fresh voices from the front lines of change







August 14th is Social Security’s birthday, and I keep having this nightmare. In it, 300 million Americans are singing Social Security’s praises and celebrating its 79th year. Then a giant cake is rolled out while everybody sings “Happy Birthday” – and out pops Alan Simpson, looking like Freddy Krueger and swinging a buzz saw with the words “chained CPI” painted on it.

Alan Simpson, in case you’ve forgotten, is the remarkably uninformed former Republican senator from Wyoming who has made a post-political career out of taunting seniors in need. But he’s not the only chainsaw-swinger who might haunt a Social Security nightmare. So could any one of the politicians, policy analysts, and “think tank” employees who have targeted the program – usually because they’re funded by bankers like hedge fund billionaire Pete Peterson.

(I wonder: Could you fit the entire staff of “Third Way” inside a 6 foot layer cake?)

And, okay, maybe I don’t really have dreams like that. But August 14th is Social Security’s birthday, which raises the question: what do you give the program that has everything? After all, Social Security enjoys massive public support. It’s the most efficient program of its kind in the country, with administrative costs of less than one percent. And, despite what the fearmongers say, its long-term financial prospects are better than those of most government programs.

Think about it: Can you name any other government initiative which doesn’t add to the deficit, is fully funded for the next two decades, and which could be expanded yet still survive indefinitely with only minor changes?

A few years ago I would’ve said that the ideal birthday present for Social Security was a few more stalwart defenders. Back then President Obama’s “Deficit Commission” (co-chaired by Alan Simpson) was the toast of Washington, and its reckless plan to gut Social Security’s benefits was considered the height of wisdom among that city’s chattering classes.

The In Crowd’s insular misconceptions about Social Security were crystallized by a now-infamous remark from Martha Raddatz, the “neutral” moderator of a 2012 Vice Presidential debate. “Both Medicare and Social Security are going broke and taking a larger share of the budget in the process,” said the journalist, shoe-horning two enormous misconceptions into a single sentence.

Washington’s world of insular illusion was reinforced that year by a comment President Obama made in another debate. “I suspect that on Social Security we’ve got a somewhat similar position,” he said of opponent Mitt Romney. (Sadly, they did.)

Today things have changed. Social Security has more stalwart defenders than it did a few short years ago, and their ranks are growing every day. They’ve managed to shift the debate away from benefit cuts and toward an expansion of the program instead.  In fact, a number of bills to expand Social Security have been introduced in the 113th Congress – from Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Pete DeFazio, Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. Linda Sanchez, Sen. Mark Begich and Rep. Theodore Deutch, and Rep. Gwen Moore.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently became an outspoken advocate for Social Security expansion, adding to its political momentum. And while the outcome of Hawaii’s Democratic Senatorial primary is still being determined, Brian Schatz has overcome daunting odds to get as far as he has. That’s due in no small part to Schatz’s outspoken advocacy for Social Security expansion, along with his cosponsorship of Sen. Harkin’s bill.

Nor is this pro-Social Security wave restricted to blue states. Sen. Begich hails from Alaska, and the latest politician to step up for Social Security is Louisiana’s Sen. Mary Landrieu. Landrieu has been hammering her opponent for wanting to raise the retirement age. She’s also circulating a petition which promotes “strengthening Social Security benefits, not cutting taxes for millionaires.”

That’s smart policy. Wage stagnation, wealth inequality, and cutbacks to private-sector retirement plans have led to a retirement crisis in this country. The best way to address this crisis is by expanding Social Security benefits. Actuarial and economic studies show that it’s possible to address Social Security’s long-term needs and expand its benefits through a blend of options which includes lifting the payroll tax cap, potentially levying an extremely small tax on Wall Street transactions, and asking average families to pay a few more dollars a week.

It’s also smart politics. A number of polls have shown that Social Security enjoys enormous support across party and ideological lines. They also show that, by wide margins, most Americans would happily pay a few dollars more each week in payroll taxes in return for an increase in benefits.

Politicians and campaign consultants, be advised: Social Security will be a critical campaign theme in 2014 – and in 2016, too. It’s an issue with staying power, and for good reason. Everyone hopes to retire someday. Most people realize they could become disabled at any time. And, as Mary Landrieu’s petition language suggests, the Social Security issue resonates with broader populist themes of economic equity – themes that ignite voter enthusiasm.

This one ain’t going away, folks. Social Security is important to people. (It’s also important to the economies of their home states.)

Social Security has already received the best possible birthday present: its advocates don’t have to play defense anymore. They’re not just spending their days beating back destructive ideas like the “chained CPI” benefit cut, or challenging deceptive claims about its financial prospects – claims which have been disproved, over and over, for the last 75 years.

Today, Social Security’s champions are also articulating a vision for using that program to rebuild our broken retirement economy.

The battle isn’t over. The “cutting crew” is well-funded and its backers are determined. But this year there’s even more to celebrate about Social Security. So if you want to have a party, go ahead. Just don’t ask a hedge funder to provide the cake.

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