Why the Language Surrounding Social Security Matters
by Jonathan Singer, Sat Nov 24, 2007 at 10:46:51 AM EST
Over the past few weeks I've talked a bit about Social Security, focusing in particular on whether or not Barack Obama believes there is a crisis in the Social Security system. To get a brief idea about why this matters, take a look at the AP's David Espo:
Three years after the collapse of President Bush's plan for private Social Security accounts, Republican presidential contenders are eager to try again. Not so the Democrats, who gravitate toward increasing payroll taxes on upper-income earners to fix the program's finances.
With the notable exception of former Sen. Fred Thompson, a Republican, presidential hopefuls in both parties shy away from suggestions that might offend their own primary voters. As a result, bipartisan commissions to resolve the program's long-term financial problems are in. And longer waits for retirement are most definitely out.
Thompson's proposal, by contrast, includes lower-than-promised benefits for future retirees, as well as new private accounts to make Social Security solvent for 75 years. "If somebody's got a better idea let them put it on the table," he said recently, daring his rivals.
Of course the Social Security program is not truly insolvent -- it will pay full benefits for at least the next 30 to 40 years, and even then it will pay out a greater amount to beneficiaries than it does today (adjusting for inflation) -- and the relatively small long-term defecit that the program does have would not be plugged by taking money out of the system, as Fred Thompson and just about every other Republican presidential candidate suggests.
But the problem with the DC-driven debate in the country today is that these two facts are not taken as gospel. Instead, pundits talk about a "crisis" in the program as a way of drumming up support for an overhaul that will include a partial or complete privatization. As I noted before but I'll repeat again, siphoning off money from the program to create private accounts wouldn't do anything but worsen the long-term deficit in the program, but that's no matter to those on the right -- their hope is not to maintain the program but rather to gut it.
The good thing is that the American people quite overwhelmingly reject both the notion that Social Security is in crisis and that a partial privatization plan should be implemented. But if Democrats begin to grease the wheels towards a "compromise" (potentially including private accounts) by talking about an urgent problem or a crisis facing the program, this could change. So it's terribly important that the Democrats don't embrace Republican talking points in this debate -- both because of the potential of great problems that could result from giving into the Republicans here and, fundamentally, because there is no crisis.