Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Sunday, September 25, 2016

After two debates, progressives are left with more questions than answers about the fate of one of our most important social programs.

It’s been a few decades since then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill first referred to Social Security as “the third rail of American politics,” but judging from the way the candidates in this election have avoided the subject, it still has plenty of juice left. There was a brief dustup last fall when Rick Perry claimed the program was a Ponzi scheme, but his subsequent flameout in the Republican primaries was so spectacular that the details were quickly forgotten. Since then, most of the focus has understandably been on Paul Ryan’s plan to turn Medicare’s guaranteed benefit into a voucher that grandma and grandpa can add to their coupon clippings. If we’re really lucky, sometimes we even get to debate the wisdom of dismantling Medicaid. But in the last two debates, the candidates have made statements about Social Security that raised more questions than they answered and suggested that the program’s future may be in doubt regardless of the election’s outcome.

Aside from the fact that President Obama seemed to have downed an entire bottle of Nyquil before his first debate with Mitt Romney, one of progressives’ biggest gripes about his performance concerned his decision to take Social Security off the table. “You know, I suspect that, on Social Security, we’ve got a somewhat similar position. Social Security is structurally sound,” Obama said last Wednesday, adding that “It’s going to have to be tweaked” but “the basic structure is sound.” That raises two questions: First, do they actually agree, or was Obama overcome by the spirit of compromise that sometimes compels him to give his opponents the benefit of the doubt when they’ve done nothing to earn it? Second, and perhaps even more importantly, exactly what sort of “tweaks” would the candidates support?

Sadly, we didn’t learn the answers to either of these questions, since moderator Jim Lehrer is allergic to follow-ups, but commentators on the left have hazarded a few guesses, and most of them aren’t very optimistic. Writing at The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner makes one of the stronger cases for why we should worry about Obama’s commitment to preserving Social Security benefits. He notes that Romney has pledged no changes to Social Security for those in or near retirement, which carries the unsubtle implication that everyone else is probably screwed. But Kuttner argues that instead of going on the attack, the Bowles-curious Obama “is softening up public opinion to accept very similar cuts” and “giving away what should be one of the clearest differences with Romney.” Dean Baker concurs that “tweak is a code word used by people who want to cut Social Security but lack the courage to say it explicitly.”

While it might be safer to assume the worst, it would be more charitable to read Obama’s comments as an acknowledgment that there are policy tweaks that would genuinely strengthen Social Security. Jeff Madrick provides a good overview of some ways we could extend the program’s solvency without reducing benefits or raising the retirement age. He also notes that Social Security is in no real danger and that fixing its finances is a fairly easy task, even though it’s often lumped in with Medicare and Medicaid as part of an all-encompassing “entitlement crisis.” But raising the cap on payroll taxes doesn’t seem to be the type of tweaking Romney has in mind, and even with no changes the program is projected to pay out full benefits for another 21 years. So why wouldn’t Obama choose to heighten the contrasts instead of conceding the argument before it’s begun?

That question only became more urgent at last night’s vice presidential debate, as Paul Ryan defended his support for privatization. Responding to moderator Martha Raddatz’s comment that “Medicare and Social Security are going broke” (they’re not), Ryan agreed that “these are indisputable facts” (see above) and argued that “if you reform these programs for my generation, people 54 and below, you can guarantee they don’t change for people in or near retirement.” Well, that’s great for them, but what does it mean for the rest of us who were sort of planning on growing old one day?

  • The only straight answers we got from the Rolls Royce (RR) team is their original plan to privatize Social Security, dismantle MEDICARE and gut MEDICAID to be able to give the super rich more tax breaks. The metamorphosis Gov Romney had the last 6 weeks is bound to evaporate the minute he is elected, and any person who doubts that is more gullible and naive than they think. His reversal on social programs, deregulation, spending reductions, the Arab Spring and even abortion is part of a cynical strategy to project an image of moderation that contrasts with everything the GOP – and Mitt Romney – said until a few weeks ago when they realized that the only way to be competitive and have a chance to win was to embrace Democratic policies and criticize Democrats for not going far enough!

  • bcarreiro

    What about a reduction in salaries for elected officials?

    • old_blu

      Maybe we could give them a performance test and pay them on how well they do, nah, that won’t work but it would be nice.

      • grammyjill

        I’d still like IQ tests and mental evaluations, before they can even run!

        • old_blu

          Mental evaluations, hmmm that’s a damn good idea, they should have those for every tea bagger out there, imagine if they tested Palin, Bachmann, and Rush. lol

          • grammyjill

            And Alan West! I suspect they would get some meds and a nice locked room. Did you know Alan West was a criminal? He was court marshalled and fined 5000. And that is one of our congressmen! Hopefully not much longer.

  • I don’t think we are going to get a straignt answer on Social Security. Both candidates dance around the issue. I guess we will have to wait and see.

    • Ed

      It will certainly not be solved in the “silly season”, i.e. before the election.

  • SaneJane

    This particular “third rail” is a complete fabrication of those who strive to widen the gap between the 1% and the rest of us. Social Security is not broke. Medicare is not broke. The United States of America is not broke. I heard some Republican say just yesterday that “there is no money”, what the heck is he talking about? The United States is monetarily sovereign and the sole creator of DOLLARS in the entire world. Our debts are in dollars, payable in dollars and we control the dollars. We have huge problems but running out of dollars is not one of them. Broaden your scope folks.

    • lana ward

      Obama is destroying American Capitalism. He is letting the Government’s debt reach the point where America must default on it’s interest payments and then America is through!!! The dollar will no longer be used as the worlds reserve currency, and we will be reduced to economic chaos that will lesd to riots and violence. Martial law will permit socialists to impose brute force over the nation and keep Obama in power as dictator

      • Sand_Cat

        Obama is only letting too much of what the lunatic right did before him continue. I admit that he is largely a gutless wonder, but, despite all the GOP BS, he has made things slightly better over his term, not far worse as the lunatics claim.

      • Lana Ward please put the pipe down. You are being lead down the garden path of twaddle, dishonesty and goodbye to reality. Capitalism is doing wonderful and if you were paying attention you would understand the American business is awash in capital to the tune of over $2 trillion some odd dollars. The stock market, the playground of those with capital, has recovered and is doing very well indeed. Then again I suppose you are fearful of Obama negro army coming to take you away. Martial law imposed by socialists is a pipe dream.

      • mikecoatl

        Sorry, but I don’t recall Barack Obama putting two Middle-East wars, a Medicare expansion and one of the biggest tax cuts in US history on the Chinese credit card.

        Take your vile, red-baiting paranoia elsewhere.

        • lana ward

          Obama is the Red Diaper baby, So is David Axelrod-look it up

    • Tom_D44

      Jane you have said this on many occasions and I sincerely hope that there are not tons of people out there who think like you. This country has been printing money like is was going out of style to the tune of trillions of dollars. This is completely unsustainable. Worse yet, they are printing it, giving it to the Fed who is, in turn, loaning it back to us. A very creepy scenario. And we are spending so much money that we can’t print enough to keep up with it. I, for one, do not long for the days where our currency is so devalued that it costs $10,000 for a loaf of bread or for the days when interest rates on your house is 20%. Please stop trying to tell people that we can print our way out of this crisis because it comes with severe consequences. We may be monetary soveriegn for now, but don’t think that the world can’t choose to accept another currency in lieu of our own and as soon as we are perceived by the world as a bad investment, they will all go somewhere else – like China who is actually investing their money in things that will be worth something.

  • SaneJane

    The GOP’s long term goal has been to destroy and eliminate social programs that help keep our people from going under. The way they hope to accomplish this is to say “there is no money”. This is the same old “starve the beast” strategy they have faithfully followed for many years.

    • I agree with you 100%. That has been their goal for decades and, yes, they have used the purse strings to starve those programs whenever they controlled the House or Senate. Romney’s sudden change of heart is driven by his desire to win in November. Neither him nor the GOP will suport our social programs, in fact, if elected he, Boehner, Ryan and the rest of them will do everything they can to shut them down. Their original plans were very explicit on what they have in mind. Unfortunately, there are too many naive people around willing to accept whatever a cynical politician tells them, without analyzing their record or their party’s stated goals.

  • Ed

    Until both parties agree that something must be done, and sit down and discuss ithings sensibley, nothing will happen. I personnaly favor raising the limit on contributions to the fund. But I also believe that a lot of the problem is the pols, (repubs and dems) raiding the piggy bank.

  • Richard Hennigan

    Here are a few SS Facts:
    There is no constitutional right or guarantee to SS, there are no funds held in your name.
    Congress owes SS about $2.7 T, this can only be paid with higher taxes, inflation or defaulting.
    SS will be cut, every statement shows two numbers; what you are to receive per month but there is also a number that states what percentage of funds will be available. (my number is 76%)
    SS is the largest tax on the working poor, why are we taxing poor people so that other poor people can get few bucks each month?

    • CPANY

      Hennigan:

      Social Security will not be cut. There is a law on the books that says it must be paid and it will be paid, because we are a nation of laws that must be obeyed. You sound like a typical rich elitist that thinks that the only people entitled to anything are the rich.

      Those who own the country should run it, right? Well, I have news for you Hennigan: If the rich keep trying to screw the poor and the middle class, they run the risk of a revolution in which the rich will suffer the same fate as their soulmates did in France in 1789 and in Russia in 1918.

      One more thing: Save your crocodile tears for overtaxing the poor to pay for Social Security. Social Security is the greatest benefit that the poor and the middle class have received from the corrupt government that we have in Washington. If your elitist rich buddies take that away, how do you propose to pay for the maintenance of the poor and the middle class, or do you plan to let us just die and fade into memory?

      • When income disparity becomes great and the middle class is eliminated it does cause revolutions. What happened in France, also happened in China and Russia.

    • Look up the economic term ‘Monetary Sovereignty’ to get the facts regarding our currency. It explains how your fear is misplaced.

      • Richard Hennigan

        Oh I understand very well
        The Zimbabwean dollar (sign: $, or Z$ to distinguish it from other dollar-denominated currencies) was the official currency of Zimbabwe from 1980 to 12 April 2009.

        Although the dollar was considered to be among the highest-valued currency units when it was introduced in 1980 to replace the Rhodesian dollar at par, political turmoil and hyperinflation rapidly eroded the value of the Zimbabwe dollar to become one of the least valued currency units in the world, undergoing three redenominations, with high face value paper denominations including a $100 trillion banknote (1014).[2] The third redenomination produced the “fourth dollar” (ZWL) which was worth 1 trillion ZWR (third dollar) and 10 septillion “first dollar” ZWD, so overall the ratio of the redenominations was 103 × 1010 × 1012 = 1025.

        Despite attempts to control inflation by legislation, and three redenominations (in 2006, 2008 and 2009), use of the Zimbabwean dollar as an official currency was effectively abandoned on 12 April 2009. [3] This was a result of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe legalising use of foreign currencies for transactions in January 2009.[4]

    • old_blu

      That few bucks is all some people have.

    • Because every since Social Security was started the people working have been paying the Social Security money for the people to old or unable to work. That is the way SS has worked since Roosevelt set up SS. Starting in the 1980’s under Reagan the people that were working was paying the SS for past workers plus 2/3% SS taxes toward their own retirement and the ones still working from that time are still paying toward their own SS payments. There is also a law on the books that says SS money can only be used for SS and nothing else. The law was passed by Congress and signed into law by Bush 1 in 1990. Not that the law has stopped the robbing of SS especially by his son Bush 2 who took money from SS at least twice in order to make his bottom line look better and then used the SS fund as security for the loans he got from China for his two wars and didn’t add to his bottom line. If this law had been enforced Bush 2 would be in jail now for stealing from the SS fund and using it as security for his Chinese loans.The other poor people paid SS to help other poor people and are being paid back the money they paid to help older poor people.

  • quasm

    Mr. Price;

    The problem with SS is that it is a government program. Both Democrats and Republicans used it as a means to buy votes. It has been extended far beyond what Pres. Roosevelt proposed. As presently configured, it will go bankrupt. The only solution is to find a way to end it equitably.

    Dik Thurston
    Colorado Springs

    • CPANY

      Dear Dik head:

      How do you know what Franklin Roosevelt had in mind? You’re as full of baloney as your heroes Romney and Ryan. Social Security isn’t going bankrupt. All that is needed to get the funds is to raise the salary cap on the contributions.

    • Social Security is not going broke. If absolutely nothing is done in the next decade the program will still be paying out 75%+ of todays benefits. This is an easy fix, but the politicians don’t have the guts to do so. Check out the SS website to get the factual informaiton and stop letting fear and distrust cloud our judgement.

      • quasm

        Lynda;

        Maybe it will be paying 75% of today’s benefits in 10 years. But it will be paying out of that pool of money to a lot more people.

        Dik

  • CPANY

    Romney is an unqualified piece of elitist crap and Obama has lost his cojones in the past four years.

    What a choice we have: the mandacious Mormon or the bumbling Black.

  • Picture Chicken Little’s grandmother talking to a fox. She is worried about her Medicare and Social Security. The fox is saying, “Trust me.”

  • nurselaidoff

    One thing I can say is that advertising works really well in this nation. The Democrats (of which I am a member) have been running an advertising campaign for several years that makes it look like the Republicans are going to push Granny over the cliff, that the rich don’t pay taxes and the rich are sticking it to the middle class.
    The democrats are statistically playing with the numbers with a very complex tax system to make it look like the rich are not paying a thing. The CBO calculated the numbers listed below off the actual taxes paid in 2007 (their latest report from July 2012 looks at 2008 and 2009 but doesn’t add in the business taxes like this report did). The second percentage point adds in all the business and other federal taxes that have been left out of the equation.
    This is from the CBO report published 2011.Here is the actual breakdown of the average taxes as a share of income calculated by the CBO (Congressional Budget Office) for taxes in 2007: The top 1% income earners paid 18.8% in federal income taxes and paid a total of 29.9% of all federal taxes. The 81-99% percentile group paid 11.8% income taxes and 22.8% of all federal taxes. The 21-80% percentile group paid 4.2% of income taxes and 15.1% of all federal taxes. The bottom (low income earners) 20% paid -5.6% (the number is negative due to refundable income taxes) and 4.7% of all federal taxes.
    As far as our debt: we are 16 trillion dollars in debt. Part of that is borrowed from China, a much bigger portion is borrowed from Social Security. Quantitative Easing (“printing money”) has been used 3 times during the last 4 years. This is a very risky step. that could backfire on us. There very well could be a time when the yen replaces the dollar as the world monetary reserve. And of course there is the fiscal cliff. If you think that the fiscal cliff isn’t real, you need to start researching it. If not dealt with we could have another recession in a few months that could be much bigger than the 2007 recession.