To hear Mike Lee tell it – or, perhaps more accurately, to hear Evan McMullin’s version of Mike Lee telling it - I may have just made it through before the blast doors closed.
I reach what the Social Security Administration refers to as “full retirement age” come January. That means I can start drawing from the pot of money I’ve been feeding for 45 years and still get my salary from my employer without penalty. So I’ve been to the Social Security website and filled out the proper forms.
Some might say I should have waited, as I’m not actually retiring yet. The size of the monthly payment Social Security recipients can receive gets bigger every month they wait to start drawing it, up to age 70.
But I want the money now. Because I’ve never been good at delayed gratification. Because nobody can be sure they will live to, or much beyond, 70. So waiting to get more could mean I’ll actually get less. Or none.
But mostly because, by starting my draw now, I increase the odds of being grandfathered in and not facing reduced or eliminated benefits once Republicans regain control of Congress.*
I’m not expecting to get into the Social Security balloon, pull the rope ladder up after me and happily float away. I know I will need the system to live at least as long as I do.
This was all brought home by an anti-Lee campaign ad that was in heavy rotation in the last days of the campaign. In a fuzzy video clip from 2010, during Lee’s first campaign for office, the now-senator tells a group of voters, “It will be my objective to phase out Social Security, to pull it up by the roots and get rid of it.”
Lee supporters have challenged the edit of the clip, posting a few more seconds in which he says, “We have to hold harmless those who are current beneficiaries.”
I know that you are well versed in disinformation as a former CIA agent but don’t you think that Utah voters will hold it against you? Here is the rest of the story. pic.twitter.com/RVlvhMM4ma— Dan Hauser (@hauserdan) November 7, 2022
Lee also allows as how the phase-out should probably also protect those who are getting close to retirement, what he calls, “the next layer beneath them.” Too many people, he admits, have been led to count on those benefits being there, have paid in for years, and don’t have time to make other arrangements.
Of course that thinking is a result of politicians not understanding how Social Security works. Or assuming that the rest of us don’t know how it works.
While the Social Security payments each of us receives are based on how many years we worked and how much money we made (data that’s available to each of us once we set up an account at ssa.gov), it is not like having a savings account with your name on it.
Social Security is, always has been and, as long as it survives, always will be an intergenerational income transfer. People working now pay in and people who are now retired, or just old enough, take out.
According to my calculations (math never having been my strong suit) the amount of FICA taxes that my wife and I and our employers paid over the last 45 years are enough to pay our estimated benefits for a little more than five years. If we live that long.
After that, the only way anyone’s benefits will keep coming is if the next generation of workers, and the generation after that, keeps paying their Social Security taxes, promised that they will benefit from the payments of the generations after that.
So it is simply not mathematically possible for Mike Lee and the other Republicans who have been sharpening their knives over Social Security to set a cut-off date for people to draw benefits and free everyone younger than that from the whole system.
If Social Security ever stops, it will unavoidably leave some beneficiaries who were promised lifetime benefits drawing on an empty tank, even as workers who paid into the system for however many years will have nothing to show for it.
Republicans tell us that Social Security is doomed to bankruptcy. But that’s only because they refuse to fix it. The easiest way to do that starts with charging payroll taxes on every dollar of earned income, not just the first $147,000.
Have the rich pay more. A lot more. They may not benefit personally - unless they get Bernie Madoffed, go broke and need Social Security to fall back on - but the society they live in will.
Raising the retirement age is cruel, even as average life expectancy goes up, because those who most need the help are lifetime low-income workers who are already the most likely to die before collecting even what they paid in, if anything at all.
Obviously the fact that Social Security cannot end without wrecking millions of lives is a tamper-destruct mechanism built in by sly old Franklin D. Roosevelt when he created the system in 1935.
And Mike Lee and other Republicans are not being honest with us if they ignore that.
*George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, wrote this before the election, but not, maybe, before we found out who won.