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Demanding the Possible from Social Security

2:28 pm in Uncategorized by Eric Laursen

Social Security Card from 1946 (photo: tbcave, flickr)

Social Security Card from 1946 (photo: tbcave, flickr)

The dead-end debate over Social Security’s solvency has long stymied any discussion of how to improve the program for its participants. Now may be the time to break that logjam. Here’s a way that progressive lawmakers can help to do so.

Hard as it is to conceive, the last time a significant improvement was made for a broad swath of Social Security participants was almost 30 years ago. Enacted as part of the 1983 Amendment to the Social Security Act, those changes – four modest benefit boosts for widows and divorced spouses – were swamped in the news coverage by the larger effort to keep the program funded. Thus has it been ever since.

The result, tragically, is that the national conversation over Social Security has been bottled up in a never-ending wrangle over how best to “save” the program. If it’s true – per Clausewitz, Jack Dempsey, or Mao Zedong, depending on your source – that “a good offense is the best defense,” then perhaps it’s time for progressive friends of Social Security to go on the offensive.

I tend to dislike military metaphors, but the essence of that adage is that if you can’t win on the front where you’re currently engaged, you should open another front where you can. The facts as to Social Security’s solvency lend plenty of support to those who argue that it doesn’t need to be restructured, privatized, or phased out – that there’s nothing wrong with the program that rising wages, full employment, and a sane national health care system can’t cure.

But even opening that conversation is a loser, since when it comes to government “promises,” most people tend to believe the worst. Better, perhaps, to open a new front in the Social Security wars by demanding long-needed improvements in the program.

In Washington-political terms, I’m suggesting that progressive Democrats in Congress set the terms for any changes to Social Security, even is those changes are intended to strengthen the program for the long run. The terms are, first, that these must not include means-testing, downward adjustments to the benefits formula, a hike in the retirement age, or payroll tax carve-outs for private accounts. Second, they must include significant updating and improvement of Social Security benefits.

The fundamental problem with the current Social Security discussion is that it proceeds with hardly any reference to the needs of the people the program actually serves – and who are its owners by all rights, since their payroll taxes fund it. By demanding that any package of changes to Social Security contain significant benefit improvements, Democratic lawmakers can restore that linkage and frustrate conservative and center-right efforts to define the program as a fiscal problem rather than a social necessity. Read the rest of this entry →

How Much Do We Care About the Elderly?

10:03 am in Uncategorized by Eric Laursen

That’s the real issue behind the Social Security debate – and the deficit fight as well. But it’s almost impossible to have a constructive public discussion about the elderly and the share of the economy they occupy so long as deficit hysteria continues.

Don’t go to Pete Peterson’s Fiscal Times for balanced reporting on Social Security and the federal fisc. That would be like asking Col. Qadaffi for news and analysis on Middle Eastern populism. But every now and then, the miscreants raise an important issue. Perhaps inadvertently, but there it is.

Eric Schurenberg, who purveys politically palatable news to the business community as head of BNET and, published an op-ed in the Fiscal Times last week that purported to demolish the “myths” bolstering “that fiscal fun-house mirror, the Social Security trust fund.” The piece is full of misconceptions that are nicely demolished elsewhere.

But Schurenberg raises an issue that’s been almost entirely left out of the current debate about reducing the deficit and “reforming” entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. “The most destructive myth of all,” Schurenberg writes, Read the rest of this entry →

Why Do We Keep Calling Tea Partiers “Anti-Government”?

2:25 pm in Uncategorized by Eric Laursen

Conservatives, including those of the Tea Party variety, aren’t “anti-government.” In most respects they are pro-government to the point of authoritarianism. What they really oppose is any form of cooperative or collective solution to the problems of a complex industrial (or post-industrial) society -– especially when the beneficiaries are people they regard with suspicion or fear.

The Tea Party movement has done the larger conservative cause a big favor by giving it a fresh patina of sexiness. I’m not referring here to Sarah Palin, or to Rand Paul’s curly locks, but to the slightly outlaw, vaguely anarchistic, allegedly leaderless image the Tea Partiers like to project – and that the corporate media have bought into so readily. Read the rest of this entry →