Will the issue of Social Security dominate the 2016 presidential election? Well, why shouldn't it?
Steven Hill of the New America Foundation has written a new book, Expand Social Security Now! How To Ensure Americans Get the Retirement They Deserve (Beacon Press), which should ensure that the need to strengthen Social Security will be placed into the main event of this fall's political discussion. In a recent interview, Hill explained why he wrote the book, and why the moral obligation to defend and strengthen Social Security should be the number-one issue for citizens headed to the ballot box on November 8.
"Social Security is one of the most important government programs in history," Hill said. "It not only has been crucial as a 'security foundation' for our nation's retirees and as the most effective anti-poverty program ever, it also has been indispensable as the policy cornerstone of a decades-old philosophy that believes that we can use the 'visible hand' of government to bind together public and private interests into a cohesive whole. Social Security has been good not only for individual retirees, but also for US businesses and the broader macroeconomy.
"In writing this book, it struck me over and over how wise and visionary was the generation of leaders led by President Franklin Roosevelt. More than any other presidential administration before or since, Roosevelt utilized the irreplaceable capacity of 'smart government' to bring different sectors of Americans to the table, and to create pools of social insurance that to this day still help protect most Americans against the unpredictable vagaries of the economy. Those of us living today are standing upon their mighty shoulders, as we try to chart a course forward for the challenges of our era. I wanted to write a book that would not only defend and expand Social Security, but that would honor that tradition that I believe represents the best hope in the 21st century."
Hill was confident that Social Security protection would dominate the 2016 presidential discourse, drawing a comparison to the 2000 presidential campaign, "when Al Gore campaigned on creating a Social Security lockbox. [In the primary debates] we already we have seen sparring over it, especially between [Democratic presidential contenders] Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, with Sanders rightfully criticizing Clinton for her past waffling and unwillingness to support expansion of this important program. But Donald Trump also has emerged as the only Republican candidate defending Social Security against 'entitlement cuts.' If Hillary Clinton is smart, she will push Trump on this issue by calling for Social Security's expansion in a clear and decisive way. Why not? Opinion polls show that even 70% of Republicans and conservatives are in favor of Social Security. Social Security is one of the most popular government programs of all time. Clinton could deflect some of the criticisms that Trump is going to aim at her about her high-priced lectures to Goldman Sachs and Wall Street by championing a proposal like the one I have made in my book for 'Social Security Plus' - namely, a doubling of the monthly benefit for the nation's retirees. We can pay for it, as I demonstrate, by lifting the payroll cap and by closing many of the tax deductions and loopholes (such as for capital gains, 'step-up in basis,' and 'carried interest') that disproportionately favor the wealthy few."
Hill praised Sanders's leadership on Social Security protection, with one caveat. "Senator Sanders has called for an expansion of the program and introduced legislation to make Social Security benefits more generous. Sanders has proposed to pay for expansion by eliminating the cap on the payroll tax on all income above $250,000. This way, he has said, 'millionaires and billionaires pay the same share as everyone else.'
"But as good as Sanders has been on this issue, his proposal does beg the question: Why should those who make between $118,500 to $250,000 per year pay a lower overall rate of Social Security contribution than those making less than $118,500? What makes them so special? Is this the 'moderately affluent voter' donut-hole exemption for a candidate's political expediency? I already know the answer to my question - it's politics. And I have a great deal of trust in Senator Sanders on this issue. But it does show that the devil is in the details, and we have to be careful about what we ask for. We also have to be careful not to be too timid in what we ask for, and ready to hold candidates' and elected officials' feet to the fire. Even Bernie Sanders."
Hill wasn't as high on Hillary, however: "Her views have remained disturbingly opportunistic...She has a long track record of waffling and fudging on the subject of what to do about entitlements. In the 2008 Democratic presidential primary debate in Philadelphia, Clinton was asked if she would agree to lift the Social Security payroll cap on individuals making more than the then-upper limit of $97,000 per year so that wealthier people would pay a fairer share into the Trust Fund. In the debate, Barack Obama correctly stated, 'Right now millionaires and billionaires don't have to pay beyond $97,000 a year.' To this, Clinton responded blandly, 'I don't want to raise taxes on anybody,' and made a feeble defense of why it was OK that the wealthy paid a lower percentage of their income toward Social Security than their secretaries and chauffeurs. In a  debate in Las Vegas, Clinton called Obama's proposal to lift the payroll cap a trillion-dollar increase 'on middle class families'--despite the fact that (at the time) only 6 percent of Americans made over $97,000 per year...
"[Today], feeling pressure from the Sanders campaign, Clinton's positions have gotten better," Hill continued. "She finally agreed she would expand Social Security - but only for 'those who need it most,' including women who are widows and workers who take career breaks to care for their children, parents, or ailing family members. But what about all the other hard-working Americans who don't have sufficient savings for their retirement years -- which it turns out is most of us! Overall, her track record on Social Security is so unconvincing that she will surely be vulnerable against Trump over this issue. It is easy to imagine some version of 'Swiftboat Entitlement Veterans for Truth' attacking her long-standing inconsistency. Trump will show himself as sticking up for the little guy and gal, while Hillary is portrayed as something like a hypocritical Uber executive, extolling the virtues of labor relations!"
Hill also felt the previous two Democratic presidents dropped the ball on Social Security protection; in his view, both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama "knelt at the altar of proposing cuts 'to save Social Security.' And because they turned out to be so feckless on this issue, no question that has made it more difficult for Hillary Clinton to find her political as well as her moral compass here."
Hill warns that Clinton could be vulnerable to skillful attacks by Trump on this issue, noting, "[B]elieve it or not, Donald Trump sounds like a beacon of sanity in the Republican cave, as far as Social Security goes. Trump, as well as organizations like the Tea Party, don't follow the GOP establishment's line on cutting or privatizing Social Security. Despite holding many other traditional conservative views - for the moment, anyway -- Trump has been a strong defender of Social Security and Medicare. While most Republican politicians believe Social Security and Medicare are wasteful entitlement programs, Trump has said, 'People who think this way need to rethink their position. It's not unreasonable for people who paid into a system for decades to expect to get their money's worth--that's not an 'entitlement'; that's honoring a deal.' Similarly on Medicare, Trump has argued that, 'People have lived up to their end of the bargain and paid into the program in good faith. Of course they believe they're 'entitled' to receive the benefits they paid for--they are!'
"Unlike Sanders, Trump does not espouse Social Security expansion, and in his younger years called Social Security a Ponzi scheme and said it should be privatized. But the ever-mutable Trump has emerged as an entitlement maverick, and more than any other candidate has helped push the political center on this issue in a new direction. It is the height of a sad kind of irony - and a reflection of the strange odyssey of the Democratic Party - that the bombastic Trump has been a more staunch supporter of safeguarding entitlement programs for retirees than either President Obama or Bill or Hillary Clinton. And he has taken on the conservative establishment, including the other GOP presidential candidates in the 2016 election, giving voice to the nearly 7 out of 10 rank-and-file Republicans who support Social Security. With economic populist positions like this one and others, I think Trump will be a tough opponent for Hillary Clinton this November."
Asked if there should be an organized effort to turn out voters focused on Social Security protection, similar to the Environmental Voter Project to boost voter turnout among those who regard human-caused climate change as America's top political issue, Hill responded, "During this presidential election season, now is the time, and this is the moment, to try and make this a front-burner issue. Nearly every American has a stake in how this battle turns out. Important organizations like Social Security Works, Progressive Change Campaign Committee and others already are fighting on the front lines for Social Security expansion. But they need assistance, they need activists and the resources to push this issue to the forefront."
Hill's book will also push this issue to the forefront. I'd advise Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to pick up a copy; whoever takes Hill's advice about Social Security will demonstrate a great deal of political maturity.