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W.E. Gutman: Season's gratings and other pet peeves

Posted: January 15, 2010 7:27 p.m.
Updated: January 17, 2010 4:55 a.m.
As predictable as death and taxes, the yearly Social Security Administration “benefits update” reached millions of Americans in mid-December. Most knew they would not be granted a raise in 2010 and that the freeze might even extend to 2011.

What they didn’t foresee until they read the fine print was the excuse Uncle Sam would invoke (after charitably bailing out “fat-cat bankers,” Wall Street barons and villainous insurance companies with tax dollars) to deny them a much-needed cost-of-living increase.

Indeed, for the first time in more than three decades, retirees who got a healthy 5.8 percent raise in 2009 are being left high and dry because “there was no rise in the cost of living this year.” More on that later.

Social Security raises — or a lack thereof — can have a significant, sometimes devastating impact on individual recipients living on the edge of poverty, some of whom must make the risky daily choice between eating a square meal and taking life-saving medicines.

Yearly increments are especially important to the economy of states such as Arizona, California, New Mexico and Florida, home to hundreds of thousands of senior citizens.

The millions of dollars that flow every month from federal coffers to these states help prop up local economies that continue to be ravaged by the housing and credit crisis.

Some have argued retirees should not expect a raise when prices are flat or falling and millions of workers are unemployed or earning truncated wages.

But the prospect of no raise in 2010 and beyond is alarming.

“If Social Security benefits don’t catch up to the real rise in costs, we’re going to see a wave of seniors falling below the poverty line,” according to Daniel O’Connell, chairman of the advocacy group Senior Citizens League.

“It’s particularly outrageous that seniors, who tend to pay heavily for medicine and other health-related products and services, are being denied a modest adjustment when legislators have granted themselves hefty raises,” he said.

A freeze in Social Security benefits may also have major implications for Medicare. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the basic premium, now at around $96.40, will rise to $119 in 2010 and $123 in 2011 for those not protected under federal law.

But now for some indiscrete questions that beg to be asked — and answered — about this alleged “flat” inflation rate.

Why are America’s most vulnerable citizens denied even a modest cost-of-living adjustment when:

* Insurance premiums are soaring while some people are being denied coverage.

* Food prices are either going up, or the contents of packaged goods are steadily diminishing, with no decrease in price.

* The cost of life-extending pharmaceuticals made in China and India (40 percent of all drugs marketed in the U.S. are produced at bargain-basement prices in these countries) is gradually rising.

* Earmarks approve certain pet projects or direct specific exemptions from taxes without public scrutiny or review.
Members of Congress can secure hundreds of millions of dollars of funding for projects that are not subject to debate and which are used to secretly award their biggest campaign contributors, or exchange them for bribes.

* Pork-barrel schemes that fleece taxpayers are inserted anonymously as items in appropriations and other bills, or appear sometimes as lists or embedded in text in the House, Senate or Conference Committee reports that accompany legislation.

Under current congressional rules, there is no requirement that a member identify his or her earmarks. Earmarks are also offered to members to entice them to vote for a bill they otherwise would not vote for.

* $300 million dollars has just been raised to launch an orbiting infrared telescope designed to detect extra-terrestrial life — prompting some to ask whether there is intelligent life on earth.

* $3 million has been designated for shrimp aquaculture in Arizona, Hawaii, Louisiana and Massachusetts as a staggering number of Americans now rely on soup kitchens and food pantries for their daily sustenance.

* Seemingly inexhaustible funds are available — to the delight of bankers, weapons merchants and military contractors — to fight crippling wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, when the time comes, to extend the conflict into Pakistan and Iran.

The enormities that are being perpetrated on the American people can only be described as grotesque.

It may be neither premature nor inappropriate to predict this colossal larceny will extend well into 2010 and beyond.

Ah, capitalism.

W. E. Gutman is a widely published veteran journalist and author. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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