Why Social Security Reform Would Be Good For Liberals


As Atrios notes, he and I have disagreed about the merits of Social Security reform for many years. Today he explains why he doesn’t think that fixing Social Security’s finances would do any good:

Nothing will take Social Security off the table for decades. They could cut benefits in half and extend the expected solvency of the program for 12 trillion years, and the Washington Post would be back the next day informing us that this was a good down payment, but much more “reform” needs to happen blah blah blah.

They really do want to starve your granny.

This really is the heart of our disagreement. So here’s my argument in super-condensed form.

If we extended the solvency of Social Security for the next century, it’s true that the Cato Institute would be back the next day complaining that this wasn’t enough. After all, they’re ideologically opposed to the whole idea of Social Security. It might take the Heritage Foundation a little longer, but they’d get right back into the fight pretty quickly too.

But the Washington Post wouldn’t. The Pete Peterson folks wouldn’t. The truth is that all the earnest, centrist, Very Serious People who want to reform Social Security don’t want to starve your granny. They don’t have a problem with the concept of a guaranteed retirement program. They just want it to be properly funded.

So a deal would shut them up. The Post editorial board would be happy. The Pete Peterson fans would be happy. Everyone outside the hard right would be happy. And without the megaphone provided by the VSPs, the hard right simply has no traction on this issue. They could keep griping forever, but it would just be one of their many fringe issues that no one else cares about. Effectively, Social Security would be off the table for decades.

What I mean by this, of course, is that it would be as far off the table as anything ever is in real life. Nothing will make everyone happy. Nothing will fix Social Security forever. Nothing will shut up the Glenn Becks and the Birchers and the libertarian hard cases. But if the VSPs are on board, Social Security would, for all practical purposes, cease to be a subject of controversy for many, many years. I think that would be good for the country, good for seniors, good for the liberal project, and well worth doing. The problem is finding any negotiating partners on the other side who are serious about making a deal.

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