For the third time in the last 20 years, establishment voices with high-profile slots in traditional media are trying to convince the public to accept cuts to Social Security by endlessly claiming such cuts are necessary, without giving coherent evidence to justify the claim. Twice, under former presidents Clinton and George W. Bush, these voices were defeated – but they didn’t give up. And now they are in striking distance of their goal: the fact that Republicans have taken over the House, combined with the fact that the president appointed a deficit reduction commission which nearly recommended a cut in Social Security benefits – and might well have done so if Representative Schakowsky hadn’t worked to undermine the co-chairs’ plan – means that one can’t be complacent; some reports have suggested that the president may indicate support for cuts to Social Security in his State of the Union speech. Of the two principal Washington political actors who will shape the outcome – the Republican leadership and the president’s team – one is a determined adversary of the public interest, the other a very uncertain ally. The most successful anti-poverty program in US history is again in grave danger.
Twenty years ago, Social Security was called the “third rail” of US politics. Touch it, you die. But it turned out that was not true. The establishment greedheads were not, in fact, afraid to try to mess with this wildly popular program. Maybe Wall Street political power is the third rail.
In these two decades, Social Security hasn’t been the third rail. Instead, it’s been the grey goose of folk song legend. The knife couldn’t cut him and the fork couldn’t stick him. Try as they might, they couldn’t kill him. Can the grey goose survive the next assault?
You might think that now would be the worst time to try to cut Social Security, with 10 percent measured unemployment, with many people’s private savings having been wiped out, first in the stock market collapse and then with the collapse in house prices. You might think this is a great time to remember why we have Social Security: because it’s secure. Housing bubbles and stock market bubbles may inflate and burst, industries that paid living wages may be shipped to Mexico and China, but since the program was established during the Great Depression, Social Security has never failed to pay scheduled benefits.
But this reality is being turned upside down. The presence of unnecessary suffering is being used not as an argument to alleviate suffering, but as an argument for creating more unnecessary suffering. “We all have to make sacrifices in these difficult times,” although of course the people at the top of the income and wealth distribution – in particular, the high-rolling gamblers on Wall Street who brought down the economy – are not being asked to make any sacrifices.
So far, the public has not yet been rolled. In a new 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll, asked, “What would you do first?” 61 percent of respondents say raise taxes on the wealthy. Twenty percent say cut military spending. Three percent say cut Social Security.
If there were ever an issue and a time that seemed ripe for militant protest, this should be the issue and the time. It’s the broad public vs. the establishment, and for the establishment to win, they seek an environment of unquestioning obedience, like in the Milgrom experiment, where people obey instructions to subject someone to torture (so they think) because that’s what authority says to do. As in the Milgrom experiment, a little bit of protest can go a long way to disrupt the power of authority, because intuitively, most people know that what authority is saying is wrong. Authority says we have to accept Social Security cuts. It ain’t so.
In the 1980s, during Reagan’s war in Central America, there was a movement called the Pledge of Resistance. The basic idea was that you sign a pledge that if Reagan invades Nicaragua, you’re willing to get arrested in mass civil disobedience. Of course, people involved in the Pledge of Resistance did not just sit around waiting for Reagan to invade Nicaragua to take action. They lobbied Congress to cut off funding for the US-organized Contra terrorists who were killing Nicaraguan civilians; they wrote letters to the editor; they gave talks in church basements; they organized material aid to Nicaragua; they opposed Reagan’s air war in El Salvador and US military aid to the death squad government there. The pledge was to “resist” US “intervention” in Central America by all the nonviolent means at our disposal, but the willingness to participate in mass arrests in the event of a US ground invasion was a fundamental animating idea.
We need a Pledge of Resistance now to defend Social Security from cuts to benefits, including raising the normal retirement age. If members of Congress know that if they refuse to pledge to vote against cuts to Social Security, their district offices are going to be occupied, that they and their staffs are going to be dogged at every public appearance, that their names are going to be mud in local media, support for cutting Social Security will evaporate.
Moreover, a pledge to resist cuts to Social Security will allow local activists to force a national discussion which traditional, establishment media have so far largely excluded: the one in which proposed cuts in domestic spending and proposed military spending are examined on the same chalkboard, so everyone can see and discuss the trade-offs that are implicit in the choices that are being proposed. This dialogue will allow antiwar activists to pursue the holy grail of antiwar activism: connecting the cost of the endless war with cuts in domestic spending for human needs.
There are two ways to think about Social Security. One way is to recognize that Social Security is a separately funded program with its own dedicated tax stream and its own Social-Security-tax-funded trust fund. According to this way of thinking, there is absolutely no urgency to do anything about Social Security in terms of the budget, because if the system were not touched at all, it is still projected to be able to pay scheduled benefits through 2037. If revenue adjustments are needed before then, there is plenty of time to enact them, and it would be far more sensible to consider doing so after the economy has recovered.
The other way to think about it is that there is one government budget which collects all the taxes and pays out all the expenses. According to this view, the (combined) government deficit is too big, and although Social Security is not the cause of projected deficits, nonetheless, Social Security is a good place to cut.
In the second view, in which the advertised goal is to cut the deficit in the combined budget, there’s nothing magic about Social Security that indicates that it’s an especially worthy place to seek cuts – except the fact that some folks are just looking for any pretext to cut it, and these same folks want to protect other parts of the combined budget (such as the spectacularly bloated military budget that funds their beloved empire) from any meaningful cuts. You will notice that op-eds and editorials demanding cuts to Social Security typically make a crucial omission and avoid mentioning how much money will be saved by the proposed cuts; still more, they will typically omit any consideration that cuts elsewhere in the budget – such as the military budget – would achieve the same savings, while leaving Social Security alone.
Consider, for example, proposals to raise the normal retirement age. How much would that save? How else could we save the same amount of money?
On September 29, the Washington Post editorial board – Fox on 15th Street – expressed outrage that President Obama, as portrayed in Bob Woodward’s book, “repeatedly cites the cost of the war and the need to shift resources to domestic priorities,” despite the fact, the Post assured us, that “spending on Afghanistan is well below 1 percent of U.S. gross domestic product.” Thus, for The Washington Post, when considering the war, spending of less than 1 percent of US GDP is not a big deal.
At the time, I asked economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research how much then-current proposals to raise the Social Security retirement age would save. He said they would save about 0.7 percent of GDP. For example, a proposal to raise the retirement age to 70 by 2040 would save $155 billion by 2020. (This figure is shown in CEPR’s Deficit Reduction Calculator.) Thus, less than 1 percent of GDP is not a big deal when it is spending for the war that the Washington Post supports, but it is a very needed savings when it comes to proposals for cutting Social Security benefits by raising the normal retirement age, a proposal that the Washington Post – Fox on 15th Street – supports.
This is not a mere rhetorical point. In the next few months, the Obama administration is expected to make a decision about how fast to draw down troops from the military escalation President Obama ordered a year ago, a decision that is likely to dramatically affect the war’s future cost.
The rough estimate is that it costs about a billion dollars, all told, to put 1000 US troops in Afghanistan for a year. Right now, there are 100,000 US troops, for an annual cost of about $100 billion.
Consider two scenarios for 2012-2014.
In scenario one, the number of US troops in Afghanistan until 2014 remains about the same as it is today, for a total cost of $300 billion between 2012 and 2014.
In scenario two, starting July 1, US forces in Afghanistan are drawn down over the next year, so that when President Obama runs for reelection in mid-2012, remaining troops will number about 40,000, roughly the same level as when he took office. They remain at around this count – about the same number of troops that we currently have in Iraq – until the US fully hands off responsibility for security in Afghanistan to a Karzai-Taliban power-sharing government at the end of 2014.
Even putting to the side all the savings past 2014 that scenario two would imply and ignoring reduced future costs for veterans’ health care, if there are zero US troops there at the end of 2014, as opposed to tens of thousands of troops, scenario two would save about $150 billion between 2012 and 2014, compared to scenario one.
By comparison, cutting Social Security benefits by lowering the cost of living adjustment as called for by the co-chairs of the president’s deficit commission would save about $70 billion by 2020, Dean Baker says. The co-chairs’ proposal to raise the retirement age wouldn’t even go into effect until 2027, so no savings from that would be seen for 17 years.
So, far from being uninformed, the public opinion to cut military spending rather than Social Security makes much more sense than the position of the Washington Post editorial board.
But what makes most sense won’t necessarily carry the day if a media jihad for cutting Social Security isn’t disrupted. We need to disrupt the Milgrom experiment for throwing Grandma off the bus. If you would sign a Pledge to Resist cuts in Social Security benefits, tell us in the comments.