For love of neighbor: Social Security & the ‘Fiscal Cliff'

By Nathan Paulsen
Dec 26, 2012

In a world where masses of humanity do not have millions of dollars tucked away in a bank account to support retirement or weather unexpected economic disruptions - like disability or death of a spouse – Social Security is a key to our survival. Little wonder that a solid majority prefer cutting military expenditures over slashing the cornerstone of our welfare state.

After all, when in hardship or facing a fixed-income retirement, what is more important to your bottom line: a check in the mail that keeps pace with inflation, or a few billion-dollar weapon system deployed thousands of miles from home?  If you think like I do, the answer is obvious. I mean, it’s not as though any of us have forgotten that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars will cost over $3 trillion – twice the amount of deficit reduction under negotiation. Or that the US government is responsible for 43% of global military spending.    

And yet the current logic of deficit reduction negotiations – as broadcast by Democratic and Republican leaderships - is limited to making a minor adjustment to the tax code and cutting the social safety net. Instead of raising revenue by directly taking on the entitlements of the economic elite (or cutting costs by rolling back World War II-era military spending) Washington intends to slash social programs that make ends meet for people who do honest labor.

In other words, the focus on deficit reduction is little more than a convenient method of imposing austerity and putting an even greater part of the Great Recession on the backs of working people.

What this means is that Social Security—a form of institutional mutual aid—is on the chopping block.  The centerpiece of Mr. Obama’s “compromise” with Republicans is his proposal to peg Social Security benefits to an arcane formula for measuring inflation called the Chained CPI. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, adopting this measure of inflation will “result in significant cuts to Social Security benefits: a cut of roughly 3% after 10 years, about 6% after 20 years, and close to 9% after 30 years.”

In short, politics matters. Our communities will be reeling with deepening adversity for generations to come if the emerging Washington consensus holds.        

FDR signs the Social Security Act 1935. Courtesy of

The meaning of Social Security

More than the promise of a dignified retirement or a lifeline when times get tough, Social Security is part of the fabric of working-class life. To understand its immense popularity all we need do is consider the central role of mutual aid in the culture of working-class families whose primary source of income is a wage or salary. Particularly telling is how we respond to one another in crisis.              

In the wake of nearly every disaster, stories quickly emerge of human beings lending helping hands to other human beings in need.  The acts themselves range from those of extraordinary courage to simple kindness. Legends are made of the selfless heroism of people like Sandy Hook Elementary School principal Dawn Hochsprung who lost her life attempting to stop the recent massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. Frequently we encounter the more mundane news of folks participating in blood drives, or helping to stack sand bags that protect local towns from rising flood waters, or donating money for storm relief. In each instant we celebrate people who give of themselves for their community and the common good.

The reason for celebration is at least twofold. On the one hand, these acts of caring occur outside the cash nexus that seems to govern so many of our

 We rejoice – and rightfully so – when people come together for a cause greater than some narrowly defined economic interest

relationships. There is no profit to maximize or capital to accumulate. The people doing the acting are not paid for performing their deeds. Most often they are not even concerned with getting paid back what they have given. In our longing for human connection unmediated by the marketplace, we rejoice – and rightfully so – when people come together for a cause greater than some narrowly defined economic interest.  

On the other hand, we also recognize the generosity of strangers when trouble hits as a natural human response to the trials and tribulations of other people. This is because we behave in like manner within our homes and neighborhoods. Take one of countless examples: The other day my neighbor used his snow blower to clear my drive way after we got about a foot of the white fluffy stuff. Why did he do it? The short answer is because that is what neighbors do for one another. Just as family and friends commonly offer resources without thought of charging interest or getting something in return there are moments we witness a similar regard for the sanctity of life – and willingness for solidarity - on a larger scale.

Think of the hundreds of people who had never met before who joined together in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to bring bottom-up relief to the dispossessed. These are times when the community seems most like an actual community, that is, a multitude of people modeling their interactions on the same basic principles that we hold dear under our own roofs. And again, we express joy at the sight, having overcome at least temporarily the alienation that so painfully haunts much of what now passes for public life.

Occupy Sandy volunteers help out in Red Hook, Brooklyn Seelie/Suckapants

Social Security is cut from the same cloth – even if the pattern turns out somewhat different - of mutual aid. Hence the critical importance of a robust Social Security program to fill the gaps where tight knit collectivist community is absent, largely replaced as it has been by more individualistic relationships characteristic of the dominant economic relationship found within capitalism.

People with power decide policy

All else being equal, a national budget should reflect the values of the people who reside there. But as the conversation around the deficit talks reveal, all else is not equal. With unions on a long retreat and wage earners relatively weak vis-á-vis capital, the discussions and calculations of Washington are fashioned more from corporate boardrooms than the tables of working families. Indeed, it is as though the Obama administration pulled the notion of letting Social Security payments fall behind inflation straight from the playbook of employers who have been using the tactic with increasing zeal in recent years.  

The discussions and calculations of Washington are fashioned more from corporate boardrooms than the tables of working families

This is despite the fact Obama has overwhelming public support to stop the Republicans in their tracks. The Democratic Party could receive a generation or more of goodwill from tens of millions of people by navigating the current impasse with combined reforms of cuts to military spending and increased taxes on the rich and big business, sectors for which there is no shortage of (justified) public scorn.

Nonetheless, the costs of Empire are not a serious part of the conversation. (The Obama administration and Congress would have to cut the war budget by $300 billion per year to get it back to levels comparable to the Eisenhower, Nixon, and Clinton eras.) And the tax hike for the rich under discussion—miniscule by historic standards—does little to compensate for $530 billion of cuts to critical social programs over the next decade. (Under Gerald Ford the tax contribution of top earners was 70% of their income over $200,000 rather than the paltry 39.6% currently on the table).

Calling the measure a “reform” would give it far more stateliness than is due.  And thus the President is left, yet again, unclothed as a mere bureaucratic functionary doing the bidding of his corporate patrons. (Apparently Obama accumulated a few IOUs in the course of running a billion-dollar campaign).

Politicians obey us when we lead through collective action

If politicians are out of step with my preferred future and yours, it is because they answer to people who simply do not think like we do. Wall Street does not have the common decency of Main Street.  At a time when wealth disparity is at almost unprecedented levels, the power that politicians seek to aggrandize unto themselves (egoists dominate the top of almost all state hierarchies) rests firmly in the hands of those few – especially brutal – souls who command the heights of the economic ladder. And their interests are quite unlike ours.

With the center of the Democratic and Republican parties occupied jealously by economic and military interests at odds with pretty much everybody, our task now is to build the organizational means of exerting independent political pressure on elected officials.

I know, easier said than done.

True enough.

Amid a maze of competing priorities, one of the projects I am sure to make room for is Jobs Not Wars, that is working to place the needs of people ahead of Empire and profits. I also am active with Occupy Our Homes which locally in Minneapolis has used collective action to win mortgage modifications for seven families on the cusp of eviction, and the New Year looks even more promising. Wherever your passion might lie there is something out there for you too. 

While the top few percent – who wield vastly disproportionate influence on policymaking circles - might have enough riches to thrive in a social bubble, the rest of us do not have such luxury.

We lean on our neighbors in times of trouble.  

(Some of the preceding reflections were inspired by an admittedly naive reading of the recent work of David Graeber entitled Debt: The first 5,000 years.)  

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

I have worked in human services for much of the past decade; during that time, I acquired an intimate viewpoint on the suffering that structural violence causes in the everyday life of our nation. In writing for War Times, I am particularly concerned with how the United States military machine – consuming hundreds of billions of tax-dollars on an annual basis to wage war and export death – has left us with fewer resources at home for health care, public education, affordable shelter, living wage jobs, domestic violence shelters, and other critical social needs.

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