With Mitt Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan as a running mate, this election has become very personal for me. In this posting, I’d like to share how the field looks from my perspective, using my 53 year-old lens, colored by my life experience and where I am in life right now. And, I think there are a lot more people like me that might want to take a glance at their choices through my lens because I am beginning to agree with the pundits, that this is one of the most important elections in a generation.
I’m a 53 year-old gay man, Jewish, married for over 20 years to the same Presbyterian husband, living in a “ticky tacky house” on a hill in Daly City that’s around five years from being paid off. I started life in the housing projects in Rockaway New York, subsidized apartments built to help the working poor. I’m a US Air Force veteran (intelligence/linguist) who left the military because back in 1987 they were still “asking” and I was tired of not “telling.” After eight years in the Air Force I worked at two high-tech start-ups during the heyday of Silicon Valley’s dot-com boom, made good money, and then started my own education consulting company. My husband Derrick, who had worked for Hewlett-Packard for nearly two decades, soon joined me in that venture and we were living a pretty uneventful but happy life until September 11th 2001. We were and still are part of an amazing Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto whose focus is on peacemaking and social justice, areas in which we became involved in our non-working time. Because of our connection to First Presbyterian Church, my husband and I were asked to participate in an interfaith peace delegation to Afghanistan in June of 2002 and from that time on our lives changed a lot. Teaching which company’s Internet box was better than the other’s didn’t seem to matter as much. Making the world a more peaceful place seemed more important. Today we run a peace and social justice learning company, into which we’ve invested the last eight years of our lives and most of our savings.
Why do I tell you all this before getting to any particular point? During a workshop on theology I attended long ago, I learned about the concept of hermeneutics, the idea that we all have lenses through which we view things, lenses that shape how we interpret what we see and how we respond to the world around us. The other day, after the announcement of Congressman Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate in the presidential race, I was sharing how I felt about it all with guests who had come over for dinner. They thought it was important that I share this with others, especially with a clear understanding of the lens through which I’m looking.
Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, if elected, and should the Republican Party win a majority in Congress, will dismantle Medicare and Social Security for my generation and beyond. Those who are already receiving benefits or are very close to retirement may get to participate in the current systems, but those of us who are 50 and over should be very afraid.
Those in our generation, late-boomers, working folks in the “bottom” 80% of the economic ladder have seen our net worth drop by 43% since the 1980’s, watching as the wealthiest 20% of Americans have seen a 73% increase in their net worth. Homes that we thought would see their values increase, modestly or better, are now underwater. Many of the 50-somethings in our country have been laid off, with the color and thinness of their hair making it incredibly difficult to find new jobs. We’ve tapped into our 401ks and other retirement accounts to stay afloat, or to invest in our own small businesses, paying massive penalties for taking early distributions. And despite the hardest work we’ve ever done in our lives, we’re still struggling to make ends meet, let alone save a penny for the future.
All the while we’ve continued to pay all of our taxes. We recognize taxes as an investment in our future and our children’s future. We count on Social Security and Medicare coming when we reach 65, promises that had been made to us for our entire working lives, promises for which we (and our employers) paid 15% of our wages every week, taxes that the “investment class” has never had to pay.
Another insight into my lens. My father worked for the same company for over 40 years. When it was time for him to retire he discovered that the pension plan into which he and his employers had paid for most of that time had been swindled. Hundreds of thousands of garment workers like my father saw their retirement dreams disappear. There were no regulations protecting those retirement funds, until that debacle. When I hear the Republicans decry regulations as destroying our country, I think of my father, who ended up getting only $80 a month from 40 years of pension payments when the dust of non-regulation settled. At least he had social security.
My mother had worked for an HMO for around 30 years. As she approached retirement the HMO asked her to stay on for a few more years and promised that by doing so she would get medical coverage from the HMO for the rest of her life. That care would include covering any gaps in what Medicare didn’t cover. My mother stayed on and retired a few years later. For around three years after that she had great health care. Then, the HMO stopped doing business where she lived and she was dropped. She found herself having to pay for another HMO plan, one that didn’t cover nearly as much as her previous plan. When she broke her ankle and woke up from surgery a social worker told her that she would need nursing home care and it wouldn’t be covered for more than a few weeks by Medicare. It would have been covered under her old plan, but now she was facing tens of thousands of dollars in bills, for the several months she might have to be in a nursing home. My mother died two weeks later, from a broken ankle and, I think, a broken heart.
Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and a Republican-majority Congress have now zeroed in on my generation, the 50-somethings, who have paid Social Security and Medicare taxes for over 30 years, as the generation that will lose out on the fruits of their labor. How can I not think of my father and mother, when I see these politicians promising to take away that into which I and my employers paid for nearly 40 years? With a massive number of people in my age group, who are about to see Social Security and Medicare snatched from their future, how can this platform possibly win? With only a few points separating the Democrats from the Republicans in this upcoming election, the answer is elusive. Yet how can that be?
Future Social Security and Medicare benefits aside, we 50-somethings of right now today, unemployed or self-employed, have been paying massive monthly premiums for private health insurance if we could afford it and if the companies would insure us. We’ve had a glimmer of hope that in our most dangerous and expensive upcoming health insurance years, ages 55 and up, the new health care law would at least protect us from being locked out of coverage due to pre-existing conditions, AND, through new buying pools we might be able to reduce our costs a bit. And, should we not have enough income to buy insurance, at least we’d get some help. Now that too would be snatched away.
Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and a Republican-majority Congress would completely dismantle the Affordable Care Act (AKA Obamacare) and leave us 50-somethings, once again, in a ditch. To share a little more of my lens, my friend Anna lost her job, ran out of COBRA, could not get anyone to insure her because she had epilepsy (and even if she could she didn’t have the money to pay the massive monthly premiums a company would have charged) , discovered way too late by visiting an emergency room for breathing problems that she had lung cancer, and died around a month after that diagnosis. The Affordable Care Act, and the law that Mitt Romney signed in his own state when he was governor, protect people like Anna. How can a platform that promises to dismantle Social Security, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act, food stamps, Pell Grants, and the rest of the social safety net win when so many people in our country would be directly and negatively impacted by such policies?
As this election season has moved forward, I’ll admit that I’ve lamented not hearing a positive message from President Obama’s campaign about what he and his administration would do if reelected, focusing more on the dangers of a Republican win. But that lament is way overshadowed by the dread that I now feel when I hear his opponents Romney and Ryan speak about what they would do.
The choice, for this 50-something year old self-employed small business owner with pre-existing conditions, is now quite clear. President Obama and a Democratic Congress will keep Social Security, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act in place. They will try to increase revenues by taxing those who make $250,000 a year or more at a higher rate.
A Romney administration and a Republican Congress will turn Medicare into a voucher system, gut the Affordable Care Act, privatize Social Security, give the wealthiest Americans another tax cut, and slash other safety net spending on programs like food stamps, college loans, and Medicaid.
How did we get here?
Through my lens I look at a country where until 1980 the working class worked hard, got paid reasonably well, paid taxes, saved money, invested in homes, sent their children to college, and looked forward to some golden years of comfort. The wealthiest Americans paid their taxes too, and overall the country did pretty well. Then, starting in the Reagan years, massive tax cuts and unnecessary wars drained trillions of dollars out of our coffers, with the Federal, state, and local governments and individuals borrowing money to maintain something appearing like the status quo. Borrowing like that was a terrible mistake, for individuals, families, and governments, and we should all note how much money in interest ended up causing the great divide there is today between the 80% and the 20%.
30 years later, the bath water has been drained and the baby is now so skinny she’s being sucked through the little holes in the drain filter.
And that brings me back to my days as an intelligence analyst and the lens through which I see things. Much of intelligence is about paying attention to information that is out there, but just needs to have its dots connected. It isn’t difficult to connect the Republican dots. Republican strategists had a not-at-all-secret plan. They told people about that plan. All you had to do was listen in, or read in, and their plan was clear. Drain the US treasury by giving massive tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans and corporations. Build up the military-industrial complex, spending a huge portion of our nation’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) on “defense”, and create a massive budget deficit that was unsustainable. Surely the government would have to slash social programs under the weight of such deficits and debt.
Sadly Democrats played into that plan by not fighting against those tax cuts and supporting unnecessary wars and were all-too-comfortable borrowing money to keep the social safety net alive. Trillions of dollars in debt later, Republicans tell the American people that massive spending cuts are needed to the “welfare state” and that we’ve all become too reliant on government handouts to survive. We should, according to their mantra, “live within our means” (as long as those means don’t include increased taxes on the wealthiest Americans or corporations’ off-shore trillions).
The “greatest generation,” our parents, and we, lived within our means. We worked our tails off since 1950, and had accumulated moderate but sustainable wealth. We invested in our children and our country in a way that could have sustained our nation for generations to come. But like the swindlers that stole my father’s pension, since 1980, the Republicans have worked to drain trillions of dollars from our national investments and dismantle the systems that had been in place after the Great Depression and WWII, systems that they never believed in. And now they see victory within reach, less than three months away.
Did they transfer trillions of dollars in wealth from the 80% to give to the 1% and work to dismantle an economy that saw the greatest increase in wealth and a better lifestyle for the middle class in world history because they are mean or evil? No. Most devout Republicans truly believe that individual freedom, letting people keep as much of their income as possible, would have resulted in all Americans living even better lives.
I don’t agree and the facts on the ground after this 30 year experiment prove them wrong. I have been paying attention since 1980 and I pray that other Americans who are 50-something have either been paying attention or will start paying attention now. No one is keeping their plans secret. No encryption. No deception. It is clear. John Sununu, former Republican White House official, was just on MSNBC telling people that Americans shouldn’t worry about losing Medicare if they are 55 or older. Are you listening brothers and sisters who are 50 to 54? You WILL lose Medicare under Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and a Republican Congress. Period. We 50-somethings who are facing the toughest job market since the Great Depression are also facing the loss of whatever health coverage we may have been able to get to carry us through age 65, and then we face the loss of Social Security and Medicare.
The choice in this election could not be clearer to me, through my lens. Romney/Ryan – massive tax cuts for the rich and the end of Social Security, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act. Obama/Biden – tax increases for the rich and protection for Social Security, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act.
I’ll close with the thing that hurts the most when I consider the lens through which I wrote this post. Everything I’ve written about here feels like it is about “me me me me me.” Yet I’m a person who truly worries about and works for social justice for my neighbors. I know for an absolute fact that while Romney/Ryan and a Republican Congress will be bad for me, it will be even worse for those who have much less than I. One out of 45 children in America will be homeless some time this year. One out of four children in our country lives in poverty today and goes to bed hungry at least once a week. Tens of millions of Americans have no access to affordable health care. The lines at soup kitchens and free food pantries grow longer every day, and the faces we see lining up look more and more like my working neighbors and their children than the rough-and-tumble homeless folks we’re used to seeing on the streets. Under an administration and Congress that will transfer even more wealth to the nation’s richest while further slashing our nation’s social safety net, these people and millions more who will join them will suffer, and many more, like my friend Anna, will die.
These are serious consequences to an election that I hope people will take very seriously.
Craig Wiesner is the co-founder of Reach And Teach, a peace and social justice learning company. Reach And Teach also helps to manage Tikkun/NSP web operations.