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“We Can’t Afford To Weaken Social Security”: President Obama Just Changed The National Debate On Social Security

Speaking in Elkhart, Indiana, President Obama made a significant policy statement, one that may get lost in all the talk of the campaign to replace him. He argued that Social Security not only shouldn’t be scaled back, as many believe, but that it should be expanded.

You can look at this as a move to the left. But here’s a better way to see it: as more like a digging in, a resistance to a decades-long effort to lay the groundwork for significant cuts to the program.

Now that Obama has taken this position, it makes it much more likely that most or all Democrats will adopt it as well, which could truly change a debate that up until now has been dominated by an alliance of Republicans and supposedly centrist advocates whose mission is to scale back the most successful social programs America ever created.

Here’s what Obama said in his speech:

But look, let’s face it — a lot of Americans don’t have retirement savings.  Even if they’ve got an account set up, they just don’t have enough money at the end of the month to save as much as they’d like because they’re just barely paying the bills.  Fewer and fewer people have pensions they can really count on, which is why Social Security is more important than ever. We can’t afford to weaken Social Security.  We should be strengthening Social Security.  And not only do we need to strengthen its long-term health, it’s time we finally made Social Security more generous, and increased its benefits so that today’s retirees and future generations get the dignified retirement that they’ve earned.  And we could start paying for it by asking the wealthiest Americans to contribute a little bit more.  They can afford it.  I can afford it.

Here’s why this is important. For a long time now, the way you’ve shown you’re a Very Serious Person about fiscal matters is to gravely intone that Social Security is “going broke” and say that we must cut back benefits, either by reducing retirees’ payments or raising the retirement age. There’s an entire industry of think tanks and advocacy groups whose mission is to create the intellectual and political environment that will make such cuts possible.

Liberals have only been pushing back against that coalition in a serious way for a few years now. There are some high-profile voices debunking the myth that Social Security is “going broke,” most notably Paul Krugman’s (I won’t bother to go over again why it’s a myth, but if you’re interested I explained it here). But they’ve been hampered by the fact that so many Democratic politicians want to communicate that they too are Very Serious, so they accept some of the premises of the other side’s argument, ceding half the battle over the existence of the program.

And make no mistake: it is a battle over the existence of the program. Despite their assurances that they only want to “strengthen” Social Security, many Republicans would like nothing more than to see it disappear, for two reasons. The first is that they’re simply opposed to large social programs on ideological grounds. The second is that by virtue of its success and popularity, Social Security is an ongoing rebuke to conservative arguments about government. It’s awkward to say, “Government can’t do anything right and should be cut back as much as possible” to a voter who has health care because of Medicare and isn’t eating cat food because of Social Security — and thinks both programs are terrific.

So the political situation is this. Republicans can’t mount a direct assault on the program because it’s spectacularly popular, particularly with those who get checks every month (and who vote in large numbers). At the same time, their campaign against it has been extremely successful in shaping public opinion. Large portions of the public have been convinced that the program is in crisis and is about to go broke, and young people in particular think Social Security won’t exist by the time they retire. The hope of the anti-entitlement forces is that if they can convince enough people of that, when they propose a specific plan to cut back the program, people will say, “Sure, whatever — it’s going broke anyway, so we might as well.”

Until recently, the debate around Social Security consisted of one side saying it was going broke and needed to be slashed, and the other side not disputing those basic assertions too strongly, but saying that we shouldn’t do anything rash. What we are moving toward, however, is the Democratic side saying not only that the program is essentially healthy, but that instead of cutting it we should be expanding it. That’s a profoundly different debate, one that produces an entirely different set of policy options.

Right now you have the president of the United States taking that position, as well as the two leading Democratic presidential candidates. Hillary Clinton has proposed some targeted expansions of Social Security benefits, for widow/ers facing a benefit cut when a spouse dies and for those whose benefits are smaller because they spent time out of the workforce raising children or caring for other family members. Bernie Sanders advocates an increase for all recipients: “expand benefits by an average of $65 a month; increase cost-of-living-adjustments; and lift more seniors out of poverty by increasing the minimum benefits paid to low-income seniors.”

With the exception of Donald Trump, all the Republican presidential candidates this year signed on to some form of Social Security cuts, either through increasing the retirement age or cutting benefits. Trump, however, said we just shouldn’t touch it. In one debate, he said, “It’s my absolute intention to leave Social Security the way it is. Not increase the age and to leave it as is.” Trump doesn’t say how he’d pay for the program, which should undercut the idea that his position somehow challenges conservative orthodoxy; in reality, all Trump is saying is that he’ll make everyone so rich that we won’t have to make tough choices about such things.

By contrast, Democrats feel an obligation to explain how they’re going to pay for the benefits they propose. Obama described “asking the wealthiest Americans to contribute a little more.” That isn’t very specific, but there are a couple of ways you could do that, the most obvious of which is to raise the payroll tax cap. Right now you pay Social Security taxes only on the first $118,500 of your income, which means that beyond that level the wealthy pay a lower portion of their income than poor and middle-class people do.

Hillary Clinton says she would pay for increased benefits by “asking the highest-income Americans to pay more, including options to tax some of their income above the current Social Security cap, and taxing some of their income not currently taken into account by the Social Security system.” That would probably mean applying payroll taxes to investment income and not just wage income as it is now. Sanders wants to do that too, and is more specific about the cap: he would remove it entirely, though he would include a doughnut hole between the current cap of $118,500 and $250,000; you wouldn’t start to pay more payroll taxes until you reached that higher income.

Unfortunately, it’s a little hard to tell exactly how much in greater benefits we could afford with these kinds of measures, because how much the system takes in is heavily dependent on things we can only guess at, like what income growth, inflation, and immigration levels are going to be 10 or 20 or 50 years from now. But now that the most prominent Democrats in the country all agree that we should be expanding Social Security and not cutting it back, we could have a whole new debate on the issue.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, June 2, 2016

June 6, 2016 Posted by | President Obama, Republicans, Social Security | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“How Do You Solve A Problem Like Donald Trump?”: All Media Is Political, Without Exception; Best To Be Honest About It

As Donald Trump has implausibly moved into a tie for first place in the GOP primary, there has been much discussion in media circles about how to treat his candidacy. Most media organizations (including The Week!) have published an inordinate amount of stories about Trump. The Huffington Post, on the other hand, recently announced it would move all coverage of Trump’s campaign to the entertainment section.

This sparked a backlash from some reporters, such as The Daily Beast‘s Olivia Nuzzi, who argued that such a move is an improper delegitimization of the tens of thousands of Trump supporters out there.  “[P]olling competitively and being a registered candidate makes him legitimate. End of story,” she wrote on Twitter.

It’s certainly true that The Huffington Post‘s action is a swipe against Trump’s many supporters. But it is also simply impossible for reporters — who are human beings, after all — to avoid some sort of judgment on the legitimacy of a presidential candidate.

As I’ve argued before, normative judgments are inherent to the practice of all but the very simplest journalism. To demand that Trump be covered like any other “legitimate” presidential candidate is to demand that journalists implicitly legitimize his ideas. On the contrary, it is right and proper for publications to decide how they view a candidate’s policy platform and overall persona; signaling that he will be treated like a trashy celebrity is one way of doing that.

I respect The Huffington Post‘s right to make coverage choices as it sees fit. I’m also not sure I agree with the decision to move Trump into the entertainment section. As Matt Yglesias argues, Trump’s highly unexpected success — especially given that it came immediately after he started up with bilious racist rants against Mexican immigrants — suggests there is a fairly wide constituency for gutter nativism. That is an important truth of our politics and our nation that should not just be shrugged off as some carnival sideshow.

Instead of banishing Trump to the land of Kardashians and superheroes, the media would probably be better off simply reporting on Trump with open contempt. His ideas are disgusting and he’s a vicious, racist bully. But it’s not wise to write him — or the ideas that he champions — off as a self-aggrandizing joke. There are a great many people who would eagerly sign on to an immigration-restriction agenda, and Trump would definitely not be the first colossal buffoon elected to the head of a major state.

And that brings me to Bernie Sanders, who has been the subject of multiple comparisons to Trump (including one from my colleague Damon Linker) as representing the two “extremes” of American politics. This, too, is a mistake by the media.

We’re all grasping for ways to deal with this brainless, hate-spewing hurricane who has somehow managed to attract the support of tens of thousands of Americans in spite of — actually, let’s be honest: because of — his hateful racism. Just as The Huffington Post‘s decision to write Trump off as “entertainment” is understandable, so too is the media’s search to find Trump’s polar opposite on the left in order to give some context to this flagrantly foolish carnival barker.

But to compare Sanders, a serious person with serious ideas, to a clown who rants about how Mexicans are mostly criminals and rapists, is inherently delegitimizing. Putting Trump in the entertainment section makes The Huffington Post‘s perspective clear. So does grafting Trump to Sanders — but in a backhanded and cheap way that’s unfair to the socialist senator from Vermont.

Trump’s racist views do have the support of a substantial minority. But Sanders’ agenda is far more popular. About three-quarters of Americans support raising the minimum wage to $10.10. Social Security is likely the most popular government program of all time — and 82 percent would raise the payroll tax across the board to keep it solvent. Sixty-eight percent support increasing taxes on the rich.

Now, that is not to rule out all positive coverage of Trump, or negative coverage of Sanders. Conservative publications will do both, no doubt, as is their right. The point is that coverage should be grounded in a clear normative view, not some faux-omniscient view from nowhere. All media is political, without exception. Best to be honest about it.

 

By: Ryan Cooper, The Week, July 20, 2015

July 22, 2015 Posted by | Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Media | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“The GOP’s Weird Social Security Gambit”: If That’s Christie’s Lead Issue, It Doesn’t Say A Lot For His Political Instincts

Now I know we don’t really care about Chris Christie and he’s less popular in New Jersey these days than air pollution in Elizabeth, but he actually said something interesting in his little “Hey, I’m still here” media blitz. He went after Social Security for no apparent reason.

Bizarre is the only word I can come up with for Christie’s proposal to means-test Social Security while also raising the retirement age to 69. It’s bizarre first because most experts think means-testing, which for Christie would start at $80,000, would be the death of the system. As the standard line goes, it would turn Social Security from an entitlement program to a welfare program, and welfare programs aren’t popular, so support for it would plunge, and it would end.

Of course, some people want that, so there is support for the idea among conservative policymakers. But here’s the thing, which is reason No. 2 the idea is bizarre: Who exactly was clamoring for this? Nobody! It’s been years since we’ve heard anyone making a big fuss about means-testing. Conservatives know it’s totally unrealistic, so they just don’t bring it up much. It’s akin to liberals and marginal tax rate north of 50 percent on dollars earned above some really huge amount. We’re for it in theory, sure, but we know it’s not in the cards, so there’s no point in even bringing it up. If that’s Christie’s lead issue, it doesn’t say a lot for his political instincts. You don’t even get truth-teller cred for this one, except from Pete Peterson and maybe The Washington Post editorial board (which hasn’t weighed in on Christie that I’ve seen but which generally backs “reining in” entitlements).

In New Hampshire over the weekend, many of the other leading Republicans, most notably Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, agreed with Christie on the retirement-age question. I don’t think this is crazy talk. We’re living longer, and while people who perform hard physical labor if anything should have their retirement ages lowered, more of us do the kind of work that we can keep doing after 65. The retirement age is 67 in Norway, and other European countries are debating an increase to 67. The age at which an American will be eligible to receive full benefits will rise from 65 to 67 by 2027, so an increase is already on the books.

But while I may not think the idea is crazy talk, my fellow Americans are decidedly cool to it, disagreeing with such a proposal by nearly 2-to-1 in most polls you see. And of course any talk about changing Social Security scares old people, who have increasingly been voting Republican.

So why are Republicans talking about it? It’s kind of mystifying. I suppose business broadly supports it. But I think it’s mostly become just an anti-government thing. The real position is to oppose Social Security entirely, because it’s socialism and so forth. But of course they can’t say that, so they back things like means-testing and raising the retirement age. That is a benefits cut, which I suppose they think in the back of their minds will help whittle away at the whole thing over time. Any time you hear a Republican talk about “saving” Social Security or Medicare, they mean “save” in the sense of “destroy.” Or at least “disfigure.”

On the other side, Democrats are suddenly talking about increasing benefits. In the Senate in late March, Elizabeth Warren introduced a mostly symbolic resolution calling for an increase in benefits (it didn’t say exactly how) and it got the support of 42 of 44 voting Democratic senators. Joe Manchin, even! (The nays were Delaware’s Tom Carper, a longtime deficit hawk, and Heidi Heitkamp, who represents deep-red North Dakota.)

No word on all this yet from You Know Who. But what Hillary Clinton does on Social Security will be a real indicator of how drunk on Populism Kool-Aid she’s willing to allow herself to get. Will she, for example, support raising the payroll tax cap? Right now, earnings up to $118,500 are subject to the Social Security and Medicare tax. (That figure rises every year with inflation.) For many liberals—though by no means all, since a lot of them dislike the payroll tax in the first place—doubling, tripling, quadrupling that cap is kind of an obvious step. It even polls well.

The last time she was a presidential candidate, Clinton seems to have tried to have it both ways on this one. It was Barack Obama who pretty consistently supported raising the cap, even if he didn’t talk about it much. According to this interesting report from the left-ish economics journal Dollars and Sense, Clinton’s campaign distributed a flier in Nevada lighting into Obama for wanting to raise the cap so he could “send more of Nevada families’ hard-earned dollars to Washington.”

Yet apparently an AP reporter heard Clinton tell an Iowa voter that she’d support a so-called doughnut-hole approach that would keep the cap where it is and then re-impose a payroll tax at a higher income level (at the time she is supposed to have suggested $200,000). That would spare the vast majority of upper-middle-class earners—voters with lots of political muscle, that is—from a tax increase.

I would bet Clinton goes this route if she does anything, although four years on, the re-imposition number will likely be higher than $200,000. But even just putting it into the conversation will be important. The entire Social Security debate is about how to cut it, not how to expand it. And yes, a tax is a tax, and it’s always risky to talk about one, but as taxes go, this one is probably less risky than most. People like Social Security and seem to grasp that what they pay in, they get back, which is still true for the vast majority of retirees, who get somewhat more back in benefits than they put in.

So let the Republicans talk about how to cut. Clinton ought to do the opposite. She should do it in her responsible, Wellesley-girl way. She’s not Warren and shouldn’t try to be. But she can still leave the Republicans looking stingy and small.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, April 20, 2015

April 21, 2015 Posted by | Chris Christie, GOP Presidential Candidates, Social Security | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Doom And Gloom”: A History Of Paul Ryan’s Attempts To Dismantle Social Security

That House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) supports the privatization of Social Security is well known. Ryan proposed $1.2 trillion in cuts and the partial privatization of Social Security upon taking control of the Budget Committee in 2011, and he has constantly warned about the supposed doom facing the program if major reforms aren’t enacted immediately.

But Ryan’s attempts to gut the most popular entitlement program in America go back quite a few years, as Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker profile of the conservative hero makes clear. Ryan’s fight against Social Security has been ongoing since he pushed President George W. Bush to privatize the program in 2005:

Under Ryan’s initial version, American workers would be able to invest about half of their payroll taxes, which fund Social Security, in private accounts. As a plan to reduce government debt, it made no sense. It simply took money from one part of the budget and spent it on private accounts, at a cost of two trillion dollars in transition expenses. But, as an ideological statement about the proper relationship between individuals and the federal government, Ryan’s plan was clear. […]

Two weeks after Bush’s Inauguration, Ryan gave a speech at Cato asserting that Social Security was no longer the third rail of American politics. He toured his district with a PowerPoint presentation and invited news crews to document how Republicans could challenge Democrats on a sacrosanct policy issue and live to tell about it.

Bush ultimately went with a slightly less radical proposal that still failed in the Senate and caused Republicans massive losses in the 2006 mid-term elections. But Ryan, undeterred, told Lizza that the failure of privatization was simply due to marketing, not that the plan was unpopular:

What some might interpret as the failure of an unpopular idea Ryan insisted was mostly a communications problem. “The Administration did a bad job of selling it,” he told me. Bush had campaigned on national-security issues, only to pitch Social Security reform after reëlection. “And . . . thud,” Ryan said. “You’ve got to prepare the country for these things. You can’t just spring it on them after you win.” The lesson: “Don’t let the engineers run the marketing department.”

Aided by the mainstream media’s spreading of the lie that Social Security is “going bankrupt,” Ryan has been able to thrust Social Security “reform” back onto the table, and it was embraced during the primary by virtually every Republican candidate.

What Ryan and his Republican colleagues continue to ignore, however, is how easy fixing Social Security would be if they weren’t so insistent on protecting the wealthiest Americans from a single tax increase. By lifting the payroll tax cap that currently limits Social Security contributions to the first $110,100 in income, Congress could ensure the program’s solvency for the next 75 years — longer than the program has been in existence to this point.

That wouldn’t fit Ryan’s belief that the government doesn’t have a role in helping protect the financial security of the American people. But it would prevent millions of Americans from losing the much of their retirement savings, as they would have during the 2008 financial crisis had Ryan’s plan to privatize Social Security become law.

 

By: Travis Waldron, Think Progress, July 30, 2012

July 31, 2012 Posted by | Social Security | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Morally Inept: The New GOP Resentment Of The Poor

In a decade of frenzied tax-cutting for the rich, the Republican Party just happened to lower tax rates for the poor, as well. Now several of the party’s most prominent presidential candidates and lawmakers want to correct that oversight and raise taxes on the poor and the working class, while protecting the rich, of course.

These Republican leaders, who think nothing of widening tax loopholes for corporations and multimillion-dollar estates, are offended by the idea that people making less than $40,000 might benefit from the progressive tax code. They are infuriated by the earned income tax credit (the pride of Ronald Reagan), which has become the biggest and most effective antipoverty program by giving working families thousands of dollars a year in tax refunds. They scoff at continuing President Obama’s payroll tax cut, which is tilted toward low- and middle-income workers and expires in December.

Until fairly recently, Republicans, at least, have been fairly consistent in their position that tax cuts should benefit everyone. Though the Bush tax cuts were primarily for the rich, they did lower rates for almost all taxpayers, providing a veneer of egalitarianism. Then the recession pushed down incomes severely, many below the minimum income tax level, and the stimulus act lowered that level further with new tax cuts. The number of families not paying income tax has risen from about 30 percent before the recession to about half, and, suddenly, Republicans have a new tool to stoke class resentment.

Representative Michele Bachmann noted recently that 47 percent of Americans do not pay federal income tax; all of them, she said, should pay something because they benefit from parks, roads and national security. (Interesting that she acknowledged government has a purpose.) Gov. Rick Perry, in the announcement of his candidacy, said he was dismayed at the “injustice” that nearly half of Americans do not pay income tax. Jon Huntsman Jr., up to now the most reasonable in the Republican presidential field, said not enough Americans pay tax.

Representative Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, and several senators have made similar arguments, variations of the idea expressed earlier by Senator Dan Coats of Indiana that “everyone needs to have some skin in the game.”

This is factually wrong, economically wrong and morally wrong. First, the facts: a vast majority of Americans have skin in the tax game. Even if they earn too little to qualify for the income tax, they pay payroll taxes (which Republicans want to raise), gasoline excise taxes and state and local taxes. Only 14 percent of households pay neither income nor payroll taxes, according to the Tax Policy Center at the Brookings Institution. The poorest fifth paid an average of 16.3 percent of income in taxes in 2010.

Economically, reducing the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit — which would be required if everyone paid income taxes — makes no sense at a time of high unemployment. The credits, which only go to working people, have always been a strong incentive to work, as even some conservative economists say, and have increased the labor force while reducing the welfare rolls.

The moral argument would have been obvious before this polarized year. Nearly 90 percent of the families that paid no income tax make less than $40,000, most much less. The real problem is that so many Americans are struggling on such a small income, not whether they pay taxes. The two tax credits lifted 7.2 million people out of poverty in 2009, including four million children. At a time when high-income households are paying their lowest share of federal taxes in decades, when corporations frequently avoid paying any tax, it is clear who should bear a larger burden and who should not.

By: Editorial, The New York Times, August 30, 2011

September 1, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Congress, Conservatives, Consumers, Corporations, Democracy, Economic Recovery, Economy, Elections, GOP, Government, Ideologues, Ideology, Income Gap, Jobs, Labor, Lawmakers, Middle Class, Politics, Public, Republicans, Right Wing, Tax Credits, Tax Hike Prevention Act 2010, Tax Increases, Tax Loopholes, Taxes, Teaparty, Unemployed, Voters, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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