Whats really behind the death panel scare?

Telling seniors they will have to appear before “death panels” which will decide whether they live or die is not just another one of the many outrageous lies invented by the right wing. More than just a scheme to kill health insurance reform, it is part of a major effort to shift the nation’s seniors to the right of the political spectrum.

This can be done, the right wingers figure, if they create an uproar big enough to help seniors forget the many scary things they really do have to worry about – scary things foisted upon them during the last 30 or more years that the ultra-right has been in control.

The first real worry older Americans face, a year after the massive financial collapse in the stock and housing markets, is a retirement far leaner than anything they had ever expected.

Even those with employer-guaranteed pension plans are finding that, at a minimum, many of the fine-print frills in those plans are being revoked.

Then there are the individual savings accounts such as IRAs and 401(k)s that so many seniors depend upon. Those have lost a third or more of their value.

A huge form of personal savings that workers count on for their retirement years is home equity and that too is evaporating with the 30 percent drop in home prices.

What all of this means is that Social Security – a government run program that the ultra-right tried but failed to privatize – remains as the only true source of reliable retirement income for millions of seniors.

Even its harshest critics admit that government-run Social Security will remain fully funded for the next 28 years, making it, by far, more certain than anything in the “free market” economy.

While Social Security is the surest thing seniors have, many of those who are union members also have their defined benefit pensions.

In a defined benefit pension plan the employer promises a retirement benefit and makes regular contributions to a fund so that the promises can be kept. The fund is invested. If the investments don’t work out employers must increase the amounts they contribute.

As a result of the current financial crisis defined benefit plans are under stress because so many investments have done poorly. But most of them are still able to pay the core benefits they promised.

It should be noted that defined benefit pension plans, like Social Security, did not arise naturally out of the free market capitalist system.

It was bargaining by unions that resulted, after World War II, in making the guaranteed pension a standard benefit for American workers, even for workers not in unions.

The two things keeping most seniors alive today – Social Security and, for a smaller number, defined benefit pensions – are the result of organizing by unions and a government run program set up largely in response to that organizing.

It is the dismantling of such programs, which the right wing constantly advocates, that would result in the early death of seniors, not the fictitious “death panels” the Sarah Pailins claim the Obama administration has up its sleeve.

The right wingers are talking about “death panels” because they don’t want seniors to realize that it was the political right that launched the first attack on their dream of a secure retirement back in the 1980’s with the introduction of 401(k) “defined contribution” retirement savings plans.

In the 1980’s, more than 80 percent of large and medium-sized firms offered a defined-benefit plan; today, less than a third do, with unionized companies rapidly becoming the last holdouts for traditional pensions.

I was a member of the UFCW’s contract negotiating committee in northern New Jersey during the early 2000’s. Each time the meat cutters’ contract was up we faced company demands that we give up our defined benefit pension and accept in its place a 401K. We decided to re-name the defined contribution plan repeatedly proposed by the company and refer to it in all our discussions with company reps as a 201K. The name change reflected our belief that, at best, the offer would eventually be worth no more than half of what the company said it would be. The reason for our concern was that we knew 70 percent of 401K funds were then invested in the stock market That was still the case when the market crashed last year.

Even those with pensions, though, have real reason to be scared. The reason for concern comes because the defined benefit pension funds are invested in the capitalist “free market.” Due to stock market losses that hit the pension fund assets many union locals are meeting to discuss pensions and the cuts they have to make to get the pension funds out of the danger zone.

In summary, it’s not the government or government-run programs that seniors have to fear, when it comes to their well-being.

The danger comes when big business gets its hands on the money seniors have worked a lifetime to save for a secure retirement. Private industry has shown that it is all too capable of taking our hard earned money, wherever and however we have it stashed, and permanently separating us from it.

Government run health insurance is not the danger we face. In fact, government-run Social Security is looking better and better than anything else these days.

Private businesses got their hands into our retirement investments and have thus far suckered us out of trillions of dollars we would otherwise still have. We need to be angry and we need to fight. We don’t need to be afraid of phony “death panels” or of anything else, for that matter. And we need to be thankful that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

As George Miller, D – Calif., the House Education and Labor Committee Chairman put it recently: “Thank goodness we didn’t get suckered into gambling Social Security funds at the Wall Street casino.”