Everybody knows that the U.S. government’s debt is a horrible, unsustainable dangerous thing and that Social Security is heading straight for fiscal collapse, right?
Those were certainly the underlying assumptions of two domestic policy questions that moderator Elaine Quijano asked Tuesday night at the vice presidential debate.
They’re not objective facts, however: They are talking points that have been drilled into the American public’s consciousness by a well-funded, decades-long campaign promoting “fiscal responsibility.” It’s been wildly successful at turning a questionable assertion into conventional wisdom.
For instance, here’s what Quijano asked the vice presidential candidates about America’s debt: “There are a lot of people wondering about the economy. According to the nonpartisan committee, neither of your economic plans would reduce the growing $19 trillion gross national debt. In fact, your plans would add even more to it. Both of you were governors who balanced the state budget. Are you concerned that adding more to the debt could be disastrous for the country?”
In fact, if you are worried about the economy, you should be worried that there is too little government debt, not too much. Just ask Ben Bernanke, the former head of the Federal Reserve, who consistently told Congress during his tenure that a lack of government spending was holding back the U.S. economy. Instead of spending more, Congress implemented spending cuts in the wake of the 2009 stimulus bill. Those cuts are a prime reason why the recovery after the financial crisis hasn’t been as strong as it could have been. More spending would mean more debt, yes, but there is a very easy, continually updated gauge of how close dangerous more government borrowing would be ― U.S. Treasury rates ― and it continues to hover near record lows.
That notion that debt is unquestionably bad and must be reduced is directly connected to the problem with Quijano’s question on Social Security, which cited as an immutable fact that the program is off the fiscal rails and faces certain benefit cuts. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) picked up that loaded question and said that a Hillary Clinton administration would raise the wage cap (currently only income up to $118,500 is subject to Social Security taxes).
It’s not crazy to worry about future obligations through programs like Social Security ― and whether the federal government has lined up enough resources to pay for them. Raising taxes on high-income Americans is one way to ensure that the government has more money available to help seniors retire and stay out of poverty.
But Social Security is not in crisis, as commonly assumed and Quijano implied. The program is pretty close to fiscally sound now, and modest tweaks ― like lifting a cap on the Social Security payroll tax ― would be enough to take care of shortfalls.
Whether raising taxes on high-income Americans is politically feasible is another question entirely. But the fact that Social Security might be one politically difficult tax law change away from soundness shows just how warped Quijano’s assumptions were.
Social Security is not on some inexorable downward spiral, and American debt is not an out-of-control fiscal monster. Americans deserved to hear economic policy questions grounded in reality, not think-tank-gestated talking points, and they didn’t get that.