When inflation hits, every dollar in your bank account is worth less each day. Deflation is just the opposite: You put your feet up and watch your money grow in value. The latter is what is happening now to America's seniors. And politicians think they should not have to stand for it.
The other day, the federal government announced that for the first time since cost-of-living adjustments were begun in 1975, Social Security recipients will not get an annual raise in their monthly checks. This decision is not the result of a fit of fiscal austerity or a sadistic desire to punish old people. There won't be a raise to offset inflation for the simple reason that there has been no inflation to offset.
Last year, seniors got a big raise because consumer prices had jumped 5.8 percent in one year. In the following 12 months, though, the Consumer Price Index has dropped by 2.1 percent. So in the coming year, Social Security payments will stay the same and be worth more than they used to be.
But so what? Groups representing the elderly, like AARP, have come to regard the annual raise as a sacred birthright in good times as well as bad, and few in Washington want to argue with them. President Obama has proposed giving every Social Security recipient a tax-free $250 bonus in lieu of a cost-of-living adjustment. Congressional Democrats are all for it, and the Republican leadership sounds agreeable.
A consensus like that happens only when someone comes up with a simple, appealing and thoroughly horrendous idea. As it is, the cost-of-living rules are a great deal for seniors. Retirees get more money when prices rise, but they don't have to give any of it back when prices fall. The ratchet works only in their favor.
It's not easy to make a case for enriching seniors at a time when working-age Americans are suffering, but Obama and his allies are trying. The president insisted that "we must act on behalf of those hardest hit by this recession."
Who is he kidding? His policy would help those with the most protection. The people hit hardest by the recession are those who have seen their earnings vanish along with their jobs. Social Security recipients are assured of a stable stream of income even when companies are cutting payroll with a chainsaw.