Thursday, February 03, 2005

JUST SAY NO. When Bill Clinton proposed a massive restructuring of the health-care system more than a decade ago, William Kristol - then a top Republican strategist, now a pundit - had some simple advice: kill it, sight unseen. As social policy, Kristol's memo was irresponsible; as political hardball, it was brilliant. The Clinton health-care plan was falsely labeled a government takeover of the medical system, and the president's defeat paved the way for the 1994 Republican congressional victory and the rise of Newt Gingrich.

Do the Democrats have the backbone to do the same thing with George W. Bush's Social Security proposal? There are some encouraging signs. Senate minority leader Harry Reid says that not a single one of his members will support Bush's plan to divert Social Security funds into private accounts. But the Bush-Rove machine is an awesome sight once it gets revved up. Bush today launches a tour aimed at building support for his plan, and at pressuring Democrats in conservative states into getting on board.

Unlike the Kristol maneuver of a dozen years ago, killing private Social Security accounts would be good social policy. Bush's description last night in his State of the Union address of the woes facing Social Security might be said to fall into the category of "accurate but not true." Here's the heart of his case:

Thirteen years from now, in 2018, Social Security will be paying out more than it takes in. And every year afterward will bring a new shortfall, bigger than the year before. For example, in the year 2027, the government will somehow have to come up with an extra $200 billion to keep the system afloat - and by 2033, the annual shortfall would be more than $300 billion. By the year 2042, the entire system would be exhausted and bankrupt. If steps are not taken to avert that outcome, the only solutions would be dramatically higher taxes, massive new borrowing, or sudden and severe cuts in Social Security benefits or other government programs.

The problem with this is that it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how Social Security works - and a cynical belief that the scare tactics contained therein will be sufficient to persuade millions of Americans into stampeding his way, lest they otherwise lose out on their benefits altogether.

Media Log freely confesses to having spent the better part of a career avoiding the details of Social Security. Nevertheless, I have recently made some attempt to come up to speed, and I'm utterly convinced that people who really understand Social Security have proved there is no crisis. I highly recommend this January 16 New York Times Magazine article by Roger Lowenstein. Unfortunately, it's been moved into the archives, and you'll need to pay a fee. But Lowenstein proves, pretty definitively as far as I can tell, that Social Security should be able to survive more or less intact until at least 2080 with just a few minor tweaks.

A simpler version of the Lowenstein argument is online here. Paul Krugman, Josh Marshall, and Bob Somerby have all been invaluable on this topic as well.

Social Security is a popular program, and Democrats thrived politically for decades by claiming - with some truth and a lot of hyperbole - that Republicans wanted to destroy it and toss elderly folks out into the street. Now that we have a Republican president who really does want to destroy Social Security, can the Dems keep the courage of their convictions?

A possible line of attack against the Democrats was heard last night on MSNBC, with host Chris Matthews and several of his guests observing sagely that though the Democrats oppose private accounts, they haven't proposed any "alternative." Look out: this could be effective. In fact - again, to pick up on Lowenstein's analysis - the politically savvy and socially responsible "alternative" may well be to emulate Bill Kristol circa 1993, and just keep standing up and telling Bush, "No way."

Conservatives aren't going to give the Dems a break on Social Security no matter what they do. So the Democrats might as well do the right thing.

STATE OF DISUNION. Media Log is accustomed to falling asleep during the State of the Union. This was especially true when Clinton was president, and he would regularly drone into a second hour of 10-point proposals to solve whatever.

Last night, though, I had some help in staying awake: before the speech, I took part in a panel discussion at Boston College put together by the student Democratic and Republican organizations. Along with state senator Brian Joyce (D-Milton), Beacon Hill Institute executive director David Tuerck, and WBET Radio (AM 1460) talk-show host Stephen Pina, we mixed it up for about an hour and a half on Iraq, Social Security, and other issues - including immigration, for which I was completely unprepared.

One of the more interesting moments came when Joyce asked for a show of hands on how many of the 50 to 75 students in attendance supported last year's attempt by the Massachusetts legislature to amend the state constitution in order to prohibit same-sex marriage. Even though the crowd was at least one-third Republican, very few hands went up. When he asked how many were in opposition, most of the hands went up. (Sorry if there's any confusion. Oppose the amendment: for gay marriage; support the amendment: against gay marriage.) Joyce - who also opposed the amendment - said it confirmed his belief that opposition to gay marriage is primarily generational. And he lamented Bush's tactic of dividing people for political gain.

Joyce's critique was confirmed during Bush's speech, when the president offered this aside: "Because marriage is a sacred institution and the foundation of society, it should not be re-defined by activist judges. For the good of families, children, and society, I support a constitutional amendment to protect the institution of marriage."

We already knew that, of course, but it's always appalling when Bush decides he has to throw some red meat to his base. Then, too, this came at a time when his new secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, was denouncing a kids' show (second item) for depicting two normal families headed by lesbian couples.

GANG LAND. Boston Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis interviews a mother who has a special reason for not liking Bush's speech.

ONE DOWN, ONE TO GO. The Boston Globe won its libel suit. The case against the Boston Herald may wrap up toward the end of next week.

Both of these cases are rather odd. I sat through all of the testimony of Herald reporter Dave Wedge, and most of that given by Globe reporter Walter Robinson. At a minimum, the plaintiffs in a libel case must show that the stories about them were substantially untrue. In the Herald's case, the plaintiff, Judge Ernest Murphy, also has to show that Wedge acted with reckless disregard for the truth, a very high constitutional standard that applies to public officials.

Yet the jury concluded in the Globe case that the paper's reporting on Stoneham lawyer Stephen Columbus was basically true - no libel there. (Globe story here; Herald story here.) And in the case of the Herald, Murphy's side has not been able to disprove the essential accuracy of Wedge's reporting (Globe story here; Herald story here.)

Then again, the trial has a few more days to go. And you can never predict what a jury is going to do.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your assessment, Dan - the Democrats, if nothing else, need to stand up as a united front on SOMETHING - even if it's just to say "no" over and over and over.

But I must confess a shadow of a doubt about the viability of Social Security. Yours truly got to be interviewed (as part of a group) by Robert Reich for a two-part Marketplace piece called "When I'm 64". This was back in 1998 when I was a few months out of college and didn't even know what I didn't know at that point. Ahhh, the certainty of youth. Anyways...

My memory is a little hazy here, but I seem to remember Reich's assessment of Social Security was that changes did need to be made, and they were far more minor than what Bush is proposing now...but I do seem to remember that some form of private accounts were in the mix. IIRC they were pretty heavily regulated, though.

Of course, Reich's analysis isn't the end-all, be-all of fiscal policy...but the man certainly knows his stuff; I've yet to come across a stance he's taken that didn't make a lot of sense to me.

Interestingly, most of us in the group - even the more elderly folks - felt that Social Security should not be the first line of defense in a healthy fiscal retirement; it's a safety net to keep you out of the gutter - not something you should depend on as the sole source of income.

- Aaron Read

Dan Kennedy said...

Aaron - I don't know what Reich said, but my take is that everyone should have a private retirement account. My wife and I both have Roth IRAs, index funds tied to the S&P 500. No one should assume that Social Security will cover all of his or her retirement needs - it was never intended as such.

Here's the problem. Traditionally, retirement security was supposed to be a tripod: Social Security, company pension, and private savings. Well, company pensions have already been replaced in many cases with 401Ks. Since those look exactly like IRAs in many respects, people invest in their 401Ks *instead* of their IRAs. So now you've got two legs to your tripod instead of three.

Now Bush wants to take another leg of the tripod, Social Security, and make *that* look like an IRA, too. No, forget it. Social Security is supposed to be insurance, a safety net, a floor below which no one should drop. A one-legged tripod is not going to stand.

Anonymous said...

Dan, here's a link to Lowenstein's article via the NYT link generator:

Anonymous said...


Is the Thrift Savings Plan for Federal Employees a failure? If the answer is no, you have no case.