Social Security Suicide Pact (or, the Folks Back Home on the Old Ant Farm)

Cutting benefits may seem clever in Washington, where policymakers sometimes toy with the economy as if it were an ant farm. But here in the ant tunnels where the rest of us live, it's terrible politics and worse policy.
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Democrats won the news cycle yesterday when they slammed John Boehner for calling the economic crisis an "ant." But winning a news cycle isn't the same as winning an election. A new poll shows that the President and his party risk political suicide if they join in the mad rush to cut Social Security, and a sleight-of-hand move by the House leadership today suggests they're considering it. Cutting benefits may seem clever in Washington, where policymakers sometimes toy with the economy as if it were an ant farm. But here in the ant tunnels where the rest of us live, it's terrible politics and worse policy.

It was Barack Obama, not John Boehner, who appointed Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles to co-chair the "National Fiscal Commission on Responsibility and Reform." Simpson's a longtime Social Security antagonist who's called retired Americans "greedy geezers" because they don't want their Social Security payments used to fund extravagant tax cuts and military spending. (A video of Simpson's misguided and angry rant drew quite a bit of attention recently.) And Erskine Bowles cut a deal with Newt Gingrich that would have partially privatized Social Security in the 1990's if the Monica Lewinsky scandal hadn't derailed their plans. (He has also revealed what Dean Baker describes as a numerological fascination with using arbitrary numbers as targets.)

By creating this Commission and appointing two commissioners whose views are so far outside the political mainstream, President Obama risks endangering his own future and his party's in pursuit of a misguided policy goal. And a breaking report from Firedoglake indicates that the Commission's set of recommendations -- should members agree on one -- will be submitted to an up-or-down vote by a lame duck Congress after the November elections, provided that the Senate passes it first. That clattering sound you just heard was the sound of Democrats picking up hara-kiri knives en masse.

How grave could their self-inflicted wounds become? New polling from the Celinda Lake organization concluded that "six in ten voters would feel unfavorably toward an elected official who says we cannot reduce the deficit without cutting Social Security benefits, (while) 75 percent would feel favorably toward elected officials who say we should not be cutting Social Security benefits (and) if we need revenue we should be making Wall Street pay their fair share." The pollsters added: "Supporting Social Security is one of the strongest positions for elected officials that we have seen. Voters react most favorably to elected officials who make commitments to protecting Social Security by asserting Social Security belongs to the people who contribute."

Despite President Bush's heavy-handed and unsuccessful attempt to raid Social Security, the Lake poll concluded that "voters nationwide do not have great confidence in either party or in President Obama in their handling of Social Security." In fact, Republicans in Congress - that's right, John Boehner's pack of anteaters - poll slightly better than Democrats on this subject.

The Lake report also said this: "Voters adamantly reject the argument that Social Security should be cut because of the federal budget deficit or that Social Security is the cause of the deficit, and they are strongly unfavorable toward elected officials who espouse this line of thinking." Eight out of ten people rejected cutting Social Security to balance the deficit, with seven out of ten strongly opposed.

More findings: "Seven in ten voters oppose reducing benefits for workers earning more than $30,000 yearly in order to reduce the deficit ... as well as a potential proposal to reduce or eliminate benefits for future retirees with household incomes above $60,000... A solid majority of voters rejects raising the normal retirement age from 67 to 69 years old in order to reduce the budget deficit."

Opposition to benefit-cutting reached across party lines. In Washington, the "bipartisan" consensus is that Social Security must be slashed. In the rest of the country, the truly bipartisan view is that it must be protected.

A procession of witnesses testified before Ant Farmers Bowles and Simpson yesterday, and the cumulative impact of their testimony leads to an overwhelming conclusion: Cutting Social Security isn't just extremely unpopular. It's also bad policy. James Galbraith punctured the "overspending caused the deficits" myth. Ashley B. Carson of the Older Women's League noted that older women receive $11,800 per year on average in benefits, less than the overall average, which is less than $1,000 per month to pay for all of their expenses. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka warned of repeating the mistakes of 1937 and offered a number of stimulus proposals. Roger Hickey of the Campaign for America's Future described the real sources of our budget crisis (which include runaway health care costs we still haven't addressed) and proposed $400 billion per year for five years to get the economy growing again.

On the other side of the argument, Carolyn Lukensmeyer of AmericaSpeaks presented the findings of her organization's "national town meeting" -- a presentation which was slanted to suit a prior budget-cutting agenda despite the progressive conclusions attendees reached. (In the Huffington Post, political scientist and AmericaSpeaks advisor Archon Fung attempted to refute criticisms of AmericaSpeaks by Dean Baker, me, and others. My response to Professor Fung, along with a criticism of the methodology behind AmericaSpeaks, is here.)

It's hard to tell whether the Commission's fixation on Social Security means that it's gone rogue or is merely reflecting the President's intent in creating it. Either way, the political leadership has a problem on its hands: This Commission is in the hands of extremists whose views are wildly out of line with the country's. Should they agree on recommendations which include Social Security cuts (which is not a foregone conclusion but is quite possible) Republicans and ConservaDems in the Senate might very well pass it, locking themselves in a mutual death embrace that would be the envy of doomed lovers everywhere.

If that happens, Speaker Pelosi has now ensured that a lame duck Congress will vote on it too. If Social Security cuts then become law, it will amount to political mass suicide. The two-year delay until the next election will not be enough to save any politician who participated in the process. Voters left to face a lifetime of financial insecurity will have long memories.

There are still several opportunities to prevent such a ghastly mistake. The President and other political leaders should let their allies on the Commission know in no uncertain terms that Social Security cuts must not be part of any recommended solution. Should an agreement be reached that includes them, the President and the Congressional leadership should express their adamant opposition to its passage in either the Senate or House. And should a such a bill be passed, the President should veto it.

Not that the rest of us should sit idly by and wait to be rescued. Citizens need to be sending a clear message to the White House and our elected representatives: Hands off Social Security. Life down here on the Ant Farm is hard enough nowadays, since tax cuts for the wealthy broke the budget and Wall Street recklessness broke the economy. The message: Don't use our Social Security contributions for your tax breaks or Wall Street bailouts. We've kept our end of the bargain, now keep yours.


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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