Thanksgiving makes me think of my late father, and this year it puts me in mind as well of Paul Krugman, Hedrick Smith and Sen. Patty Murray.
Dad didn’t know any of these worthies, but in some ways he could have been a poster for them. Stay with me on this.
One fall when dad was between jobs, he took a holiday stint on a turkey truck. Our hometown of McMinnville, Oregon, was in the 1950s known (or at least promoted) as the “Turkey Capital of the U.S.,” with an annual Turkey Rama complete with, at that time, turkey races downtown and other sorts of promotional nonsense.
We did have turkeys, lots of them. Turkeys are big, ugly and nasty. Working a turkey truck meant catching the beasts and forcing them into containers; the buggers are often wet, up to 50 pounds in heft, and desperate. They use feet and beaks and they shit a lot. Dad said it was the worst job he ever had.
He was trim, wiry and strong, and in his 30s he owned and ran a successful dairy farm in North Dakota. It was cold in the winter and hot in the summer and my mother convinced him they should sell the farm and move to the Willamette Valley, where the climate was moderate and there would be good colleges for their four children. Dad and mom were high school graduates, smart and hardworking ... very hardworking.
They moved, but the money from the farm would buy only a foothills farm with marginal soil, and dad went to the mills and the woods to feed his family; later he got work doing maintenance and, eventually, a janitor’s job at a local school. Mom worked too, running a snack bar and cooking lunches for a church day school. Through all of this, they held their heads high as proud members of the American Middle Class.
All four of their kids graduated college and the three of us who survive can call ourselves middle class.
Dad and mom retired at age 65 on Social Security plus sale of their house and a small nest egg from years of frugal living; age 65 could not come too soon. They were worn out, as were many of their friends who also labored in jobs requiring heavy physical work, followed in most cases by more labor on their own houses, gardens or small farms.
They were married at the start of the Great Depression, accompanied in North Dakota by drought and crop failure. The advent of Social Security gave Americans of that era a rock for retirement, even if their benefits were low — as was the case with farmers — there would be something to reward your years of hard work and ease your retirement years.
Increasingly, that promise is not there for their grandchildren (their kids got in under the wire); we live in an era of 401k's instead of fixed pensions, and politicians on the right are baying to replace Social Security with 401k's and throw their owners into the shark pool of the American financial system. Privatization of Social Security has been on the Republicans’ plate for years.
Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist, wrote recently in support of expanding — rather than contracting — Social Security, and he blasted the idea of sliding the retirement age from 66, at present and scheduled to go to 67, even higher, just because people live longer. “Look at exactly who is living longer,” Krugman wrote, “The rise in life expectancy, it turns out, is overwhelmingly a story about affluent, well-educated Americans. Those with lower incomes and less education have, at best, seen hardly any rise in life expectancy at age 65; in fact, those with less education have seen their life expectancy decline. So this common argument amounts, in effect, to the notion that we can’t let janitors retire because lawyers are living longer. And lower-income Americans, in case you haven’t noticed, are the people who need Social Security most.”
Many of them are people like my dad, decent, honest, hardworking family men and women who by choice or circumstance exhausted their bodies by the time they hit their mid-sixties. Reducing Social Security or privatizing it in a world in which their more affluent neighbors (or children) stop contributing to Social Security after $106,800 in annual wages is just wrong. Finally, some voices are pointing out the cruelty of “entitlement reform” as it is marketed to the voting public.
Krugman is joined in calling attention to this situation by Hedrick Smith, the Pulitzer Prize journalist who lives part of the year on Orcas Island. Smith has numerous honors for his print work (New York Times) and television documentaries on PBS. His 'ênew book, "Who Stole the American Dream," is all about how the financial elite fleeced the rest of us, and corporate American shifted away from thinking about employees and communities as part of their planning and strategy to a total bottom-line mentality benefitting a few at the top to the detriment of the many at the bottom.
I heard Smith speak recently at Western Washington University; he engages a young audience with his passion and energy from decades of work as a reporter. His reputation gives him access to power and his book is a sobering reminder of how far we have come in the last four decades; Smith places the turning point as 1978, when corporate American began the massive lobbying and spending campaign that culminated in the 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United, that granted corporations free-speech rights formally reserved to real people, propelling the grotesque money machines that have come to dominate subsequent elections.
This nation is in serious shape, with the gap between the rich and poor the worst in modern history and far greater than in other privileged nations. Krugman and Smith see it, and others are beginning to listen. Which brings us to Sen. Murray.
Our senior senator is co-chairing a bipartisan committee formed to deal with the deficit (again), the second time around for Murray and others in key leadership slots in the Congress. Always, “entitlement reform” is on the table — it’s such a nice, gentle and progressive label — and always it means slashing Social Security and Medicare to save programs for the poor and needy, as if that were the only tradeoff.
Murray came very early in her career to represent ordinary folk — workers, veterans, what we once called the Middle Class — but pressure will be on her to give a little slack, to damage part of that constituency to save another part. Meanwhile, the budget-cutters begin sharpening their knives for the next slice.
My dad knew Social Security would be there for him after his hard work; his counterparts today see the bright light of a decent retirement fading as the big guys pick up their chips and leave the table. Not all of dad’s modern counterparts will have read Krugman or Smith or voted for Murray, but they are a thin line defending the shreds of the Middle Class against the depredations of Wall Street. We should hope these working men and women hold that line.