Scammed: What Shirley Sherrod and Social Security Have in Common

Shirley Sherrod and the Social Security system have a lot more in common than their initials. In both cases, the administration spent too much time playing along, rather than asking tough questions and fighting for what's right.
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This week's big story is that a faker scammed the media, trashing an innocent USDA employee's career in order to push a false right-wing narrative. But another scam's underway too, and it's targeting Social Security and other entitlement programs. As Republicans (and at least one Democrat) pushed budget-busting tax cuts, the "bipartisan" leaders of the Deficit Commission showed their true colors as extremists who peddle panic and hold "hearings" despite having their minds already made up. One of them said that the Federal debt is a "cancer," adding that you "can't tax your way out of it" - and that was the Democrat! Meanwhile the Republican complained that November's elections will be "disruptive," creating "wreckage" that will interfere with their plans.

When you think about it, Shirley Sherrod and the Social Security system have a lot more in common than their initials. Consider:

  • Both of them help people and deserve gratitude, not criticism.
  • Both of them were doing just fine before they came under attack.
  • Both of them were targeted in order to serve a right-wing agenda.
  • Washington Democrats seemed oblivious to that agenda behind both attacks, or to the lies and distortions being employed.
  • In both cases the Administration spent too much time playing along, rather than asking tough questions and fighting for what's right.
The Shirley Sherrod story's well-known by now. A USDA worker told a tender story about learning to overcome the bitterness of her father's murder by helping a white family keep their farm, after being tempted at first to give them less than 100% effort. Her story was couched with tenderness, filled with love for all humanity and the devotion to God that permeates so much of both black and white Southern culture. It was a touching and very American story, until flim-flam man Andrew Breitbart edited the tape and Fox News treated his counterfeit as holy writ. Rather than even consider the possibility that they were being scammed, the Administration fell for the story and acted accordingly.

Democrats: They're like Charlie Brown. No matter how many times Lucy pulls the football away, they still think this time it's going to be different. Good grief!

Democrats from the President on down have been equally hapless (or complicit) as Social Security comes under attack. It's one of the most solvent programs we have, and it has lifted generations of disabled and older Americans out of poverty. It's financially stable for decades to come, and could be stabilized indefinitely with relatively small tweaks. But right-wingers want to use that money to pay for tax cuts for the rich and war expenditures. That means they have to "edit" the facts, Breitbart style, to fit their narrative. Here's their plan:

1. Make us forget the "lockbox." Remember how the media laughed at Al Gore when he talked about putting Social Security in a "lockbox"? Bush's comment about his opponent wanting to turn Social Security into a "Federal program" was a gaffe equivalent to saying "government should keep its hands off my Medicare" (since Social Security is a Federal program). Common decency and fairness suggest that Social Security payments, which people make throughout their careers to fund their retirements, should be kept in a separate "lockbox" and not used to fund other initiatives - like defense spending or an extension of the Bush tax cuts.

So job #1 for those who would raid Social Security is to edit out the fact that Social Security is a separately funded, self-sustaining program. Like the moral of Shirley Sherrod's story, that fact been left on the cutting room floor.

2. Convince people the money's already gone. How do you get into a "lockbox" and steal the contents when you don't have the key? Anybody who's watched old Mission Impossible episodes knows the answer: You convince the owners that it's already empty! Then you promise to get the contents back - for a reasonable percentage, of course - so that they'll open it for you themselves. Organizations like the "Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget" have been built to spread the idea that the public's Social Security money, which currently lifts more than 40% of all elderly Americans out of poverty, won't be there when they need it.

That's how we wind up with stories like USA Today's article, entitled "Poll: Faith in Social Security tanking." Of course people are scared. There's been a concerted, multi-million-dollar campaign to convince them it won't be there. Here's how overt that campaign has become: Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, is quoted as saying: "It (the public's fear and doubt about Social Security) makes it easier to make some of the changes that we are inevitably going to have to make. We could make changes and still have people collecting more in benefits than they're expecting to see."

The box is empty, folks. But if you trust us, maybe you'll get a little bit of the money you've been putting in there throughout your working life.

3. Create the impression this is not about "left" and "right." Just as Tom Vilsack was eager to show that the Administration has "zero tolerance for discrimination," Washington insiders within and outside the Administration seem eager to cut Social Security, if only to prove to their peers that they are "responsible." (What's "responsible" about raiding people's retirement money for other purposes?) The situation's made more difficult by the fact that President Obama has named two extreme thinkers, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, to head his Deficit Commission (which collaborates openly with the anti-tax billionaire who funds the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget). Bowles tried to join with Newt Gingrich to cut Social Security when he worked at the Clinton White House. And Simpson ... well, Simpson's antics and views are well-documented, as economist James Galbraith's testimony to the Commission shows.

4. Scream "deficit," but extend tax cuts even if they make deficits much worse. The USA Today/Gallup poll shows that the public's views of Social Security are far more dire than the reality, and Bowles and Simpson have been fanning the flames. "This debt is like a cancer," Democrat Bowles told the Washington Post (which, in the case of Social Security and Medicare, may make it the only "cancer" that actually improves people's health.) They followed with some odd flimflammery, as the Post reports:

The commission leaders said that, at present, federal revenue is fully consumed by three programs: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

What about military spending, education, and all the rest? "Financed by China and other countries," says Simpson, drawing an inexplicable distinction between one set of expenditures and another.

"We can't tax out way out" of the deficit problem, says Bowles, who also told a friendly Chamber of Commerce crowd that 75% of the budget-fixing needs to be done through spending cuts and only 25% through revenues. (Makes you wonder why they hold hearings, since it seems they've already decided.) As for Simpson, he appears downright hostile to the overall democratic process: "I have no idea what's going to happen on Election Day but it's going to be disruptive . . thank heaven we have a month then to work through the wreckage."

Sen. Kent Conrad has gone so far as to defend extending the Bush tax cuts, even if it means waiving the "pay as you go" rule. "The general rule of thumb would be you'd not want to do tax changes, tax increases," said Conrad, "until the recovery is on more solid ground." That's economic nonsense, and can only be considered a "rule of thumb" if that thumb is up your ... well, unless it's somewhere where the sun don't shine.

As for the democratic process - or, as Alan Simpson calls it, "wreckage" - well, the hucksters have a problem there. Polling shows that voters want their elected representatives to defend Social Security, not cut it. And they feel very strongly about it.

Shirley Sherrod was set up to harm the Administration and push a right-wing (and racist) narrative. Social Security's being set up to slash entitlements and ease taxes for the wealthy. In both cases, Democrats are caving when they should be fighting. When will they learn that you can't appease extremists, either by believing their made-up stories or by appointing them to lead Commissions?


Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.

He can be reached at ""

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