If You Have A Rep In Congress Willing To Compromise Away Social Security, You Have The Wrong Rep
In recent days, we've been talking a lot about the push from progressives in the Senate, particularly Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to combat the never-ending conservative goal of whittling away at Social Security by actually fighting to expand it. Earlier in the month, it was Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown who kicked off the effort to bring Tom Harkin's bill to the forefront of the legislative agenda. As Greg Sargent pointed out in the Washington Post Brown's strategy was to go on the offensive "rather than let Republicans and Beltway fiscal scolds frame the discussion as one over how much benefits should be cut, not one over whether they should be cut at all. That puts Obama, whose approval has sunk to all-time lows because of the NSA domestic spying revelations, in another awkward position, again aligned with Republicans against ordinary American families.
Brown is endorsing Tom Harkin’s bill to expand Social Security benefits, which would boost benefits for beneficiaries by $70 per month, change the cost-of-living calculation to keep pace with rising costs of things seniors need, and scrap the payroll tax cap to strengthen the program over the long term. The crusade to expand Social Security got started with liberal bloggers such as Atrios began pushing for it, and gained some momentum when liberal groups such as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee began mobilizing behind the idea.
With Washington chatter centered on a “grand bargain” or at least a “mini bargain” that might involve entitlement cuts, expanding Social Security might seem like a dead end. But when I pushed Brown on whether Dems would rally behind the idea-- after all, Chained CPI is in the President’s budget-- he insisted Dems should not cooperate in allowing a “Serious” center-right consensus that equates “fiscal responsibility” with cutting entitlement benefits to reign unchallenged.
“The Serious People-- with a capital S and a capital P-- all have really good pensions and good health care and good salaries,” Brown said. “Raise the cap. There are ways we can bring a lot of money into Social Security. Some Democrats are a bit cowed by the Serious People.”
Brown argues that if Republicans push for Social Security benefits cuts as part of any deal, Dems should counter with the Harkin proposal to shift the terms of the debate in a Democratic direction. Democratic priorities, he said, should be centered on the idea that declining pensions and wages (and savings) are undermining retirement security, and added that the public strongly opposed gutting social insurance.
“The situation for seniors is only going to get worse, because the assault on pensions and wages is making it more and more difficult for a worker to save for the future,” Brown said. “Why are we having a debate over how much we are going to hurt seniors? The debate should be over how we should structure a pension for seniors that will help them. Why would we play on their playing field? Democrats need to play offense here. Force Republicans to say what it is they really want to do. Republicans just don’t like social insurance.”
Yesterday Paul Krugman weighed on with a powerful OpEd in the New York Times, Expanding Social Security. No fan of the Beltway's version of the whole Serious People concept, Krugman cuts right to the chase in his first paragraph: "For many years there has been one overwhelming rule for people who wanted to be considered serious inside the Beltway. It was this: You must declare your willingness to cut Social Security in the name of 'entitlement reform.' It wasn’t really about the numbers, which never supported the notion that Social Security faced an acute crisis. It was instead a sort of declaration of identity, a way to show that you were an establishment guy, willing to impose pain (on other people, as usual) in the name of fiscal responsibility." Their side is losing.
Before I get there, however, let me briefly take on two bad arguments for cutting Social Security that you still hear a lot.
One is that we should raise the retirement age-- currently 66, and scheduled to rise to 67-- because people are living longer. This sounds plausible until you look at exactly who is living longer. The rise in life expectancy, it turns out, is overwhelmingly a story about affluent, well-educated Americans. Those with lower incomes and less education have, at best, seen hardly any rise in life expectancy at age 65; in fact, those with less education have seen their life expectancy decline.
So this common argument amounts, in effect, to the notion that we can’t let janitors retire because lawyers are living longer. And lower-income Americans, in case you haven’t noticed, are the people who need Social Security most.
The other argument is that seniors are doing just fine. Hey, their poverty rate is only 9 percent.
There are two big problems here. First, there are well-known flaws with the official poverty measure, and these flaws almost surely lead to serious understatement of elderly poverty. In an attempt to provide a more realistic picture, the Census Bureau now regularly releases a supplemental measure that most experts consider superior-- and this measure puts senior poverty at 14.8 percent, close to the rate for younger adults.
Furthermore, the elderly poverty rate is highly likely to rise sharply in the future, as the failure of America’s private pension system takes its toll.
When you look at today’s older Americans, you are in large part looking at the legacy of an economy that is no more. Many workers used to have defined-benefit retirement plans, plans in which their employers guaranteed a steady income after retirement. And a fair number of seniors (like my father, until he passed away a few months ago) are still collecting benefits from such plans.
Today, however, workers who have any retirement plan at all generally have defined-contribution plans-- basically, 401(k)’s-- in which employers put money into a tax-sheltered account that’s supposed to end up big enough to retire on. The trouble is that at this point it’s clear that the shift to 401(k)’s was a gigantic failure. Employers took advantage of the switch to surreptitiously cut benefits; investment returns have been far lower than workers were told to expect; and, to be fair, many people haven’t managed their money wisely.
As a result, we’re looking at a looming retirement crisis, with tens of millions of Americans facing a sharp decline in living standards at the end of their working lives. For many, the only thing protecting them from abject penury will be Social Security. Aren’t you glad we didn’t privatize the program?
So there’s a strong case for expanding, not contracting, Social Security. Yes, this would cost money, and it would require additional taxes-- a suggestion that will horrify the fiscal scolds, who have been insisting that if we raise taxes at all, the proceeds must go to deficit reduction, not to making our lives better. But the fiscal scolds have been wrong about everything, and it’s time to start thinking outside their box.
Realistically, Social Security expansion won’t happen anytime soon. But it’s an idea that deserves to be on the table-- and it’s a very good sign that it finally is.
"Social Security has been critical to making sure seniors can retire with dignity in this country" he said. No program in history has been more successful at lifting seniors out of poverty than this one. That’s why it’s so frustrating that Republicans (and even some Democrats) are fixated on cutting these benefits for people who need them and who have earned them. There are challenges coming down the line for keeping Social Security on solid footing-- but an all cuts approach isn’t the only answer to these challenges. There are two sides to any economic equation-- the Republicans aren’t even willing to talk about investing in the system’s future. People making over $300,000 per year are in a position to help shore up Social Security if we need it. This is an important program for our country and it’s worth our investment. Once again, this is all about choosing priorities. I choose to respect and support the seniors who have earned the right to retire with dignity."
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