As AARP embraces social security cuts, its pattern of misleading rhetoric comes into focus

Commentary | By Craig Gurian |

Jun. 17, 2011 — AARP, newly receptive to some cuts in social security benefits, will be embarking soon on a public relations campaign to convince its membership — the overwhelming majority of which opposes such cuts — that the organization isn’t really selling them out. (Actually, it seems pretty clear that The Wall Street Journal article in which AARP gave its explanation was itself the platform for launching the group’s new propaganda effort.)

However much money AARP spends, and however many town hall meetings it holds, though, its rationalizations for shifting position just won’t stand scrutiny.

My colleague, Mike Alberti, has already reported recently on this same phenomenon in connection with AARP’s position on efforts to push for a single-payer health insurance option. First, AARP trotted out an argument that single-payer would put existing programs at risk (until our reporter got John Rother, the AARP representative, to acknowledge that a single-payer framework could be developed that preserved or enhanced existing benefit models).

Then, Rother argued that any advocacy for single-payer —  even that which describes the Affordable Care Act as a step in the right direction —  could “inadvertently support ‘repeal and replace,’” and that any criticism of the Affordable Care Act in the current public debate “would really set back the prospects of successful implementation.”

Finally, after acknowledging that AARP views itself as having the power to shape the debate and influence the political climate, Rother rejected the proposition that such power should be used to reframe the debate away from one where the ACA is seen as a “maximalist” position from which some concessions are sought to be exacted. His only explanation?  An effort to broaden the terms of debate — thereby changing the political center of gravity and the perception of what constitutes “compromise” — might work in the labor context…but not with Congress. (If he were right, an awful lot of lobbyists would be out of work.)

Now AARP is again falling back on the “we’re just being realistic” conceit.  Rother is quoted in the Journal as saying, “The ship was sailing. I wanted to be at the wheel when that happens.”  While it is true that there is a press and governmental elite that argues endlessly that the public doesn’t appreciate the stern budgetary medicine that it needs, the fact is that their efforts to sail that ship have repeatedly run aground. What is actually going on is that AARP is choosing to provide critical momentum and cover to resuscitate the benefits-cutting effort.

And AARP’s argument, as the Journal puts it, that tax increases “wouldn’t be enough” to “make” the program solvent is preposterous, debunked in a graphic accompanying that same Journal article. Let’s leave aside the fact that the program is solvent, and look at what is needed to keep the program solvent over 75 years. 

Rother chooses to cite the “leading proposal” for raising payroll taxes (by increasing the cap on earnings taxed from about $107,000 to about $190,000) as raising less than half the needed revenue. But he omits to mention that an elimination of the payroll tax cap entirely (so that not only the earnings of the poor and middle class are subject to that tax) would, according to figures that the Journal sources to the Social Security Administration, generate sufficient revenue to meet 86 percent of the full 75-year solvency target. This is far more than proposals to raise retirement age to 70 and to reduce cost-of-living increases would generate combined.

AARP is free to carry water for those who want to cut the living standard for older Americans (indeed, to spearhead such efforts), but it should at least have the decency not to claim that it had no choice.


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