The Right Tries (and Fails) to Justify Its Assault on Social Security

Richard Eskow

How does the right justify the kind of action Congress took this week, when it moved to cut disability benefits for millions of people by 20 percent? Answer #1: With buzzwords and rhetorical dodges. Answer #2: Not very well.

For details on the House’s action, we pointed yesterday to a number of well-informed analyses – by Nancy Altman and Eric Kingson, Kathy Ruffing, Alan Pyke, Dean Baker, and Michael Hiltzik. Republicans moved to cut Social Security disability benefits by blocking a routine reallocation of funds. That’s bad enough, but their end game is even worse: broad Social Security cuts and the privatization of the entire program.

That would be bad for most Americans, but great for the people who finance the Republican Party – and think tanks like Heritage. There would be less pressure to increase taxes on billionaires. Wall Street would have more money under its control. And the far right’s antigovernment ideology would have claimed another scalp.

Heritage’s defense of the House is a good example of the right’s time-worn strategies for concealing – perhaps, at times, even from itself – the moral and human implications of its actions. It’s written by Romina Boccia, the “Grover M. Hermann fellow in federal budgetary affairs in the Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation” – (now there’s a title!) – and is called “The House Just Made It Harder for Politicians to Steal From Social Security Retirement Fund.”

See what they did there, before we’ve even read the text? They changed the subject from “disabled Americans” to “politicians.” (People hate “politicians,” right?) But the money wouldn’t go to “politicians,” who have generous retirement and disability plans. It would go to the disabled. And it wouldn’t be “stolen.” It would be borrowed – from the same payroll tax which funds retirement benefits.

The Heritage piece is a compendium of right-wing Social Security feints, many brewed up in the manifold organizations funded by anti-government hedge fund billionaire Pete Peterson. We’re told, for example, that the House’s parliamentary move “set the stage for long-overdue Social Security reforms to protect disabled Americans and seniors from indiscriminate benefit cuts” –

(As opposed to ‘discriminate’ benefit cuts?)

– and that it “strengthens the integrity of Social Security’s separate trust funds” by “prevent(ing) lawmakers from raiding retirement funds to shore up the bleeding disability trust fund.” (Emphases mine.)

“Strengthen.” “Integrity.” Raiding.” “Bleeding.” These are code words designed to fire neurons in the lizard brain. Take them away and what’s left? The distasteful sight of prosperous Republican House members cutting disabled people’s already meager benefits.

As for the transfer of funds, Ms. Boccia doesn’t mention that Congress has made this very minor adjustment 11 times in the past. She makes it sound as if President Obama and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew are proposing something novel, strange – even dangerous. She even throws in a scare paragraph from a fellow Heritage employee suggesting that the entire program is in danger and warning of the “destitution” that might ensue. Then she tips her organization’s hand:

“This change,” Ms. Boccia writes of the House’s move, “sets the stage for comprehensive Social Security reform in the 114th Congress.”

Well, of course it does. Disability benefits are just the prelude. They’re after bigger game. The right wants what it has wanted ever since Social Security was first created: its dismantlement.

Merriam-Webster tell us that to “reform” something is “to improve (it) by removing or correcting faults, problems, etc.” It does not mean “to shrink, truncate, terminate, slash, or cut.” But then, that’s how the right creates buzzwords: by hijacking real words and giving them new, zombified meanings.

Congress must “act responsibly,” we’re told. It must attack “fraud and mismanagement” (although there is no evidence that either is a significant problem in the disability program). We’re left with another invocation of “indiscriminate” cuts and a call for responsible “stewardship” of tax dollars.

Some of Ms. Boccia’s commenters have a predictable field day. “There is no trust fund,” writes a commenter. “There is just a bunch of IOUs.” That’s another conservative canard – unless you think that all those Treasury bonds held by JPMorgan Chase are “just IOUs” too. (Besides, don’t conservatives pay their IOUs?)

Other commenters regale their readers with anecdotes about twenty-somethings who are “not disabled” and are “mooching off the system.”

“IT IS SAD HOW MANY CAN WORK THE SYSTEM FOR A FREE CHECK THEY DO NOT DESERVE,” says one. (Again, there is no evidence of widespread fraud.)

Know what isn’t mentioned, either by Ms. Boccia or her commenters? Tax increases on the wealthy and corporations. Actual corporate tax rates – the amount they actually pay – are at 60-year lows. Billionaires pay less than half the tax rate they paid in the 1950s. Likely voters – including three-quarters of registered Republicans and an equal number of independents – want to increase Social Security benefits and pay for it by having millionaires pay into the program at the same rate as everyone else (“lifting the cap”).

They forgot to mention that.

One might think that the “Grover M. Hermann fellow in federal budgetary affairs in the Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation” would understand that a budget incorporates revenue as well as expense. The Heritage Foundation does understand that, of course. It’s just trying to change the subject.

With positions like theirs, you can’t blame them for trying.

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