Thursday, March 31, 2011

Raise Social Security retirement age? Not so fast -- March 31, 2011 column


It sounded like a no-brainer. Social Security is facing insolvency, and Americans are living longer in retirement than expected. Why not raise the Social Security retirement age a couple of years?

The presidential deficit commission chaired by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson last year recommended inching up the full retirement age to 69 from 67 by 2075. The so-called gang of six on Capitol Hill, the bipartisan group of senators that’s trying to break the federal budget impasse, may make the recommendation soon as part of a package of longer-term deficit reforms.

To be sure, the retirement age increase is modest and it would happen in the distant future. The workers that would be affected are today’s 5-year-olds.

And yet, raising the Social Security retirement age has become a flash point in the entitlement debate. The idea has encountered heavy resistance from Social Security watchdog groups that say raising the age is a cut in benefits, regardless of when people retire, and that it’s particularly unfair to minorities and low-income workers.

President Obama and Democratic congressional leaders say they won’t go along with any benefit cuts. A “Hands Off Social Security” rally on Capitol Hill this week drew more than 250 protesters. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told them there’s no need to tamper with Social Security at all now. Social Security won’t go broke until 2037.

“Let’s worry about Social Security when it’s a problem,” Reid said. “It’s not a problem now.”

Strengthen Social Security, a coalition of more than 270 consumer groups, says the retirement age change “would be a benefit cut that places the greatest hardship on older Americans who are in physically demanding jobs or are otherwise unable to find or keep employment.”

The Bowles-Simpson commission envisioned a “hardship provision” for workers who physically could not work beyond 62. It’s difficult to imagine, though, how anyone could assure future workers in their mid-60s and older that they’ll be able to hold onto jobs.

Unemployment for workers 55 and older more than doubled during the recent recession, and Labor Department officials say it takes unemployed older workers far longer to find new jobs than younger ones. Complaints of age discrimination in the workplace have soared at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Chris Weller of the Center for American Progress, a liberal group, has found that lower-income workers don’t live as long as higher income workers, and minorities don’t live as long as whites.

The government has been fiddling with the retirement age since Social Security sent the first monthly check in 1940. The original retirement age was 65 but a few years later women were allowed to retire early at 62, and then men also got the early retirement option.

The current full retirement age for people born between 1943 and 1954 is 66. People born in 1955 will have to work a couple of month past their 66th birthday to collect full benefits. The retirement age then creeps up until those who were born in 1960 and later must wait until they’re 67 to get a full Social Security check.

Workers who retire early at 62, as most do, receive reduced benefits for life. The National Commission to Preserve Social Security says that when the full retirement age was 65, workers who retired at 62 received 20 percent less than the full amount, and when the retirement age reaches 67, workers who retire at 62 will receive 30 percent less than if they had waited.

The number of years a person could be expected to receive full Social Security benefits has increased -- but perhaps not as much as you might think. Life expectancy for a man who reached 65 in 2010 is only five years more than in 1940, according to the Social Security Administration. Still, Congress and the White House will have to deal eventually with the solvency issue, as the ratio of workers to beneficiaries keeps dropping.

While a hike in the retirement is far from a no brainer, it’s also too soon to count it out.

People strongly oppose cutting Social Security benefits outright, polls show, but they’re split about the retirement age. An NBC News-Wall Street Journal survey in February found 51 percent found raising the retirement age to 69 in 2075 totally or mostly acceptable.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

RX for health: Volunteering -- March 24, 2011 column


In 2008, Stephen G. Post lost his university job, and, after 20 years in Cleveland, uprooted his family and moved to Long Island, New York.

Post was lucky. In his 50s, he found an ideal job doing work he loves. He became a professor of preventive medicine and the director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University.

For his family, though, the move was traumatic. His marriage suffered as did his relationship with his son, Andrew, then 13. The lowest point came while the family was staying a few days in a motel until they could move into their new home.

“This was the perfect place for all hell to break loose, and it did,” Post recalls. As a thunderstorm opened up, his son was yelling and his wife, Mitsuko, was in tears.

“I was the least popular husband and father on the face of the earth,” Post writes in “The Hidden Gifts of Helping,” a book that blends memoir, self-help, science and spirituality. “Hidden Gifts” throws a lifeline to anyone who has had to relocate physically or emotionally in these turbulent economic times. His blog is here.

The RX: Help others.

Post put decades of research into altruism and compassion to the test. He and his family dove into helping others in their new community and, yes, found happiness.

It sounds corny, but Post cites studies showing that volunteers feel better than people who don’t volunteer. They suffer less stress and depression. Volunteering is good for one’s physical health, and some studies even suggest that volunteers live longer. I caught up with Post by phone. He makes it sound easy.

“If it’s just helping a neighbor shovel snow, that’s fine and a good thing,” he said. “But making a giving behavior a regular part of your weekly life is what’s important” for health.

Scientists identified “helper therapy,” the phenomenon that helpers receive benefits too, in the mid-1960s. What’s new, Post said, is how much – or little -- volunteering one needs to benefit one’s health. More is not necessarily better.

“A good dose” is a couple of hours of volunteering a week. It’s generally more effective to interact with others rather than to work alone at home, but that’s up to the individual. There’s apparently no additional benefit to volunteering more than about 100 hours a year, he said. Plus, those who give more hours risk burn-out.

As states and the federal government rein in services due to budget shortfalls, the need for volunteers is likely to mushroom. Web sites like and aim to link volunteers with activities they enjoy, causes they support or skills they want to learn.

The first boomers are turning 65, and some are finding they have the time -- and the need -- to give of themselves.

Volunteering has “really made a difference in my life,” said a friend who recently turned 65. She’s a private person, so I’ll call her Veronica, her confirmation name. After she was laid off at 63, Veronica couldn’t find another full-time job. She’s devoted to her husband, who has Alzheimer’s disease, but she felt her world shrinking.

“I felt old. It seemed like nobody wanted me anymore, that my life was going to be washing dishes, cleaning house, cooking – and taking my husband to doctor’s appointments,” she said.

Last fall, Veronica began volunteering three mornings a week as an English teacher to immigrants. As she volunteered, she felt her world expand and she began doing things she had put off. She got her will written, signed up for Medicare and arranged adult day care for her husband.Veronica also may be extending her own life.

Doug Oman of the School of Public Health at the University of California-Berkeley studied elderly people in Marin County over seven years in the 1990s. He discovered that volunteers were less likely to die than other people. Even when he controlled for age, gender, exercise, social support and symptoms of depression, Oman found that volunteers were 44 percent less likely to die during the study than non-volunteers.

Just how volunteering translates into physical health is still a mystery, and Oman says more research is needed.

For now, it’s enough to know that volunteering helps the volunteer, too.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Public transit thrives, but what’s next? -- March 17, 2011


Public transit, ignored by riders in 2009 and 2010, is suddenly hot.

With gasoline at the pump averaging $3.567 a gallon – up 77 cents from a year ago -- and rising, many motorists are parking their cars and flocking to public transportation. From Pompano Beach, Fla., to Oakland, Calif., ridership rose by double-digits last month alone, according to a survey by the American Public Transportation Association.

It’s refreshing to see people transform the pain of higher gas prices into a positive trend. Taking the bus or subway, trolley or train reduces dependence on foreign oil, keeps the air cleaner and helps people get where they’re going with a little less stress. Walking to catch the ride can boost health.

Whether this “power to the people” moment represents lasting change or is just a blip depends on whether Washington’s politicians can rise above gridlock.

Transit officials around the country are worried that too much of a good thing could overwhelm their systems. If gas hits $4 a gallon nationally, as many predict, it could mean 670 million additional passenger trips a year, according to the public transportation association. Five-dollar-a-gallon gas could translate into 1.5 billion more passenger trips a year, and if, heaven help us, gas surges to $6 a gallon, there could be an additional 2.7 billion passenger trips a year.

But when representatives of more than 30 transit systems visited Congress this week to plead for funds to build more rail lines, buy larger buses, expand schedules and enlarge routes, they got bad news. Money? What money? The country’s in a budget crunch.

“I think it’s going to have to stay about the same,” Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation Committee, told the Wall Street Journal in an interview. Mica said he told the transit officials “that they’re going to have to be much more creative and look at consolidation of some of their operations,” the Journal reported.

If there’s anything that affects us all, it’s transportation. And yet, transportation – from Amtrak to highway maintenance to truck safety – amounts to only about 2.3 percent of the federal budget. Within that 2.3 percent is mass transit, which takes up a princely four-tenths of one percent.

Some critics argue that while people are cozying up to public transit now, they’ll go back to their guzzlers when gas prices drop. But even if the Energy Department's prediction is correct and gas peaks this summer at an average of $3.70 a gallon – rather than spiraling ever upward -- and even if ridership estimates prove extravagant, other factors likely will drive up the demand for public transportation over time.

Today, 15 percent of drivers are 65 or over. By 2025, one in five drivers – 20 percent – will be over 65. Public transportation can make streets safer for everybody. At a time when we need to curb the costs of health care and Medicaid, public transportation can be an ally. Medicaid is the program that pays many seniors’ nursing home bills.

Most Americans prefer to “age in place” and stay in their own homes as long as possible, surveys show. But transportation – or the lack of it – can push seniors out of their homes and into institutions sooner than they want. Currently, 46 percent of Americans have no access to public transportation.

President Obama has proposed a six-year, $556 billion transportation budget to repair existing roads, bridges and transit systems and start a high-speed intercity rail network. He set an ambitious goal of providing 80 percent of Americans access to high-speed passenger rail in 25 years. The blueprint proposes an increase of 127 percent -- $119 billion over six years – in funding for public transportation.

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Budget Committee, declared he was “flabbergasted” by the request.

The sticking point, as always, is money. Obama didn’t specify how to pay for $435 billion of the transportation package, and nobody wants to go first.

One possibility could be raising the gas tax, which pays for many transportation projects now, but that would be a hard sell.

Only 27 percent of people support increasing the 18.4-cent-a-gallon gas tax, according to a Rockefeller Foundation survey released last month.

At the same time, it’s unclear how much people really know about the gas tax. The survey also found, as other polls have, that most people believe it goes up every year. The gas tax hasn’t risen since 1993.

Gridlock, anyone?

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What NPR fiasco teaches about 'gotcha' politics: March 10, 2011 column


The NPR fiasco teaches two lessons about how the world works in 2011.

The first is timeless: Speaking your mind to strangers might seem like a good idea at the time, but, like accepting a third martini, it can backfire fast.

The second is a new twist on a classic: You’re on Candid Camera!

No, I don’t mean that Candid Camera -- the happy, laugh-filled TV show created by Allen Funt more than half a century ago. Today, anyone with a political agenda and a video camera can catch people at work or at play and post edited videos on the Web. Welcome to the marriage of technology and “gotcha” politics.

Here’s how it worked against NPR. Ron Schiller, the former top fundraiser at NPR, unburdened himself, um, liberally to two men he didn’t know but thought were high-rolling potential donors.

Over a long lunch with two supposed emissaries of a Muslim front group offering NPR $5 million, Schiller said Republicans are “anti-intellectual.” Tea partiers are “scary…seriously racist, racist people,” not “just Islamaphobic but really xenophobic,” who believe in sort of white, middle-American gun-toting.”

What disturbed and disappointed him most, Schiller confided at the tony restaurant in Washington’s Georgetown, is that “the educated, so-called elite in this country is too small a percentage of the population.” Jews control the media, including newspapers, he said, but not NPR. Oh, and NPR would be better off in the long run without its federal subsidy.

After video of the chatty Schiller hit the Web Tuesday, NPR was ready to change the name of its flagship news program from All Things Considered to Pass the Pepto-Bismol.

It turned out that Schiller’s “donors” were running a sting. They not only had a hidden video camera but they also arranged for a stretch limo to ferry Schiller and a colleague back to work.

They were conservative activists under the direction of James O’Keefe, 26, a self-styled muckraker who is making a career of trying to bring down liberal organizations. To carry off his sting, O’Keefe invented the Muslim organization and its Web site and e-mail NPR asking for a meeting.

After O’Keefe posted the video on his own site,, first Schiller and then his boss, NPR CEO Vivian Schiller – they’re not related – were ousted.

An NPR spokeswoman stressed that the imposters “repeatedly pressed us to accept a $5 million check, with no strings attached, which we repeatedly refused to accept.” She also said, “We are appalled by the comments made by Ron Schiller in the video, which are contrary to what NPR stands for.”

After NPR officials and others complained the edited video showed Ron Schiller’s remarks out of context, O’Keefe posted a longer version he said was unedited,

O’Keefe first made a name for himself in 2009 with a hidden-camera sting involving ACORN. Impersonating a pimp, he went with a young woman playing a prostitute to several ACORN offices around the country seeking advice on taxes and housing for a brothel. Congress later severed funding with the ACORN group.

In January 2010, he and three friends received probation for trying to wiretap the New Orleans office of Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.

O’Keefe’s video was catnip for members of Congress already eyeing NPR for budget cuts. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., still wants to eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s $430 million annual budget, of which about $90 million goes to NPR. In the Senate, Sens. Jim DeMint, R- S.C., and Tom Coburn, R-Okla., are also pushing for an end to funding for public broadcasting.

For NPR, the federal share is small, but individual stations also receive federal funds and buy programming from NPR. Ron Schiller said at lunch that NPR would definitely survive without federal funds. Conservatives have been angry at NPR since commentator Juan Williams was fired after he said it made him nervous to see air travelers in Muslim clothing. He since has gone to Fox News.

Now it’s O’Keefe with a fundraising pitch. “We’ve just exposed the true hearts and minds of NPR and their executives,” he brags in a letter to taxpayers on his site. He asks for donations so he can expand and equip his cadre of “citizen journalists.”
© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Supreme Court's ruling on hateful speech leaves next move to us -- March 3, 2011 column


It took 20 years, but the most hated family in America won the lottery this week.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that Westboro Baptist (so-called) Church could continue its despicable protests at military funerals. The 8 to 1 ruling that the First Amendment protects even hurtful speech shocked many Americans and sent the news media into frenzy.

The frenzy was as predictable as it was unfortunate -- predictable because Snyder v. Phelps was a major First Amendment case and unfortunate because the intense coverage gave the Rev. Fred W. Phelps and his flock exactly what they want most: attention. Hate mongers crave a platform from which to spew their venom.

They are thrilled to be called the “most hated family in America,” a term used by a BBC documentary in 2007.

Enough already. The Phelpses’ horrible protests persuade no one, and they’ve attracted no followers. The question arises: If hate talk falls on deaf ears, does it make any sound?

The court rightly ruled for free speech, even if it’s vile. That doesn’t mean, though, that we have to watch or listen to it. The haters can pour out their poisonous diatribes without anyone ever pointing another microphone or camera at them. If the news media persist in featuring the freak show, we can turn off the radio and TV. When viewers and listeners move on, the Westboro story will fade.

“I get to be the mouth of God,” Margie J. Phelps told reporters after the Supreme Court ruled, according to news reports. Oh, really?

Margie, one of Fred’s daughters, is the attorney who argued the protesters’ case before the highest court. Eleven of Pastor Phelps’s 13 children are lawyers. Four of the spawn practice with the family law firm, Phelps-Chartered in Topeka, Kan. He founded Westboro Baptist there in 1955.

The so-called church is BINO – Baptist in Name Only, unaffiliated with mainstream Baptists. Most of Westboro’s members are Fred Phelps’s kin. Call it what it is: Westboro Phelps Bible-Misreading Haters Club.

The haters started their demonstrations in 1991 and broke into the media in 1998 by picketing the funeral of Mathew Shephard, the 21-year-old college student in Wyoming who was murdered because he was gay. The haters’ twisted view of Scripture holds that God is punishing America for tolerating gays.

“God Hates You” and virulent anti-gay messages are standard in the group’s protests. The Phelpses have picketed some 600 funerals, mostly of soldiers who were slain on the field of battle. It doesn’t matter if the soldiers are gay. The Supreme Court case involved the funeral of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was not gay. The haters bring signs reading “God hates fags” – also the odious name of their so-called church’s main Web site.

How desperate are the Phelpses for attention? They picketed the funeral of Elizabeth Edwards last December. One of the Phelpses said Edwards’ breast cancer and her husband John’s infidelity were God’s retribution for her support of gay and abortion rights.

Evidently, the Phelpses were unable that time to parlay their threat to picket into a talk show appearance, as they later did in Tucson. They threatened to picket the funerals of the Arizona mass shooting victims in January, saying 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green was “better off dead.” They called off their hate brigade when they got interviews on two radio shows.

In 2006, they canceled picketing the funeral of the five little Amish girls who were killed by a gunman – after receiving airtime.

Margie Phelps revealed her media obsession last August. “My brother Jonathan said once in an interview that every person in the world is going to see these words. It’s good. They are. The whole world…we get big chunks of media,” she told John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a conservative legal foundation in Charlottesville, Va. The interview appears on the institute’s site

“We have had almost every nation send a big camera crew here to spend a week or two with us. This is reaching the whole world, and, without exception, they hate what we are saying,” said Margie.

“We are called the most hated family in America. Thank you, Lord. What evidence of our salvation,” she told Whitehead.

Well, here’s something we can do. From now on, when Margie or her kinfolks bully grieving families with threats and get airtime, we say no. We tune the haters out. Eventually, they’ll go back to being a local story in Topeka. The Phelpses can be the most hated family in America that nobody sees or hears.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.