Should Dems Pretend Social Security Is Broken?

January 19, 2005
Should Democratic leaders who want to defeat Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security go along with the pretense that there are serious problems in Social Security and focus on telling people that Bush’s proposal would make the problems worse? That’s what some people are advising Democratic leaders to do. They are also advising that the Dems should avoid proposing any plan of their own to address the “problems.” Doing so, they say, would allow the Republicans to criticize the Democrats’ plan.

Of course, if the Dems manage to block Bush’s plan, the Republicans will be able to say that the Democrats got in the way of reform while proposing no ideas of their own. Meanwhile, the Democrats will be able to claim that they saved a program that has serious problems — and to secretly feel good about the fact that it really doesn’t.

That sure sounds to me like a recipe for strengthening the Democratic Party!

There are those who refer to the strategy of criticizing Bush’s plan as “Playing Offense, Not Defense.” But, of course, Social Security was on no progressive organization’s agenda until Bush put it there.

Can anyone even imagine the Democratic leadership holding a press conference on the topic of single-payer health care or free college tuition or a department of peace? As crazy as such notions sound to those in-the-know, laying so much as a finger on Social Security was considered crazier not too long ago. The right wingers didn’t take a poll, find out that people wanted their Social Security left alone, and leave it alone. No, they talked endlessly about how it’s in a crisis and should be changed.

That’s what political parties should do. They push their agenda forward. They use polls to find out what they need to change, not just what they need to adapt to. Pollsters generally find that responses change dramatically after a few seconds of education during the phone call. But they do not draw from this fact a general conclusion that a little more education could change even more responses. They also do not look outside the current issue to the long-term effects of asking a party to espouse an incoherent or muddled position, of asking it to pass up opportunity after opportunity to reveal the opposition’s dishonesty, of asking it to aim for a narrow victory on an issue where a broader view would immediately suggest the possibility of a landslide, or of asking it not to loudly defend its greatest historical successes, things like Social Security.

There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, no connection between Iraq and 9-11, and no benefit to the economy from cutting millionaires’ taxes. And Social Security is doing fine. These people pay off journalists. They routinely lie. This lie, like most of them, doesn’t even make sense: Social Security will be in trouble because the economy will falter, but Wall Street investments will save it because the economy will soar. Some of this stuff you can’t even pretend to believe, no matter how hard you try.

Our first talking point should be: “There is no crisis in Social Security.”

We should then focus on the fact that here are several other crises (the general budget, the war, health care, the minimum wage, the cost of housing, crumbling schools, corrupt election financing, unverifiable voting machines, an overly concentrated media, the right to organize, the right to vote, the right to talk to a lawyer before they lock you away for good, etc.) And we should propose solutions to these real crises, and we should fight for those solutions for as long as it takes. Changing the subject to these topics is playing offense. Changing the subject from the “crisis” of Social Security to the flaws in Bush’s plan is defense, and bad defense. Most people are not so stupid as to not ask “Well, where’s your plan?” Many of us know this, just as we knew that voting for the war would not be good for Democratic presidential candidates. Many of us are open to nothing more than a claim that Bush is — once again — lying.

He is. In the words of respected economist Dean Baker: “Looking historically, if one had accurate projections for the future, Social Security would have appeared in much worse shape in the decade of the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties, all decades in which the program needed immediate tax increases. In short, if Social Security is facing a ‘crisis’ today, then it has faced a crisis for most of its seventy years of existence.”

The West Virginia AFL-CIO sent out an Email alert recently that hit the nail on the head. Here’s the full text:

“For generations, social security has provided families income they can rely on when their breadwinners die, become disabled or retire.

“Now the people who hustled America into a tax cut to eliminate an imaginary budget surplus and a war to eliminate imaginary weapons, are now trying to dismantle Social Security. They want to replace Social Security’s guaranteed, lifetime, inflation-adjusted benefits with privatized individual investment accounts.

“By law, Social Security has a budget independent of the rest of the U.S. Government. That budget is currently running a surplus, thanks to an increase in the payroll tax two decades ago. As a result, Social Security has a large and growing trust fund.

“Those who claim that benefits will be jeopardized in 2019 are suggesting that the Treasury securities held by the Trust Fund may not be honored. By law, the federal government can borrow from the Social Security Trust Fund by having the government sell treasury bonds to the Trust Fund. If we just pay back Social Security for all Trust Fund Money diverted in the past as required by current law, Social Security’s benefits will be protected for almost fifty years. This allows for the impact on the system of growing numbers of retirees from the ‘baby boomer’ generation.

“There are only two things that could endanger Social Security’s ability to pay benefits before the Trust Fund runs out. One would be a fiscal crisis that led the United States to default on all its debts; the other would be legislation specifically repudiating the General Fund’s debt to retirees.

“The long-term cost of the Bush tax cuts is five times the budget office’s estimate of Social Security’s deficit over the next 75 years.”

In fact, there is a crisis in the government budget, brought on by a bloated Pentagon, an ongoing illegal war, and massive tax cuts for millionaires. But this would be best addressed by cuts at the Pentagon, an end to the war, and repeal of the tax cuts. Allowing the same people who’ve bankrupted the rest of the government to turn Social Security money over to their friends on Wall Street is a mistake many people will recognize if it’s pointed out to them.

And it’s being pointed out to them already, and not just by the West Virginia AFL-CIO. The AARP has a page on its website that begins:

“Fact 1: The Social Security trust funds are a sure thing.
“Many people are under the impression that Social Security is broken, unable to fulfill its promise to the people who have contributed to it over the years. Well, the fact is, the Social Security trust funds aren’t just sound, they’re building a surplus.”

The Center for American Progress’s website recently carried the headline “White House Forces Social Security Administration to Mislead Public.” Kim Gandy, President of the National Organization for Women says: “Social Security is not in trouble. George Bush is in trouble,” as quoted on the website of the Campaign for America’s Future.

In fact, it’s not just activists who are willing to admit that Social Security is not in trouble. Columns in the New York Times and an op-ed in the Washington Post, among other media coverage, have accused Bush of manufacturing a phony crisis for a program that is doing better than almost any other.

A column in the Oregonian says: “The Congressional Budget Office now says the program’s extra revenue will cover all benefits though 2052 – and most benefits after that. Surviving baby boomers will be in their 90s and 100s. Generation Xers will be in their 70s and 80s

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