Does Fixing Social Security Matter?

Here is Atrios a few days ago on plans to shore up Social Security’s finances:

The other fantasy is that if you pass some sort of plan which gets Social Security in surplus for the next 75 years according to the SSA then you get credit for “saving” Social Security and that the issue will be then off the table until the end of time. What will happen in practice is that the trustees will inevitably make minor and completely reasonable tweaks to the assumptions underlying their projections so they can once again have the trio of “nightmare,” “middle ground,” and “everything’s awesome” scenarios, with the middle ground scenario showing problems at some point in the future. Then the pain caucus will be back to tell us just how much granny needs to starve and Wall Street will return to siphon up all the money into their gaping maws.

This is a pretty common sentiment in the progressive community, but I really don’t think it’s right. It’s true that a certain contingent of conservatives will never give up on attacking Social Security. They’ll release white papers, write periodic op-eds for the Wall Street Journal, broadcast Facebook rants about Ponzi schemes to the faithful, and agitate forever for privatization. This will never stop.

But it won’t gain any traction if the official reports show that Social Security is solvent. The fact is that the middle scenario of the Social Security trustees hasn’t changed dramatically over the years. In 1985, they projected that outlays would exceed revenue by 2.5 percent of taxable earnings in 2060. Last year, the forecast for 2060 showed an imbalance of about 3.5 percent of taxable earnings:

So yes: The trustees make tweaks, and those tweaks have caused the lines to move up and down over the years. But not by a huge amount. Put together a plan that closes the long-term gap on a pay-as-you-go basis—that is, without playing trust-fund games this time—and it will probably remain in pretty good shape for decades at a minimum.

That won’t satisfy Cato or the Heritage Foundation, but they aren’t the real opinion movers on this. The Beltway consensus is formed much more by the Washington Post editorial page and the Pete Peterson folks, and they’ve always been willing to accept the trustees’ projections as meaningful. So once the trustees produce a chart showing Social Security in balance, all the oxygen gets taken out of the debate. The privatizers won’t give up their crusade, but nobody will be listening anymore. Privatization is fundamentally unpopular, and it only edges its way into the public discourse if it can plausibly appeal to an oncoming crisis. Remove the crisis, and they’ve got nothing left.

This is why progressives should be more open to trying to cut a Social Security deal. It might not work, of course, but with deficit reduction in the air it’s worth trying. Right now, we have multiple deficit reduction plans on the table that provide reasonable starting points for discussion; none of the plans involve privatization, and a bipartisan deal would put a stake through privatization for good; it would remove a distraction and allow us to devote our attention to more important things; and it would be good for the country and good for Social Security beneficiaries to shore up the program permanently and put the doom mongers out of business. Better now than when President Palin is in office.

Front page image courtesy of Flickr user Seth Anderson.

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. It's our first time asking for an outpouring of support since screams of FAKE NEWS and so much of what Trump stood for made everything we do so visceral. Like most newsrooms, we face incredibly hard budget realities, and it's unnerving needing to raise big money when traffic is down.

So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate