A Modest Proposal for Pete Peterson

Yesterday, political leaders of both parties and media heavyweights convened to flatter and tout the preferences of one very influential man.

Meet Pete Peterson, the man who has made it a personal crusade to roll back decades of retirement security and induce panic about deficits and debt in Washington politicians. And when we say “made it a personal crusade,” we mean he’s invested in it to the tune of close to half a billion dollars, a new Huffington Post story reports.

According to a review of tax documents from 2007 through 2011, Peterson has personally contributed at least $458 million to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation to cast Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and government spending as in a state of crisis, in desperate need of dramatic cuts. Peterson’s millions have done next to nothing to change public opinion: In survey after survey, Americans reject the idea of cutting Social Security and Medicare.

Like the Koch brothers and other billionaires, Peterson has invested big in order to shape the political debate and push his ideological agenda. In addition to his own institute, Peterson—who served as Secretary of Commerce under Nixon—endows scholars at other think tanks, supports curricula at colleges, and even funds a newspaper, the Fiscal Times, that has partnered with the Washington Post. At least in elite Washington circles, Peterson’s influence is far-reaching, as evidenced by the appearance of former President Clinton, the Treasury Secretary, the Speaker of the House and Budget Committee chairman Rep. Paul Ryan at yesterday’s event. Peterson-style policy preferences are the unspoken ideology of Washington conventional wisdom, including much of the press. These ideas dominate the conversation among the “serious” pundits and think-tankers who help set national policies.

Let’s step away from the catered lunches and carpeted conference rooms for a moment, though, and talk about what the rest of the country has to say. Social Security and Medicare are a big part of what allows seniors to have dignity and peace of mind in retirement, especially as private-sector pensions have eroded. Nearly 2/5 of all the income earned by seniors comes from Social Security; for a majority of seniors, Social Security represents 50% or more of their income. For a quarter of elderly couples and half of elderly single people, Social Security makes up 90% or more of their income—literally all that stands between them and severe poverty. Most Americans pay into these systems, and they’re the only guarantee of security and health care we have after we retire. And contrary to the talking points of Peterson-promoted, paid-for panic, Social Security and Medicare aren’t facing an imminent crisis.

Peterson—a billionaire—never has to worry about dignity in retirement, about choosing between food and medicine, about having to work even when your health won’t allow it. Nor do members of Congress with their taxpayer-funded pensions, or well-paid TV hosts, lobbyists and think-tank presidents. They also feel the pressure of paying into the system much less than the majority of working people, since they only pay Social Security tax on the first $110,100 of their income.

So here’s a modest proposal for Peterson and the networks that advance his message. You can raise the retirement age to whatever you want—as long as, at age 65, every think-tanker, pundit and politician who pushes the fake crisis gets to swap places with a 65-year-old nurse, truck driver, hotel housekeeper or drill-press operator. Sound good?

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