Southwest Florida faces fiscal storm as great as Hurricane Ian

A scene from the 2000 movie “The Perfect Storm.” (Image: Warner Bros.)

Jan. 24, 2023 by David Silverberg

In 1997, the book The Perfect Storm told the story of the fishing boat Andrea Gail, which sailed into weather that was a “perfect” combination of three different storms blending into one catastrophic tempest.

Today, Southwest Florida is facing a “perfect” fiscal storm that blends three political squalls into a single horrendous gale that could prove as devastating in its own way as Hurricane Ian.

This storm is not of Southwest Florida’s own making. It’s the result of extreme ideas and doctrines being pursued in the nation’s capital. Nor will it affect Southwest Florida alone; the entire nation and the world will also suffer if the worst comes to pass.

However, Southwest Florida has unique factors that will increase the impact of this fiscal hurricane if it reaches full strength.

It’s a classic case of political passions being blindly pursued without an appreciation for their impacts on the ground or on the lives of everyday citizens. It’s also an illustration of the ways national policy affects an area as remote from the center of power as Southwest Florida.

The trend is dangerous, damaging and needs to be stopped. Fortunately, it’s the result of decisions yet to be made. So it’s not a perfect storm—yet.

Storm 1: The debt limit

On Thursday, Jan. 19, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen sent a letter to congressional leaders informing them that the United States had reached its statutory debt limit. Treasury would now take “extraordinary measures” to maintain the full faith and credit of the United States. However, those measures would only sustain the nation until June.

In the US House of Representatives, extreme Make America Great Again (MAGA) Republicans are insisting that raising the debt limit be accompanied by major concessions by the White House. House Speaker Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-23-Calif.) has largely followed their direction. President Joe Biden is maintaining that the United States paying its debts is a national obligation that transcends party politics and is refusing to treat it as a political football. If the House doesn’t act, the United States will go into default for the first time in its history. (A fuller explanation of the debt limit is at the end of this article.)

How would Southwest Floridians feel the impact of a US default? In a 2021 paper explaining the issue, White House economists pointed out that: “everyday households would be affected in a number of ways—from not receiving important social program payments like Social Security or housing assistance, to seeing increased interest rates on mortgages and credit card debt.”

In other words, everyone would get poorer—in Southwest Florida and everywhere.

Storm 2: Social Security

The Social Security program has been in Republican crosshairs since it was initiated in 1935. Eighty-eight years later, that hasn’t changed and the threat, if anything, has become more acute.  

Most recently, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) issued a “Commitment to America” plan last year that would have subjected Social Security to five-year reauthorizations, meaning that it could be eliminated at any time. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) proposed renewing the reauthorization every year, making it even more precarious.

Given the age of its population, Southwest Florida’s seniors are particularly dependent on Social Security to maintain their fiscal viability. Some 3,984 Collier County residents and 12,547 Lee County residents were Social Security recipients as of December 2021, according to the Social Security Administration. Nationally, 65 million Americans receive Social Security benefits.

If Social Security is severely cut or eliminated—for example as a result of a federal default or a crippling deal on the debt limit—those seniors would lose a significant chunk of their income. That, in turn, would kick a major pillar out of the year-round local economy, depressing it further after the blow of Hurricane Ian.

Storm 3: Attacks on healthcare

Among the cuts being discussed are those to Medicare and Medicaid, the two major health insurance programs. No Republican has threatened these programs more than Scott, whose Commitment to America would have stripped Medicare of the right to negotiate drug prices and removed a $2,000 cap on out-of-pocket pharmacy expenses.

Given the age of its residents, cuts to these programs would disproportionately affect Southwest Florida’s population. In 2021 Collier County had 109,305 Medicare enrollees and Lee County 210,408, according to the Florida Department of Health.

If Republican-proposed cuts went through, not only would the recipients see an abrupt cut in their benefits but Southwest Florida’s otherwise robust healthcare system would face a sudden, drastic drop in its revenues, which in turn would affect the rest of the regional economy.

This would come on top of the physical devastation of Hurricane Ian—at a time when affected Southwest Floridians need all the help they can get with shelter and the basic necessities of life.

Commentary: Avoiding the storm

At this point there’s no telling how the discussions over the debt limit will play out. Even responsible Republicans are horrified by the prospect of an American default.

“America must never default — we never have, and we never will,” vowed Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) the Senate minority leader, in 2021.

Interestingly enough, even former President Donald Trump has warned against cutting Social Security and Medicare.

“Under no circumstances should Republicans vote to cut a single penny from Medicare or Social Security,” Trump warned in a two-minute video message posted online on Jan. 19. While otherwise attacking Biden, Democrats, immigrants and advocating cuts in other areas, he emphatically stated: “Do not cut the benefits our seniors worked for and paid for their entire lives. Save Social Security. Don’t destroy it!”

For once, both the former and current presidents are in agreement: “This is something that should be done without conditions, and we should not be taking hostage key programs that the American people really earned and care about — Social Security, Medicare, it should not be put in a hostage situation,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre yesterday, Jan. 23.

Locally, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.) has warned that cuts are coming. “Newsflash for the admin: We’re going to negotiate, we’re going to have meaningful spending cuts & we can talk about the debt ceiling,” stated Donalds in a tweet yesterday morning, Jan. 23. “We should end COVID-era overspending. We have to get our budget back on track! If they think they’ll be cutting some side deal they’re mistaken.”

Is there anything that a citizen opposed to this cataclysm can do about this? The measures for voter feedback and input are in place: contact lawmakers to make opinions known—in the case of Southwest Florida that’s Donalds and Reps. Mario Diaz Balart (R-26-Fla.), who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, and Greg Steube (R-17-Fla.) (currently laid up due to a fall from his roof and not voting in Congress until he can return to Washington).

Even if e-mails, phone calls and letters don’t change members’ public stances it at least registers the opinions of their constituents and they have to take that into consideration as they stake their positions.

Also, members of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) have a powerful lobbying voice in Washington and active engagement with that organization can help shore up important programs of vital importance to seniors.

The impact of local officials on these matters should not be overlooked either. Officials like county executives and mayors are in contact with Washington lawmakers. If they know the importance of these programs to local residents and the fact that residents—and voters—are watching, that concern will percolate upward to congressional lawmakers. Local officials need to be pressed to make their positions known by issuing public letters to members of Congress stating the importance of programs like Social Security, Medicare and aid to the region and their jurisdictions.

Treasury Secretary Yellen’s “extraordinary measures” run out in June. If an agreement isn’t reached before then, the fiscal storm will hit and Southwest Florida will feel the brunt of it.

And that’s one storm that can’t be mitigated with hurricane shutters and extra bottles of water.

*  *  *

A brief primer on the debt limit

The “debt limit” or “debt ceiling” is the amount of debt that the United States is allowed to have outstanding. The “national debt” is all the money the United States has borrowed throughout its history. It incurs that debt when revenues, for example from taxes, don’t cover its needs and it issues bonds or sells securities to cover the shortfall. These are perfectly legal and well established means that all governments use to meet their needs.

Since its founding in 1776, the United States has always met its obligations. It has incurred debts but it has paid those debts on time and in full. Through war, depression and political change, this reliability and predictability has made the United States the foundation of the world financial system. People, institutions and other governments have been able to count on America honoring its promises (its “faith”) and making its payments (its “credit”).

The US national debt currently stands at $31.381 trillion and it needs to raise its statutory limit to cover payments on its debt. This is not discretionary; the full faith and credit of the United States depends on it meeting its obligations. Its creditors, which include other governments, are depending on its payments. If the United States fails to meet its obligations, the entire global financial system could collapse, setting off an international panic and bringing about a crash as terrible as that of 1929.

The debt limit must be raised by Congress. Since the debt limit was established by Congress in 1917, raising the limit to cover obligations already incurred through legislation has been a relatively routine and non-controversial matter. Congress passed appropriations legislation to spend money that must be covered by borrowing, now the United States would pay the obligations it had freely and deliberately incurred.

It was a practice based on a simple proposition: honorable people pay their debts and they do it on time and in full. As it was for individuals, so it is for the nation. Support for US solvency has been broad and bipartisan throughout its history.

However, because raising the debt limit is essential, it has become a political wedge in an effort to extract concessions, with the ultimate threat of allowing a US default.

This brinkmanship started in 2006 when Democrats—including then-Sen. Joe Biden—threatened to refuse to raise the limit to protest the ongoing war in Iraq and tax cuts for the wealthy by the administration of President George W. Bush. The refusal was meant as a gesture of protest, not an attempt to bring down the United States.

In 2011 and 2013 Republicans threatened to allow a default to force spending cuts by President Barack Obama. This time, the threat was more serious and a faction of Republicans was ready to accept default in order to get its way.

In all these cases compromises were found, the debt ceiling was raised and the United States met its obligations, although in 2011 the US credit rating was downgraded by the Standard & Poor’s rating service from AAA (outstanding) to AA+ (excellent), the first time in history that happened.

In 2023, the extremism, fanaticism and leverage of the MAGA faction in the House of Representatives, as well as the weakness of McCarthy Republicans, makes a default a much more serious and possible prospect than in the past.

Liberty lives in light

© 2023 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate here!

Trump executive orders threaten SWFL seniors’ Social Security benefits

When debt becomes a realitySocial Security recipients ponder the future of their benefits following Trump’s executive order.

Aug. 10, 2020 by David Silverberg

Southwest Florida seniors receiving Social Security payments and dependent on Medicare healthcare insurance are likely to suffer from President Donald Trump’s weakening of the social safety net programs in one of his latest executive orders.

The order, in the form of a memorandum to the Secretary of the Treasury, was one of four signed by Trump on Saturday, Aug. 8.

The memorandum directs the Secretary of the Treasury to “defer the withholding, deposit, and payment” of payroll taxes paid by people who make less than $4,000 per week ($104,000 per year) for the rest of the year.

Collection of the taxes is deferred, not eliminated, and they will be due in the following year. However, the memorandum directs the Secretary of the Treasury to “explore avenues, including legislation, to eliminate the obligation to pay the taxes…”

These taxes pay for Social Security and Medicare. If eliminated, they would effectively end the programs.

Trump stated at the signing ceremony at his golf club in Bedminster, NJ, that he would seek to eliminate the payroll tax if he is re-elected.

(The other three documents signed by Trump provide $300 per week for eligible recipients for lost wages due to coronavirus using disaster relief funds (generically called unemployment benefits) plus $100 of state funds, minimize foreclosures and evictions, and waive collection of federal student loans for the rest of the year.)

Trump’s order on payroll taxes circumvents Congress’ role in setting tax policy and came in for immediate fire from critics. Members of the House and Senate had been negotiating the next coronavirus relief package. The previous unemployment benefit had been $600 per week.

In a joint statement, House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) blasted Trump’s action, stating: “We’re disappointed that instead of putting in the work to solve Americans’ problems, the President instead chose to stay on his luxury golf course to announce unworkable, weak and narrow policy announcements to slash the unemployment benefits that millions desperately need and endanger seniors’ Social Security and Medicare.”

Nancy LeaMond, executive vice president of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), stated:  “Social Security is more crucial than ever as Americans face the one-two punch of the coronavirus’s health and economic consequences. But, this approach exacerbates people’s already-heightened fears and concerns about their financial and retirement security. Social Security’s guaranteed benefits are indispensable. Families impacted by coronavirus urgently need help, and we believe bipartisan congressional action on another coronavirus aid bill is the right solution.”

Florida Democrats immediately denounced Trump’s actions.

“Amid yesterday’s train wreck of neglect, Trump still manages to needlessly imperil seniors’ Social Security and Medicare benefits,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz  (D-23-Fla.) said in a statement.

Rep. Val Demings (D-10-Fla.), tweeted that “The American people desperately need relief. Instead, the president decided to defund Social Security and Medicare.”

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-22-Fla.) stated that Trump is “using the pandemic to gut Social Security’s funding” and “if he gets a second term, vowed to defund Social Security once and for all.” He noted: “The road to the White House runs through Florida and Donald Trump is about to hit a wall of angry senior voters who have just had enough.”

In Southwest Florida, 19th Congressional District Democratic congressional candidate David Holden tweeted: “First of all, Trump does not control the purse. Secondly, we CANNOT tolerate raiding Social Security under the guise of pandemic relief. This is a ploy. We need direct cash relief to every American (yes, even the ones married to undocumented folks) now.”

Democratic congressional candidate Cindy Banyai stated: “I’m dismayed by Trump’s executive overreach into the legislative process. The president doesn’t have the authority to fund programs, only Congress does, leaving many components of his most recent executive order unconstitutional. I’m particularly worried about the attack on Social Security and Medicare, which people in Southwest Florida rely on heavily. We must protect these vital programs, and our democracy, from the whims of a vanity president.”

As of this writing, none of Southwest Florida’s representatives in the 19th, 25th and 17th congressional districts had commented on the executive actions.

Of the nine Republican candidates running in the 19th Congressional District, only Darren Aquino responded to a request for comment, issuing a statement saying that he “stands with President Trump’s executive orders and President Trump’s refusal to remain hostage to the do-nothing Democrats.” He stated that the payroll tax cut was necessary to give workers extra money and as a member of  Congress, he “promises to pass legislation that will forgive all deferred payroll tax payments.”

Fort Myers Mayor Randy Henderson retweeted a Trump tweet simply announcing the action.

While precise public figures on the number of Social Security recipients in Lee and Collier counties were not immediately available, according to 2018 Census statistics, 28.6 percent of Lee County’s 618,754 people are 65 or older (which works out to 174,488 people). Of Collier County’s 321,521 people, 32.2 percent are 65 or older (103,530 people). Both counties’ populations have been steadily increasing.

According to DataUSA, a private consortium that repackages government data, 14.7 percent of Lee County’s population is on Medicaid and 20.8 percent is on Medicare. In Collier County that is 12 percent on Medicaid, 24.9 percent on Medicare.

Liberty lives in light

© 2020 by David Silverberg

 

 

 

 

 

Trump tariffs poised to impoverish seniors, retirees in SWFL and nationwide

RetiredSand and surf may soon be all that’s affordable for SWFL’s seniors.

May 16, 2019 by David Silverberg

Tariffs of 25 percent imposed by President Donald Trump on 5,000 different Chinese goods will likely raise consumer prices across the board, with especially devastating impacts on people with fixed incomes like senior citizens and retirees.

This is likely to be particularly painful in Southwest Florida with its high proportion of fixed-income residents.

According to the US Census Bureau, of Lee County’s 754,610 residents (as of July 1, 2018), 28 percent were 65 years old or older, thus likely to be on a fixed income. Of Collier County’s 378,488 residents in the same period, 31.5 percent were 65 years old or older.

Trump’s escalation of his trade war with China, China’s retaliation and the current impasse in negotiations will likely result in higher prices on all goods, including groceries. A wide variety of goods are affected and product categories include raw materials for manufacturers, cars, electronics (vacuums, televisions), large appliances (washers, driers, air conditioners), clocks and watches, furniture and bedding, glassware and ceramics, precious jewelry and head gear.

Brett Biggs, Walmart’s chief financial officer, warned that consumers would feel the pain. “As we have said before, our goal is to be the low-price leader,” he said on CNBC today.  “We want to manage margins with customers and shareholders in mind. We have mitigation strategies that have been in place for months. But increased tariffs will increase prices for customers.”

Grocery items affected include fruits, nuts, vegetables, meats, pasta and breads.

“As is so often the case, the weak will only get weaker as a result of the higher prices that these tariffs will bring. Lower-income Americans, small businesses and retailers already stressed will feel the pain most,” wrote Pamela Danziger, retail reporter for Forbes.

While Social Security may see a 1.7 percent cost of living adjustment next year, it may not cover the cost of goods if they rise too high. The Senior Citizens League, an advocacy group for senior citizens and Social Security recipients, found in a report released on Monday, May 13, that despite cost of living increases since the year 2000, Social Security benefits have actually lost 33 percent of their buying power since then.

“One would think that a higher cost-of-living adjustment in 2019, combined with relatively low inflation, would lead to an improvement of buying power in Social Security benefits,” Mary Johnson, a Social Security policy analyst for the League and the study’s author explained in a statement accompanying the report.  “But any improvement was offset by spiking costs of essentials, including out-of-pocket spending on prescription drugs.”

Those expenditures will likely soon include anything manufactured or imported from China.

Liberty lives in light

© 2019 by David Silverberg

Trump budget proposal takes aim at SWFL seniors, Social Security recipients

 

01-13-19 us capitol croppedMarch 12, 2019 by David Silverberg

Southwest Floridians receiving Medicare benefits, Social Security payments and other social safety net assistance stand to suffer significant blows to their government-provided benefits under President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, released yesterday, March 11.

The budget slashes $845 billion over 10 years from the Medicare program. According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, as of 2017 (the most recent date for which statistics are available), Lee County had 175,648 Part A and B Medicare recipients, while Collier County had 90,800.

Social Security would suffer $25 billion in cuts over 10 years as well. As of December 2017 (the most recent figures available) there were 12,863 Social Security recipients in Lee County and 4,169 recipients in Collier County, according to the Social Security Administration.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as food stamps, would receive a $220 billion cut over 10 years and recipients would face mandatory work requirements. The program currently serves around 45 million people nationwide and 99,208 people in Lee County and 26,617 in Collier County, as of December 2018.

Environmental blows

The budget cuts all non-defense agencies by 9 percent and takes aim at environmental and science-driven agencies.

The Environmental Protection Agency would suffer a 31 percent cut, with the agency’s overall funding dropping to $6.1 billion, down from the $8 billion Congress enacted in 2017.

The Department of the Interior’s budget is cut by 14 percent. The Trump proposal, however, increases funding for Interior Department programs that “support safe and responsible development of energy on public lands and offshore waters”—which for Southwest Florida means potential oil exploration and exploitation off the Gulf coast and in federal lands like Everglades National Park.

When it comes to the Everglades, the budget requests a total of $118 million for Everglades restoration of which $74.3 million would be for projects under the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) and $44 million would be for non-CERP work, of which $43 million would come through the Department of the Interior.

Controversy and reaction

Nationally, the budget’s most controversial provision calls for $8.6 billion for a wall along the US southwestern border and boosts military spending 5 percent to $750 billion.

The budget proposal was met with a blast of condemnation from congressional Democrats, who denounced it as “irresponsible” and a “cynical vision for our country,” (Rep. John Yarmuth (D-3-Ky.) chairman of the House Budget Committee), “even more untethered from reality than his past two [budget requests],” (Rep. Nita Lowey (D-17-NY), chair of the House Appropriations Committee) and “breathtaking in its degree of cruelty,” (Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)).

Liberty lives in light