Rich seniors are obligated to pay

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. More often than not they drive expensive foreign cars -- Mercedes, Lexus, BMWs and others.

Like a latter-day Midas 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 several of the world's most expensive country clubs -- is the crown jewel of conspicuous self-aggrandizement by super-rich seniors.

Now at the time when the country's official unemployment rate is holding steady at just-under 10 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 America'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 America 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, but instead "spread a small amount of pain across many workers." The policy has been highly successful in protecting jobs both in Germany and the Netherlands, where companies routinely reduce the hours of work by 20 percent or more to avoid layoffs.

In both countries, wise governments have provided those working fewer hours under work-sharing with unemployment benefits to cushion workers' reduction in pay. For example, 100 workers might find their hours reduced by 20 percent to prevent 20 of their workplace friends 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 -- already has been employed in the furlough policies of governments and many newspapers.

Shared-sacrifice ought to be targeted at America'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 their own mini-Fort Knoxes, in part because they live in such an unfettered, free market economy.

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

Contact Madsen, c/o National Press Club, Front Desk, 529 14th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20045.