The American Association of Retired Persons created an uproar June 17 when they signaled their openness to accepting Social Security benefit cuts.
Their announcement comes in a politically charged atmosphere as deficit mania has gripped the Capitol and Congressional debt reduction negotiations are intensifying.
Appearing to angle for a "seat at the table," AARP spokesperson David Certner said, "We know that benefit cuts will be on the table as part of a [debt reduction] package. Our preference is to maintain the Social Security benefits; others have different opinions and would prefer to cut Social Security much deeper."
Outrage and opposition outside and inside the organization immediately followed. The move was condemned by almost every comment on the AARP Facebook page and many threatened to quit the 37-million-member organization unless the statement was retracted.
"Americans are overwhelmingly united in their position on Social Security," said Nancy Altman, co-chair of the Strengthen Social Security Campaign. "Politicians who think they can take cover through elite groups in Washington do so at their peril."
"There is no ambiguity on where the Alliance for Retired Americans stands on Social Security - never has been, never will be. We are against Social Security benefit cuts for seniors," said Ed Coyle, executive director of the ARA. "This is a very real threat ... the horse has left the barn."
The AARP announcement caught many off guard because the organization has steadfastly demanded Social Security not be part of any debt reduction discussions. They argued correctly that Social Security has nothing to do with the nation's budget deficit, because it is funded separately and mandated to spend only what it takes in.
Now it appears they have drunk the right-wing "Kool-Aid."
The uproar comes as Republicans, Wall Street and the network of right-wing think tanks bankrolled by the likes of the Koch brothers are waging a furious political and ideological assault on "entitlement" programs. They are demanding broad austerity cuts for the working class as ransom for raising the debt ceiling.
AARP's announcement means a wedge is being driven in the movement opposing cuts to Social Security and Medicaid when what is needed at this moment is greater unity and clarity.
Sections of global capital seek to further concentrate wealth by handing Social Security lock, stock and barrel to Wall Street and severely downsizing, privatizing or completely eliminating other functions of government that ensure the economic and social security of working people.
Such an austerity program that forcibly and permanently reduces the living standards of the American people fits the "new normal" of 8 percent or more unemployment, and dumps a population that is seen as a burden on society. It will cast tens of millions more, including seniors, into destitution.
This policy will not alleviate the long-term economic crisis, as developments in Greece are attesting. One round of austerity cuts only seems to bring upon another.
The co-chairs of President Obama's National Commission for Fiscal Responsibility and Reform greeted the AARP announcement. Their proposed austerity measures are the broad outlines for negotiations between Vice President Joe Biden and Congressional Republicans.
"It's a big move because seniors trust them, and when AARP says that, you know, this is OK, then it makes it easier for politicians to make those difficult choices," co-chair Erskine Bowles told Bob Moon of Marketplace.
AARP's statement is a retreat in the face of Washington gridlock and the all out right-wing corporate assault. Kowtowing to these interests will not win the organization's leadership a "place at the table," nor will it solve the debt crisis.
The Social Security Trust Fund is solvent at current benefit rates until 2036. If anything, benefits for the 55 million Americans who currently have them and future recipients need to be increased. The average Social Security recipient is getting $14,000 a year in benefits and has not had a cost of living increase in the past two years.
Unfortunately, one proposal being strongly considered in the Biden-Republican talks would fraudulently refigure the Social Security cost of living formula and sharply reduce benefits, especially for future recipients.
But there are ways to defend and even expand Social Security for future generations.
A coalition of organizations defending Social Security against cuts and privatization - Social Security Works, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare Foundation, and the ARA released a five-state poll showing that 77 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of independents, and 65 percent of Republicans support "scrapping the cap" on the Social Security payroll tax.
Currently, everyone pays 6.2 percent taxes on income up to the first $106,800. Anyone making above that only pays the tax on that $106,800. Many studies show if all income above that is taxed the Social Security shortfall will be solved.
Clinton administration Secretary of Labor Robert Reich said if the cap was raised only up to $180,000, current benefits could be maintained permanently.
The Social Security Trust Fund could be further bolstered with another robust federal stimulus, including a bailout to the deficit-ridden states and municipalities, that will ensure they can rehire the 450,000 public workers laid off during this crisis and that funds the creation of a new WPA program, putting the 20 million unemployed Americans back to work. These are all workers who will pay into the fund.
This is class war over society's wealth: Will it continue flowing to Wall Street and the super rich or be redistributed to the working class and people? Unity and struggle will be the key.
Photo: Shane Becker // CC 2.10