Ezra Klein Is Right About Social Security Wrong About The Threat

Roger Hickey

Ezra Klein has a prominently displayed piece in the Washington Post this morning, entitled The Pro-Social Security case for Social Security reform. He takes to task liberals most committed to Social Security for being unwilling to “reform” Social Security out of fear that reform would turn out to harm the system. He then goes on to outline his version of reform that no liberal would ever quarrel with: no cuts to benefits, dealing with future shortfalls by lifting the cap so all the income of the wealthy is subject to FICA tax – and improving Social Security benefits for low income retirees and spouses.

And then he pooh-poohs the fears of program’s defenders who, he says

“are so concerned that conservatives will slash benefits — now or down the road — that they are afraid to open the pension plan to any reforms at all. I think they’re wrong. This country is better than that. A political party that tries to tell ordinary Americans their retirements are too secure and too long will quickly learn its lesson when the election rolls around. Poll after poll shows the vast unpopularity of cutting Social Security benefits, and Republicans can read those surveys as easily as Democrats can. A politician may as well burn a flag on the Capitol’s lawn.”

My only response is to ask: “What planet have you been living on, Ezra?:

This country is, indeed, better than the huge number of proposals to cut Social Security benefits. Polls show that voters hate the idea of benefit cuts, and increases in the retirement age. But in Washington, these kinds of plans are everywhere. For example:

Yesterday, as Richard Eskow reported, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had to hold a big rally and press conference to vow to protect Social Security from the deficit hawks in both parties who want to cut benefits.

Gene Sperling, who Ezra quotes approvingly for his plan for “add-on” private accounts, is now the national economic czar for Barack Obama. President Obama appointed Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, whose proposals to cut Social Security benefits and raise the retirement age are being cited as the centerpiece of bi-partisan Senate budget negotiations. Neither Sperling nor Obama have denounced those Social Security cuts, and they keep signaling that “everything is on the table.”

Ezra might want to read the countless editorials by his own paper and columns by Samuelson and others, all calling for cuts to Social Security and increases in the retirement age. Washington Post editorials have repeatedly asserted that Social Security contributes to the Federal Deficit, denied that the Social Security trust fund is real, and urged Social Security cuts as the first step to reducing deficits.

Even good liberals, like John Podesta, who in a piece about the Deficit Commission, acknowledge that Social Security contributes not a dime to the federal deficit, but urges cuts anyway because Social Security “reforms could starkly demonstrate to skeptical debt markets that the United States is willing to take on a politically difficult fiscal issue.” This is akin to the argument that the real problem is rising health care costs, driving Medicare costs, but another round of health reform is too difficult right now, so cutting Social Security is the easy place to start, even if it has nothing to do with the deficit.

The point is that politicians and policy wonks from both parties all over Washington are calling for drastic cuts to Social Security. Some, like the folks at the conservative Third Way Democratic corporate front group, are making the case that Social Security benefit cuts are the best way for liberals to “save Social Security” even if what remains is a welfare system that abandons the middle class who are now struggling to figure out their own retirement and have only Social Security to count on.

Ezra Klein’s reputation is as a straight shooter who looks at the data and the facts. He courageously changed his position on raising the retirement age when he realized its impact on older working people. His position on Social Security is a good one: no cuts, raise revenues, and improve. But he ignores the strong and deadly serious push that is swirling all around him. The enemies of Social Security want to do all those destructive cuts that Ezra opposes. And they call their destructive policies “reform.” Defenders of Social Security are right to oppose that kind of “reform” coming from conservatives and misguided liberals – and we are going to have to defeat even them, even as we wait for the right time to strengthen the social insurance system that means so much to all Americans.

For similar take on Klein’s column, see Dean Baker today.

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