Author and historian John Nichols warned a packed house of Tucson progressives and unionists that now is not the time for complacency. Now is the time to rise up and fight against the forces of greed who are trying to rob the American people of their rights and their earned benefits.
Nichols, writer for The Nation and frequent commentator on MSNBC, held the audience in wrapped attention for 90 minutes as he carefully explained what the current Washington DC budget and debt reduction talks could mean for the American people if right wing conservatives like Congressman Paul Ryan and the Fix the Debt Coalition get their way.
The Fix the Debt Coalition is a group of 127 billionaires, "lesser millionaires", and corporate CEOs who are rolling out a $60 million advertising campaign to promote the new Simpson-Bowles Plan for debt reduction, according to Nichols. The original Simpson-Bowles Commission-- dubbed the Cat Food Commission because of its cuts to senior citizen benefits-- was infamously unpopular when it was proposed originally. The Simpson-Bowles redux may be even worse.
How would the billionaires' club "fix the debt"? By reducing Social Security payments to the elderly and disabled, by raising the eligibility age for Medicare, by dramatically cutting Medicaid support for the poor, by eliminating the Affordable Care Act and changing Medicare to a voucher program for future recipients, by imposing austerity on 99%, and by [wait for it] lowering taxes on billionaires and corporations.
"They are proposing to take from our vulnerable seniors, from our disabled-- and let's be honest they're probably going to take the lunch money from the poor kids. They're going to take all that, so they can give the rich guys a tax cut," Nichols warned. More details and a video clip of Nichols' talk after the jump.
"Chained CPI" is one of the pillars of the new Simpson-Bowles Plan. Although Nichols quipped that in Washington-speak "chained CPI" sounds like a medical procedure, it is really a way for politicians to cut Social Security. CPI stands for the Consumer Price Index. Currently, Social Security payments are tied to inflation, and seniors receive Cost of Living increases. "Chained CPI" would reduce Social Security by reducing Cost of Living increases. The Social Security cuts would start small but would increase over time, eventually hurting the oldest and most vulnerable seniors, disabled children, and wounded veterans. "Chained CPI" would result in the "first major decrease in Social Security since it was created," according to Nichols, and it should not be part of a "grand bargain" between President Obama and Congressional Republicans.
A second plank in the billionaires' plan to reduce the debt is "flexibility" in the eligibility age for Medicare. In Washington-speak, "flexibility" means raising the age of eligibility from 65 to what we're not sure but definitely something higher. After all, Nichols quipped, we all know those old folks are "living large". Raising the eligibility age would delay healthcare benefits for millions of Americans.
The right is also proposing-- yet again-- to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace Medicare with a voucher program. As in 2011, when it was first proposed, this is a key component of the Ryan budget released this week.
According to Nichols, the Republicans want to "change Medicare for people who don't vote a lot." Pointing to a young woman in the audience, Nichols said, "Trust me. They want to take everything away from you!"
With chained CPI, a higher Medicare eligibility age, and an $8000/year health insurance voucher, "That young woman, after she works her whole lifetime, if these crooks get their with with their scam, she is going to be in the same situation as her great grandparents were in when they didn't have healthcare in their senior years [before Social Security was enacted], and we will have reversed centuries of progress in this country. That is what we have to fight against. We should not go back. We should be moving forward!" Nichols shouted.
"Only amongst a group of billionaires can you come up with a plan that says, 'Well, yeah, you can raise the eligibility age for Medicare [and cut or tinker with other social safety net programs] to balance the books.' We wouldn't want billionaires to pay into the system based upon their income just like everyone else does-- which would give us enough money for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and we wouldn't have to raise the elgibility age!" Nichols said. Currently, income over $113,700 is not subject to Social Security tax.
Small government Tea Party Republicans have been touting austerity and budget cuts (primarily in services that benefit the poor, the young, and the elderly) since they took control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 election. Although austerity measures have had devastating consequences in both Greece and Spain, Republicans continue to push austerity-- instead of investment in the US economy.
"Austerity stalls economies. It kills growth. It creates greater unemployment. And they want to bring austerity to the US," Nichols said incredulously.
Who would benefit from austerity? According to the Simpson-Bowles Plan, in order to keep the economy growing in a climate budget cuts, austerity, and eventual lay-offs, the US government should help the "makers" (AKA the "job creators") by lowering the top marginal tax rate for billionaires and corporations by 2%. (Gosh-- that's the same percentage as the Bush tax cuts that just expired.)
"The amazing thing to me is that we're not already in the streets because this is such absolute madness," Nichols exclaimed.
Austerity for the 99% and tax breaks for the 1% is "absolutely dysfunctional" and can only be explained by greed. According to Nichols, after he was elected in 1932, President Franklin Roosevelt said that the "money changers had taken over the temple [a reference to the Bible story] and with the 1932 election people had cast out the money changers." Roosevelt said that he had a "moral responsibility to restructure the American economy so that never again would the money changers steal from the people." Roosevelt then created the social programs and modern economic reforms that Republicans have been working to reverse or eliminate for decades.
Democracy Under Assault
In addition to the full-on assault against social safety net programs, conservative extremists have been attacking our most fundamental right-- the right to vote. In 2012, one Republican-led state after another cooked up schemes to either knock voters (usually minority, youth, or elderly voters) off the rolls; enact strict voter identification laws; or meddle with polling place hours to make voting more difficult for particular groups (again, usually minorities, youth or the elderly). Many of these shenanigans were squashed by lawsuits made possible by the Voting Rights Act. (How inconvenient.)
Now, the Supreme Court is reviewing the Voting Rights Act and may actually overturn it this summer-- if Justice Antinon Scalia has his way.
To counter the Republican assault on democracy and voting, Congressional Progressive Caucus members Keith Ellison, Raul Grijalva, and Mark Pocan plan to introduce a Constitutional Amendment to guarantee the right to vote and the right to have your vote counted, Nichols reported.
No Grand Bargain
With the Ryan budget on the table-- and Democratic Party and Progress Caucus budgets in the offing-- the media is buzzing about a "grand bargain" between the President and the Congress.
Nichols reminded the audience that in the waning days of the 2012 campaign Obama touted progressive ideals, and he won by a greater margin than any recent president, including John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, or George Bush (who famously said after the 2004 election that he had earned political capital and planned to spend it.)
So, by Nichols' measure, Obama has political capital, and he should use it. Mitt Romney and Ryan ran on the Ryan budget, austerity, and cuts to social safety net programs-- even attacking the minimum wage-- and they were soundly defeated. It's time for the people to push Obama and blue dog Democrats away from any "grand bargain" that would include the Fix the Debt ideas, Nichols urged.
"If we don't do it [fight back] now, they will chip away at every bit of progress. They will pay for their mansions, their jets, and their vacations in Switzerland with what they bartered away from our creation, from the country that we made. That is simply wrong," Nichols concluded.
Nichols left the audience with a quote from American Revolutionary Tom Paine: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."
Other related videos from the Nichols event, sponosred by Progressive Democrats of America and the Pima Area Labor Federation: