Sunday, April 10, 2005

The Post on Social Security


Today's Washington Post announces that solving the Social Security "crisis" is not easy, because it hasn't been fixed yet. Even when giving a nod to the ideological aspects of the debate, the editorial glosses over the fact that it is in fact easy to solve the problem on paper. The conflict is not actually about fixing the system.
But if there's a lesson to be learned from the tone and trajectory of the Social Security debate this year, it is how difficult, and how fraught with political peril, it is to fix even this "comparatively minor" problem. Does anyone who's watched the Social Security debate this year imagine that figuring out what to do about health care or Medicare would go just swimmingly? If so, think back to the Clinton health care plan.
Again, the problem is not that we don't know of superior options to our current health care mess. We simply have a clash of ideology over who should pay for it. Historically, Republicans have pressed the position that health care coverage should come through employment (or not at all). Now that employers are complaining about the price, Republicans are are pressing the position that health care should be entirely self-funded - except, that is, for themselves. The Republican position on Social Security is essentially the same - retirement should be self-funded, except for themselves. Their leading proposals on Social Security involved (a) benefits cuts, (b) "private accounts", and (c) setting cost of living adjustments by the price index and not the wage index, are incremental steps toward their acknowledged goal of winning a war against Social Security:
The debate about Social Security is going to be a monumental clash of ideas -- and it's important for the conservative movement that we win both the battle of ideas and the legislation that will give those ideas life.
That's pretty clear, isn't it? This isn't about taking steps to fix the current system - it's ideological warfare against the existing system. And it is that which takes Social Security out of the sphere of what can be easily fixed, and transforms it into an endless battle for its elimination - acknowledged to have been fought by the GOP from the day of its inception:
For the first time in six decades, the Social Security battle is one we can win -- and in doing so, we can help transform the political and philosophical landscape of the country. We have it within our grasp to move away from dependency on government and toward giving greater power and responsibility to individuals.
The Post piece, whether out of a sense of false balance or as a result of its own prejudices, states,
For the most part, Republicans won't consider any Social Security reform that lacks personal accounts -- or any that includes tax increases. On their side, Democrats won't talk unless personal accounts are off-limits -- and they dare not indicate any willingness to accept cuts in benefits. This is irresponsible, on both sides.
It's also not accurate. I have not heard any Democrat say "no private accounts" provided there is no associated cut in benefits - that is, as an add-on as opposed to a full or partial replacement. And if there is such a person, somewhere, that does not appear to the the position of the party.

Let's see.... There are three ways we can "fix" Social Security. The Republicans favor slashing benefits, demand that at least part of Social Security revenues be shifted into untested "personal accounts" (apparently subject to significant restrictions, which would be very costly to the "owner"), and oppose any tax increase, however modest. The Democrats wish to maintain benefits, oppose transferring Social Security funds into untested private accounts, and suggest that a modest tax increase (perhaps only on the rich) could fix the balance for the indefinite future. The Republican response to the Democratic alternative has not just been "no taxes (even if only slight) - it has been the jaw-dropping implication that they intend to default on the IOU's in the Social Security trust fund. (Which, of course, means that they have transformed Social Security taxes into income taxes, even as they pretend otherwise for the sake of giving larger tax cuts to the rich.)

So, to the extent that the Post is trying to throw up a false equivalence between the conduct of the parties, there simply isn't any equivalence. Being stubborn in efforts to preserve a system that has lifted countless seniors out of poverty is not morally reprehensible - even if you think it is the wrong approach to the problem of poverty. Insisting upon a radical transformation of that system with the goal of destroying its foundation and the diversion of its multi-trillion dollar trust fund? That's something else.

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