Fallacies of `Geezer Bashing'

FORMER Senator Eugene McCarthy once compared the press to blackbirds sitting on a telephone wire - when one flies, they all fly. A current "hot" media topic involves the so-called economic tyranny of America's old.

The national press has jumped on the "geezer bashing" bandwagon, questioning whether younger workers can afford to continue subsidizing Medicare and Social Security for a growing army of elders. Concern over the alarming increase in children falling below the poverty line is translated into calls to shift wealth from a supposedly affluent elders to young families.

Unfortunately - but not accidentally - "geezer bashing" substitutes intergenerational hostilities for legitimate discussion.

Take the notion that Social Security is no longer affordable, a theme appearing frequently in the media. When examined carefully, the argument that we need to rethink Social Security provides a casebook example of scapegoating.

In fact, Social Security is healthy. By all objective assessments, the system will be around to pay out for future retirees. Adjustments made in 1983 put Social Security on sound financial footing for now, and we will have plenty of warning if the situation changes.

THE question that few consider, much less attempt to answer, is why Washington think tanks and conservative ideologues work so hard to create doubts about Social Security? Why do they want to dismantle a program that enjoys the support of 90 percent of the American people?

These "experts" talk about Social Security being a bad investment, fret about burdensome taxes on younger workers, and argue that old people aren't poor anymore.

This barrage of opinion and rhetoric has been showcased by the media. Neglected are important counter arguments, such as:

* The reason that so many old people aren't poor any more is that Social Security provides a much-needed safety net for retirees. It should be added that private pension coverage is eroding - from half of all workers in 1979 to 46 percent in 1988.

* Social Security - and Medicare - are earned entitlements, not handouts based on age. You have to work a minimum of 10 years in a Social Security-covered job to qualify for either program, and retirement pensions are tied to the amount earned over a minimum of 35 years.

* The argument that individuals could do better financially for themselves in retirement through private investments totally ignores the important survivor, disability, and health-care coverage provided by Social Security.

* Social Security does not just provide insurance for individuals. It insures society against misery from poverty in retirement. Reducing Social Security taxes and benefits and encouraging private investment is another plan from the same people who brought us deregulation of banks and savings and loans.

* Almost 50 percent of Social Security taxes are paid for by employers, who, except for this federally imposed obligation, have done a wonderful job of avoiding taxes. The 1990 Statistical Abstract reveals that individuals pay five times more income tax than corporations and that employers pay more than three times more Social Security taxes than income taxes.

* Other industrialized countries have economies that are succeeding quite well, despite the fact that they are investing more of their national wealth in retirement and health-care programs.

* While the stereotype of the "greedy geezer" may fit a few, most older Americans are leading a modest but comfortable life and contributing to their families and communities.

The young appear to resent the economic security of their elders, but there are two points to consider. Older people who are financially well-off get most of their income from savings, not Social Security. And an important inequity in the current system could be eliminated merely by fully taxing Social Security pensions as ordinary income.

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