The Real Bait and Switch on Social Security

Robert Borosage

The Wall Street Journal assails President Obama for “bait and switch on Social Security,” because he’s criticizing Republican plans to privatize Social Security, which the Journal says don’t exist. The editorial then goes on to call for cutting benefits to “strengthen Social Security,” and admits that privatization is part of the Rep. Paul Ryan’s roadmap, at this point the sole oasis in the desert that is the Republican platform.

Here’s the record. President Bush made privatization Social Security the first priority of his second term. Rep. Ryan adopts a similar plan. House Minority leader John Boehner wants to raise the retirement age to 70. Republican tea party candidates from Nevada’s Sharon Angle to Alaska’s Joe Miller want to phase out Social Security and turn it to private savings plans.

But the real “bait and switch” on Social Security is the claim — made by Deficit Commission Co-Chair Alan “milk cow” Simpson and echoed by the New York Times’ Matt Bai — that the trust fund is a fraud, that the money is gone, and the program needs to be cut.

In fact, boomers were told that they were so numerous they had to prepay part of their retirement in addition to paying for their parents’ generation. The most regressive tax workers pay — the payroll tax – -was raised to generate literally trillions of surpluses for Social Security. Those surpluses were invested in government bonds.

No question that politiicans in both parties used those surpluses to mask the deep deficits the US was running up – squandered largely on wars abroad and tax cuts, largely for the wealthy. So when it comes to getting the budget back in balance, surely reducing the amounts we waste policing the world and raising top end taxes should be the first order of business.

The ultimate bait and switch would be first to tax workers with a regressive payroll tax to prepay their Social Security and then inform them the money is gone, the government plans to default on its bonds, and they’ll have to work longer or receive lower benefits. That would be obscene. And that is what the Wall Street Journal and many conservative politicians in fact have in mind.

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