Social Secuirity Tax Debate: Wealthy seniors ought to share nation's sacrifice

WASHINGTON -- A vast majority of the seniors who work past retirement age are comfortably upper middle class -- not only owning their homes, but often a second one on a golf course or near a beach.

Their stock portfolios alone -- even accounting for the market's recent decline -- far surpass the lifetime savings of most Americans.

They continue working not because they need more money for life's necessities, but simply because they want to accumulate more wealth and stoke their aging, but still muscular, egos.

The nation's capital is a prime example and the posh suburb of Chevy Chase, Md. -- clusters of multimillion-dollar homes surrounding expensive country clubs -- is the crown jewel of conspicuous self-aggrandizement by super-rich seniors.

With the country's official unemployment rate holding steady at a little less than 10 percent and its real jobless number -- the one that includes those who have given up looking for work -- hovering at nearly 20 percent, rich seniors are prodding their conservative friends in Congress to exempt them from Social Security taxes altogether.

Rather than give back some of their stockpiled treasures to help shore up the nation's frayed social safety net, the geriatric ungrateful look past the legions of suffering poor like someone ignoring a wino panhandler on Park Avenue.

A destitute United States struggling through the worse economic downturn since the Great Depression simply can't tolerate such haughty self-indulgence.

As the progressive Dean Baker and the conservative Kevin Hassett pointed out recently in a brilliant column, the nation is in such woebegone straits that it may well be time to embrace what once was an unthinkable concept: job sharing.

With the typical stretch of unemployment now lasting the better part of two years, they noted, this prolonged recession "clearly threatens to do permanent damage to the careers of a generation of workers, and policy action is urgent." In calling for national work-sharing, Hassett and Baker suggest that firms forgo simply laying off workers, and instead "spread a small amount of pain across many workers." The policy has been highly successful in protecting jobs in Germany and the neighboring Netherlands, where companies routinely reduce the hours of work by 20 percent or more to avoid laying off workers.

In both countries, wise governments have provided unemployment benefits to those working fewer hours under work-sharing to cushion the pay reduction. For example, 100 workers might find their hours reduced by 20 percent to prevent 20 of their co-workers from being laid off, but government then would provide enough unemployment benefits to make the reduction in real wages come to 5 percent or 10 percent.

A variation of this concept of shared sacrifice -- something Americans accepted unhesitatingly in the Great Depression and World War II -- has been employed in the furlough policies of state and local governments and many U.S. newspapers.

Shared sacrifice ought to be targeted at the nation's most wealthy seniors, as well. Rather than exempting them from Social Security taxes, Congress should consider imposing a "blessings of liberty" surtax on those oh-so-comfortable seniors who have accumulated mini-Fort Knoxes, in part because they live in such an unfettered, free market economy.

The money collected from such winter patriots no doubt would run to the billions of dollars -- and could be used to alleviate the woes of the chronic unemployed and underemployed.

Even if they paid an extra 20 percent to 25 percent in taxes, the elderly rich still would be far wealthier than their counterparts in any other country on Earth. Like Scrooge awakening on Christmas morning, they might well find a profound joy in helping the unfortunate among us.

Madsen is a contributing writer to the progressive Online Journal.