Simon English: US moguls who think benefits are indulgent

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The Independent Online

Outlook Surveying the latest wreckage from the Chancellor, it is easy to think that Britain is the meanest of the countries in the free West.

There's annoying interference in pensions here, ongoing pain for beer drinkers there, some well-meaning but totally futile stuff about getting folk back to work around the corner.

None of these measures does anything to genuinely impact the deficit, which can only be cut by economic growth. In the meantime, well, lots of people's lives can be made worse to no particular purpose.

The good news, though you can't really call it that, is that there is at least one other First World country that is even more mean-spirited than ours.

American business folk and politicians have been banging on for decades about the need to "reform" – that's means axe – social security benefits, based on the entirely false claim that this highly popular government programme is going bust (it isn't).

There's a new drive now called the Campaign to Fix the Debt, a coalition of bankers, private equity kings and other millionaires that want to slash the safety net many Americans rely on to survive.

They are using the arrival of the so-called "fiscal cliff", another scare story dreamt up by the far right, as the tool to do what they have always wanted to do: ditch benefits for everyone and everything other than gigantic corporations and the plutocrats that run them.

In their minds, tax write-offs: vital for progress. Food for the poor: an indulgence we can no longer afford.

Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, is one member of the Fix the Debt Campaign. So is Goldman Sachs' Lloyd Blankfein, who recently opined: "You're going to have to do something, undoubtedly, to lower people's expectations of what they're going to get, the entitlements, and what people think they're going to get, because you're not going to get it."

That Blankfein and others were bailed out, directly or indirectly, by US taxpayers including recipients of social security might at least give him pause for thought about slashing a benefit that is just about the most successful and most popular government programme in history (our NHS runs it close).

What's interesting about these folk, I think, is that they seem to genuinely imagine that funded benefits – the social security trust fund is in surplus for decades – are a problem in a way that bank bailouts are not. It's hard to see how they get there in their heads, but get there they do.

Mr Blankfein isn't being disingenuous when he talks as if US social security payments were an impending disaster. He really believes it. Whether this is better than outright scheming for personal gain is hard to say.