At 88, Merton Bernstein, retired law professor and expert on Social Security, is a vocal and persistent supporter of the program and the benefits it offers people living in retirement.
He's all over the Internet, eloquently setting straight people who want to reduce Social Security benefits or who suggest that delaying eligibility is the right retirement planning approach. "It's easy for people with current jobs and full stomachs to advocate cutting Social Security. They just ignore what a drastic problem this would be for people who are living on Social Security and not much else," he says.
The most recent issue to get his dander up is what he sees as a stealth move to cut Social Security by limiting cost of living increases. The proposed measure -- called "chained COLA" -- would reduce the benefit under the current formula by three-tenths of 1 percentage point every year.
"This utterly arbitrary new element suggests that the name of the game is simply to reduce each year's COLA and to do it by what they regard as unnoticeably minute amounts," Bernstein says.
But small amounts add up. After five years of chained COLA, benefits would be 1.5 percent behind price increases; after 10 years, 3 percent. After 20 years, the benefit reduction would be 6 percent, Bernstein calculates.
Supporters argue that the chained COLA provides a more accurate measure of inflation. "That's malarkey," Bernstein says.
He contends that the CPI as determined by the Department of Labor actually underestimates the cost of living for older people because it doesn't accurately reflect the cost of health care. And the chained COLA would make that problem worse, he says, because it presumes that people avoid inflationary costs by choosing to spend their money differently. But that's hard to do with health care. "Do people choose to have macular degeneration, arthritis, declines in hearing? Of course not," he grumbles.
Bernstein, who has been a recipient of Social Security since he was 70 when he retired from teaching at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Law, and who still teaches an occasional class at the community college near his home in Massachusetts, isn't at all certain that there is even a problem with funding for Social Security. He poohs-poohs the notion that anyone has a crystal ball accurate enough to predict what the economy will be like in 25 years, when Social Security's actuaries say the reserves will decline to the point where there won't be enough to pay more than about 75 percent of what's owed.
"Even 25 years ago did anybody foresee the revolution that the computer would have on the economy? To say what's going to happen in another 25 years and thereafter when the shortfall is supposed to come and attach any degree of certainty to it is totally unwarranted," he says.
And if a shortfall does happen, what then? Bernstein has the answer: "The shortfall is 2 percent of payroll. If employers would pay 1 additional percentage point of payroll and employees would pay an additional 1 percent of payroll. Bye-bye shortfall."