciate, they understand this is a benefit that they have earned. And so, we are pooling our risk and pooling our funds. And then when an insured event, like all group insurance, when an insured event occurs, you receive the benefit. So, if you become so disabled that you can no longer work, you receive disability benefits and your spouse and your children do as well. If you die prematurely leaving young children, they receive life insurance benefits through Social Security. And if you’re fortunate and live to old age, you receive Social Security. And as I say, if you live to 110, you’ll still get that benefit.
And a very important feature is that every year, it’s adjusted for inflation. The inflation adjustment isn’t accurate, it’s too low, but at least it’s an adjustment that you get every single year. And as they say, so it doesn’t erode over time, your other, may spend down your other assets. If you’re getting other private pension benefits, those will erode because they’re not inflation-adjusted. But Social Security is inflation-adjusted MLS, real life. It’s a pooled risk, and pooling responsibility, and pooled benefits. So, we do not have individual accounts, we have what I say its better because as I say, your individual benefit can be stolen. Or you can invest it poorly, and it can lose value. But here, the risk is on the plan sponsor, which is the federal government.
But if I can say one more sort of general point that underlies all of these tropes, and that is that there has always been a small group that hated Social Security. President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican president, called them a tiny splinter group. You can see he wrote in a letter to his brother, which is a private letter, but now you can find it online. He called them a tiny splinter group. He said, their number is negligent, and they are stupid. But he said they were the oil man and all that kind of thing. They were extremely wealthy. So even though their number is small, they have enormous amount of influence and power. And so you’ve got Jeff Bezos at the Washington Post, and well before Jeff Bezos, the Washington Post has had a vendetta.
Adam: Yeah, no, this predates that for sure.
Nancy Altman: And mainstream media, they like to do the cocktail parties with the elites. And the elites are telling them, this is a terrible program, we got to get rid of it. The American people know better. And when you talk about a bipartisan solution, the bipartisan solution is to expand benefits and require the wealthy to pay their fair share. This is a heavily polled area. It’s been polled since the 1930s. Everyone runs for office polls, we poll it, the AARP polls it, the Heritage Foundation polls it, everybody polls it. And the polling comes out exactly the same, which is people do not want to see these benefits cut. They want to see them expanded, they know they’re going to be more important than ever. One of my absolute favorite polls of this was done in March of 2016. So, it was in the middle of the primary season. And with the Pew Foundation, they asked people who they were going to vote for and then their position on a variety of issues. And at that point, it was on the Democratic side, it was Clinton and Sanders. And on the Republican side, it was Trump and Kasich and Cruz. And most of the answers were distributed. They were not surprising where people came out. But on Social Security, all of the little dots, all of them were all clustered around Bernie Sanders, that even Cruz supporters said he had come out for privatization, they wanted what Bernie Sanders is for, which is to expand benefits.
Adam: Look, I don’t know about you, but I see thousands and thousands of people marching in the street right now demanding Bowles-Simpson. They’re saying Bowles-Simpson. We want the Catfood Commission. The people demand it. It’s funny when they brought Alan Simpson, they did a documentary on Netflix, they had that like multimillion-dollar rollout. I’m sure was Pete Peterson or one of his various zombie organizations. It was like kicking the can, and it was like, they tried to have them do Gangnam Style, and it was it was not them. Yeah, it’s hard to astroturf people wanting to privatize, that’s a hard one. Like, if you paid me like a couple million, I could try to come up with something. But it would be hard. It would be very hard.
Nancy Altman: And you know, again, I mean, it really shows Franklin Roosevelt’s genius because he really put together a program. And Francis Perkins and the others who worked with him really were experts on this and understood Americans and that really put together a program that has stood the test of time and that works extremely well. And the billionaires know that and what they’ve tried to do through the media — in the early days, they’d say this socialism, it’s competing unfairly with private insurance and so forth, but they would lose election after election. So either all of those people disappeared in the 1970s which I don’t think happened or they changed their tactic, which is exactly what happened. Now, they say that President George W. Bush, who tried to privatize it introduced his privatization by saying, we love social security, but we can’t afford it. You know, it’s the idea that we’re at the richest moment in our history. There’s no question we can afford Social Security. It costs currently about 5% of gross domestic product. At the end of the 21st century, they’ll be 6% of gross domestic product, you know, that increase of 1%. In response to COVID, Congress spent something like 20% of GDP when after 9/11, we spent several percentage points higher on military. And those were surprises, we were not prepared for it. We’ve been prepared for the aging of the population since the first baby boomers and then the following baby bust came after. So, this is not new, it’s very easy. All we need to do is be willing to tax the very wealthy or really not tax because they would get higher benefits. You know, require that they contribute their fair share. And we could all have increased benefits, which is what we need to have.
Nima: Well, this has been so incredibly illuminating. Nancy, before we let you go, can you tell us a little bit about what we can look out for from Social Security Works or anyone else that you are currently working with? And/or is there a zombie lie that we have not yet gotten to that is just your absolute favorite that you want to make sure you mention before we let you go?
Nancy Altman: Oh, that’s a good one. Well, you hit on such good ones. Well, let me start first, actually with a warning because there is a new threat on the horizon. We’ve just beaten it back. But that is, you mentioned Bowles- Simpson. That was a fast-track commission that came out with lots of cuts to Social Security. Fortunately, it didn’t receive the necessary votes to get a vote on the hill, but the same suspects are back trying to get a fast-track commission. Thank goodness, President Biden has called it a death panel for Social Security and Medicare.
But with the threat of shutting down the government, we’ve been very concerned for weeks that the ransom that conservatives would be seeking was one of these fast-track commissions that would cut our Social Security benefits. Now we’ve escaped this round, but we’re gonna have two bites in January. And Mike Johnson said in his inaugural speech right after he was elected Speaker of the House that he wanted a fast-track commission that was, you know, he was going to push for one. You’ve got Mitt Romney in the Senate who’s leading the charge on this. And if we get that, we’ll be on defense trying to defeat it. And they’ve set it up. This is quite telling. They structure it so that it cannot report until the day after the election. So you have people running for office who say who us? We? We love Social Security, but we can’t tell you what we’re gonna do. We’re waiting for the commission. And then in the lame duck, people who have been defeated, people who are retiring, people who are as far away from the next election as they can get, could wind up voting to cut our Social Security. Because they’re talking about process that can’t be amended, it can’t be filibustered. It’s really dangerous. So that’s a concern.
On the other hand, what we’re working on and what I really hope President Biden will do this is that the White House administration introduces its own expansion plan. He ran in 2016 on expanding Social Security. And there are a number of bills in Congress, including one that has, if you believe it, 179 co-sponsors, so virtually, almost like 90% of the Democrats who have co-sponsored it. And it expands benefits, it doesn’t require anyone earning less than $400,000 to pay a penny more. But the media says, oh, well, they don’t even cover it. Nobody knows. They say Congress is doing nothing about Social Security when the Democrats are doing quite a bit. The problem is that the media treats it as not real. But I think if President Biden proposed it, they would have to cover it. And I think if that happens, it will be an election issue.
In 2024, I’m actually convinced that part of the reason there was not the red wave of 2022 — obviously, a huge part of that was Dobbs and overruling Roe and that, but another piece was that the Republicans were a little too comfortable talking about their real plans about Social Security. And seniors, for the first time, broke in a long time, broke for Democrats. And I think if the Biden administration runs on protecting women’s reproductive rights and expanding and protecting Social Security, we may see a very good election in 2024. And then we’ll be poised to have legislation that eliminates the shortfall and expands benefits.
Nima: Well, Nancy, we cannot thank you enough for joining us. Today, we’ve been speaking with Nancy Altman, who has over four decades of experience in the areas of Social Security, Medicare, and private pensions and is currently the president of Social Security Works and chair of the Strengthen Social Security Coalition. Nancy is also the author of four books on social security, the most recent of which, co-authored by Eric Kingson, is Social Security Works For Everyone! Protecting and Expanding the Insurance Americans Love and Count On, published by The New Press in 2021.
Nancy Altman: And thank you so much for having me.
Adam: Yeah, I mean, I guess this is part of an informal trilogy we have where we kind of defend old people, which is a political and social function I never thought I would have. But anytime we’re not talking about class war. Maybe we’re being doctrinaire or leftist here, but like, anytime we’re talking about some other form of conflict that seems squishy, and malleable and is being mimicked by the worst people on Earth. There’s a big red flag, we’re like, okay, the old people are being greedy, versus the young. And it’s like, it just sounds like a Pepsi marketing ad where you’re like, those old people are so lame. Wouldn’t it be great if you could take all your money and instead of giving it to those deadbeats, you put it in the market and because you’re smart — it’s such a vanity play, right? Like, you need to invest your money as you see fit. It’s like, ehhhhhh, no.
Nima: Yeah, it’s really important, I think, to pay attention to how we’re being divided and conquered. [Chuckles] Right? And if it is, in terms of like, age, or geographical demographic, if it’s anything other than like, how much money people have, it might be a dodge?
Adam: Yeah, exactly. And so the Social Security is one of those things where due to some accident of history during the Great Depression and the rise of the specter of Communist takeover, there were some pretty decent social programs that were put in.
Nima: That everybody loves and relies on.
Adam: Yeah, that everybody loves and relies on. It’s just the worst human beings that have just been trying to just nip, you know, get that first crack in the dam because that’s really all they feel like they need. And the only thing they just keep running this line since I was a kid, of like, oh, no, there’s a population bomb. It’s about to explode. I guess we have to get rid of benefits. And it’s like, okay, I guess maybe, but like, again, this is what Alex Lawson said and our guest said, you should be talking about expanding benefits, you should be talking about expanding Medicare. We have the money. We can afford it. There is so much fucking wealth in this country and concentrated in such a small number of hands. The idea that we don’t have the money is a totally fake narrative made up. Because the way you stack the ideological deck is you sort of assert this austerity dynamic where it’s young versus old. We just don’t have the revenue. It’s insolvent. And it’s like, yeah, but those are political decisions you made.
Nima: It’s fine for people now, but it’s gonna screw you young people and your kids and your grandkids.
Adam: Yeah, those aren’t laws of nature. We have more than enough wealth to take care of old people so they don’t have to be Walmart greeters or work as DoorDash drivers when they’re 80 years old.
Nima: Yeah, so as our guest laid out in full, and if you read her books, it’s even more comprehensive. The notion that Social Security doesn’t have enough money, that we as a society don’t have enough money, or all these other kinds of narratives and tropes that you see in our politics and press all the time about how we just have to gut these social welfare programs because we just can’t afford them. Obviously, other things we can afford no problem, no questions asked. But when it comes to making sure that like old people can eat and live, that is kind of up for the market to decide. So that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you all for listening.
I'm Hand Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams, Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cardano. Transcriptions are by Mahnoor Imran. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, December 5, 2023.
Transcription by Mahnoor Imran.