Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Marching and Organizing

Figuring Out How to get a good night's sleep

At about 10pm the night of November 8, as I saw what was happening with the election, I went to bed and slept until about 1am, when I got up and saw the disaster that had happened. As I processed what had happened, I decided that in order to live with myself I had to do something.

When I saw the Facebook announcement of a Women's march in Washington, I immediately decided to go.  I didn't really have an agenda, I was just appalled that a man who had such disrespect for women would be occupying the White House, and I wanted to be part of letting him know that women would not go quietly along with his hateful rhetoric.  As the weeks passed, knowing that I would be doing something helped a little, but I still did not sleep well.  I would wake in the middle of the night and grieve for the world that my children and grandchildren were having thrust upon them, one where prejudice and discrimination had suddenly become acceptable public behavior.  On a personal level, I knew that my family might not be disrupted all that much (if we're lucky), but I also worried about those who are not so privileged, those who rely on public programs such as the ACA and Medical Assistance.  And I worried about the United States' standing in the world as we build fences between ourselves and our allies, and renege on alliances that had kept the world a safer place since World War II.  These thoughts would swirl through my head with no resolution.

Going to the march was an important first step, largely because for the first time since the election, I was surrounded by people who I could trust to be benign.  People carried signs whose slogans made me smile and sometimes laugh, but they were focused on the ideals that we think our country represents...open, inclusive, fair, just.   The huge numbers of people who turned out to march around the world was a surprise, and I think I'm not alone in saying that the energy I felt that day was something I wanted to continue.  So when I was contacted by Planned Parenthood to be a "defender" I agreed.  A defender agrees to get a text message once a week with something positive you can do about the current situation.  You can do as much or as little as you are able.

The first text I got was six days after the march, and I was asked if I could invite some friends to hear about what I am doing to resist the new administration.  When I said yes, they enthusiastically directed me to a website that gave me everything I needed, from the wording on the invitation to send out to the agenda for the meeting.  I set a date and sent out about 8 invitations.  I wasn't sure what response I would get, but it was overwhelmingly positive, with several people asking to bring others along with them.

I have also been following Robert Reich on Facebook, which has had a calming effect on me.  He has the ability to cut through some of the nonsense to get down to the reality of what is going on, not easy to do in this time of "alternative facts."  He also has been advising being strategic rather than emotional in how you react, and I have taken much of his advice to heart.  His point is that while this is a crisis, it will play out over a long time, so it is important to do some self-care to be sure you aren't completely burned out and hopeless.

To that end, I have set some parameters for myself.  First, it's okay to spend some time each day doing something completely mindless (I watch House Hunters International and dream of living in a sane country and I watch cooking shows).  Second, I donate to organizations who are much more able to carry on the good fight (ACLU, Planned Parenthood, NRDC, MALDEF, ActBlue, etc).  Third, I chose one cause to focus on, in my case, Planned Parenthood, because it's impossible to keep up with everything that is going on.  With Planned Parenthood, we are forming a local group, which will provide a vital sense of community.  Fourth, if it is at all possible, I will call my representatives in Washington and show up for any protests that I can.  And last, I read about a site, Daily Action, where someone else will text me each day to tell me what action will be most effective.  Here's a link to that site:


By having targeted but focused activities to do each day, I can allow myself to read about or hear about the latest outrage without feeling that I have to do any more than I am doing.  This whole thing is exhausting, but I'm doing my best to feel that I am able to be effective in changing the situation over the long term.

And my sleep is getting better.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Want to Get Involved? Saving Social Security Is a Cause We Should All Embrace

We just got back from the Women’s March in Washington.  The outpouring of people throughout the world was awesome, but it will not mean much unless we take our newfound energy and find a way to channel our hope and fear into actions that will contain the damage that President Trump and the Republican Congress could do.  All of us need to do something—whether it is calling our Representatives and Senators on a regular basis, joining local activist groups or anything else. 

Looking for something you can do?  One critical place to put your energy is joining efforts to save Social Security.  Social Security has not been on the radar, and Candidate Trump promised not to touch it or Medicare.  Yet consider that Mr. Trump often does not remember the promises he made when it is convenient to him, and the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, is an implacable foe of Social Security and Medicare and has been waiting for years for the opportunity to take them down.

Consider this scenario.  Congress passes tax reform bills that substantially lower the top rates on individuals and the rates on businesses.  The tax cuts lead directly and inevitably to a ballooning federal deficit, which Congress and President Trump blame on Social Security and Medicare among the primary causes.  Dismantling the Social Security Trust Fund will put billions of dollars back into the treasury, which could go to cover the budget gap produced by tax cuts. 

We have been hearing for years that Social Security and Medicare are going to drain the federal budget or go bust, and so the people currently paying payroll taxes will got nothing back in the future. Many people believe it is true and that has eroded support for Social Security.

But it is a lie that opponents of Social Security have been repeating for years. Social Security is not about to go bust.  I’ll talk about Medicare at a later date, but here are the facts about Social Security.

The Facts About Social Security

Social Security, as you all know, is funded by payroll taxes.  Workers currently pay 6.2% of their salary into Social Security and their employers pay another 6.2%.  And as Judy did for many years, people who are self-employed pay 12.4% of income.  People pay the Social Security tax on income up to $118,000/year.  Everything above $118,000 is not taxed for Social Security.

Social Security was established in 1935 as a pay as you go system.  That is, current workers in 1935 paid the tax and retired persons began receiving payments.  So unlike a pension or IRA where you pay into a fund and that money belongs to you, Social Security has never worked that way.  It is, instead, a compact between generations that today’s workers will support today’s elders. 

That system worked well for a long time because there were lots of working age people paying into Social Security and relatively few retired people receiving benefits.  That population balance is changing and that’s why economists and everyone else has gotten worried.  As recently as 1970, there were approximately 4 workers for every retiree.  As the birthrate has decreased and people are also living longer, there are fewer workers for every retiree.  The current ratio is approximately 3 workers for every retiree.  The ratio is expected to drop to 2.2 workers to each retiree in 2030 and 2 per retiree in 2050.

What does that mean for Social Security?  Remember Al Gore’s lock box?   That’s the Social Security Trust Fund, which has a surplus.  That is, more money has been collected over the years than Social Security has paid out and the fund currently still runs a surplus. As the number of retirees increases in future years, Social Security will be able to use its surplus to pay them.  If we do nothing now, Social Security will begin running a deficit somewhere around 2023, and the surplus in the Trust Fund will run out in 2034 (although some estimates place the date a decade later).

But that does not mean that retirees in 2034 will get nothing.  If we do nothing to re-adjust Social Security now, payments by workers to Social Security in 2034 will still be able to cover 75% of retirees’ Social Security income.  In other words, Social Security will not go broke.  It will just pay out smaller amounts.

Furthermore, it could be fixed so that retirees continue to receive most or all of the money due them.  Here are some options.  Each has its advantages and disadvantage but a compromise that spreads the cost across some or all of these options would assure a better retirement for everyone without overburdening today’s workers.

1.     Increase the Social Security Tax:  A small increase in the payroll tax would assure higher payments to recipients in the future.  There has been support among the public in the past for a small increase, but this is a regressive tax that falls hardest on poor and middle-income people.

2.     Increase the Ceiling on the Amount of Income Taxed:  This has been discussed for years, but there has been no action on it.  Given the increased wealth held by the wealthiest people in our country, increasing the ceiling  of income that is taxed for Social Security from the current $118,000 to a higher amount could cover the shortfall.  Some advocates argue increasing the cap to around $215,000, which means about 90% of the population will be taxed on all their income.  The last Social Security reform in 1983 actually intended to extend the tax to the 90% level, but that has not happened due to technical reasons for how the cap on the tax is computed.  Maybe the cap could even go a bit higher.

3.     Invest a Portion of Social Security Funds in Stock Funds or Other Income Funds.  This has been a popular option on the political right.  It was also the choice of the students Steve taught in recent years.  The experience of other countries that have adopted this option is that it works great when the market goes up and poorly when the market goes down.  Retirees in the US with the lowest income (the bottom 20%) depend almost entirely on Social Security for income.  For them, this would be a precarious option.

4.     Decrease in Benefits.  A small decrease in benefits today will extend the life of the Trust Fund.

5.     Increase the Age for Full Social Security Benefits to 70.  Many people currently work to 70 and beyond.  People who work in physically strenuous jobs, however, would be disadvantaged by this option.

6.     Reduce the Annual Cost of Living Increase.  This annual increase is set based on inflation.  In recent years, increases have been small or non-existent. 

There are other fixes as well.  The point is that Social Security is not a cause of budget deficits, and that it could be fixed in ways that future retirees get most or all of benefits that would be due them.

There is one other fix that is not talked about much.  We currently have 11 million illegal aliens in our country.  Some are probably paying Social Security taxes already, but if we legalize their work status, we bring many young people with many working years ahead of them into the system. This will offset the bulge of Baby Boomers collecting benefits over the next 20-30 years.  Instead of building a wall, we would be better off with a planful workers program for immigrants.

So get involved! Here are a couple of organizations devoted to saving Social Security and Medicare.  I don’t know these groups, but it is a place to start.  Or start a local group that bombards your local representatives and senators on the issue.

National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare

Americans United for Change


A discussion of options for Social Security from the American Association for Retired Persons

Put together a proposal yourself by using the tool created by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget


Sunday, January 15, 2017

Keeping Engaged

The Pennsylvania 7th Congressional District

I’m back to the blog after a hiatus.  The holidays were a busy time and I had a bit of the post-election blues.

I want to comment today on one of the most frequent concerns that people have about retirement—what will they do to keep busy?

I had some plans—visit the grandkids, lots of foreign travel, organize and scan my old photos, but I knew that would not be enough.  Judy and I talked a lot about getting involved in community activities, but nothing jumped out at us.

Then the election happened and in the aftermath, it seemed more important than ever to get involved.  In December, we went to a meeting to hear someone from Fair Districts PA explain about the negative effects of gerrymandering. Fair Districts was formed by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause.  Gerrymandering, in case you not familiar with the term, is the result of drawing the lines of electoral districts to assure a majority for one party in as many districts as possible while diluting the influence of voters who support the other party by splitting them up.  Districts get drawn in bizarre and distorted shapes, breaking up communities with shared interests. In the photo above, you can see the 7th PA Congressional District outside of Philadelphia, perhaps the most extreme example of gerrymandering in the country.  As a result of gerrymandering, many Congressional seats in the country are no longer competitive, and so Representatives have no reason to compromise.  Pennsylvania, it turns out, is rated among the three worst states in terms of distorted electoral districts (along with North Carolina and Wisconsin). 

I spoke up during the meeting, trying to help the group get organized, and the result was I was selected as the overall coordinator for Centre County.  I certainly hadn’t planned on or wanted that role, but I’m glad to have taken it on.  I’m working with talented people in the leadership team and there seems to be a lot of interest among people in the community—we already have 85 people on our mailing list.  And I am learning new things about how the political process works at the local level, and from other members of Fair Districts PA Centre County and the state group, Fair Districts PA, about how to organize, frame issues and build support. 

It was scary at times to think about what I would do when I was retired, and I knew my plan was not well developed.  I was able to remain open to possibilities.  Opportunities that are right for you will show up, and you just need to be ready.   I had looked into some other organizations, but they had not seemed right for me.  Fair Districts PA Centre County did.  

A plus of working with Fair Districts is that instead of feeling helpless in the wake of this very upsetting election, I now believe I am making a small contribution to improve the political situation here and I am learning skills that will help in the future in electing better candidates at the state and federal levels.  If you are looking to get involved political, you might want to take a look at Indivisible, a guide written by Democratic staffers in Congress about how to be effective in influencing local politics and issues.  Here is a link:  https://www.indivisibleguide.com/web/  It provides a plan of how to counter the negative and scary trends in the country.

To find out more about gerrymandering, you can go to the Facebook page for Fair Districts PA Centre County, or to the Fair Districts PA webpage, which has extensive information on why gerrymandering is bad for democracy in America and what can be done to counter it:  http://www.fairdistrictspa.com.  You could also read this op ed on redistricting -- http://www.centredaily.com/opinion/article125100324.html
I am listed as the author, but I had lots of help with it.

If you are wondering where the term “gerrymandering” comes from, it turns out there was a governor of Massachusetts name Elbridge Gerry who in 1812 created a congressional district that was shaped like a salamander.  Presto—the word “gerrymandering” was coined.