Is the Attack on Social Security Finally Over?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

[Note: This post is a companion piece to my latest Verdict column: Message to Young People: Social Security Will Be There For You, Unless You Let Wall Street Take It Away From You.]

This year's go-round on the Social Security "drop-dead date" carousel was notable for its near invisibility. In previous years, the annual release of the Trustees' report would be breathlessly reported by every media outlet, with commentators decrying the failure of politicians to deal with this supposed crisis in the making.  This year, not so much.

Indeed, I would not have devoted this week's Verdict column to the topic, except that it appears that young people have actually come to believe the anti-Social Security hype.  True, they are not up in arms about it, but they appear to have adopted a desultory "We know we're screwed, but what else is new?" attitude.  It seemed worthwhile to take another crack at trying to help young people see that this is one area in which the news is good, and that they should not become pawns of the privatizers.

I have written quite a bit about this topic over the years, and the only interesting thing about it has been to see how impervious the conventional wisdom has been to the boring reality that Social Security is not "facing a crisis that requires immediate action," nor is it "going to go out of business, leaving future retirees high and dry."  None of that is even remotely true, but there are people who stand to profit (politically and economically) from ending or damaging Social Security, so the campaign to convince people that a crisis exists has continued for years.

As I mentioned above, what was odd about this year's release of the Trustees' report (which, for those of you who missed it, was on Monday of this week), is that the report said pretty much the same thing as always, but the news coverage was minimal.  The Times relegated it to the back pages of the paper, and there was virtually no discussion of it among the chattering class.  Does that mean that the fight is finally over, and that the reality at long last has overcome the forces that have been attacking Social Security for decades?  Unfortunately, that is almost certainly not what is happening.

Perhaps it is too much to expect people to admit out loud that they were wrong all along, and to say that Social Security should be left alone.  Explicit surrender is too much to expect.  Therefore, it could be that the usual suspects have simply slithered onto the next fight, finally telling themselves that this fight cannot be won.  This silence could be meaningful.

The more likely explanation, I think, is that believers of the conventional wisdom momentarily view Social Security as an issue that is not worth talking about, but only so long as Washington is gridlocked.  I am thinking here of the people who view themselves as "responsible," and who think that the Bowles-Simpson commission was a high point in American public life.  (It wasn't.  It really wasn't.)  We are not talking about embarrassments like Gov. Rick Perry, who might occasionally still say that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme (which is in competition for the most ridiculous thing Perry has ever said).  The question is what the self-styled centrists, who viewed the debt ceiling fights as opportunities to attack "out of control entitlements," are doing.

That Times news article from Monday, which reported on the release of the Trustees' report, quotes Robert Reischauer, the former CBO director who is now a Social Security Trustee, saying that "both of these very important programs are fiscally unsustainable over the long run and will require legislative intervention."  Here, "fiscally unsustainable over the long run" means this: If nothing changes, and if the economic forecasts turn out to be true (estimates that are, by they way, hardwired to be pessimistic, notwithstanding the claim that they are middle-of-the-road forecasts), then full benefits will not be paid at some point in the future.  But the call for "legislative intervention" simply means that Congress can, at any time, decide to prevent those cuts from happening.  If it does not, it will have chosen to allow the cuts to occur; but as I point out in my Verdict column (again), even those cuts would hardly be draconian.

Similarly, the Times article includes a quote from Republican Congressman Dave Camp, the current chair of the Ways and Means Committee, who will be retiring in January, blaming (you guessed it) President Obama: "This administration continues to ignore the fast-approaching crisis that Medicare and Social Security face, especially our Social Security disability program. The fact is, without bipartisan action, benefits will be cut.”

What Camp is doing is cherry-picking the most demagogue-friendly fact, which is that there are separate trust funds for different aspects of Social Security, and one of them (the disability insurance fund) will be depleted in a couple of years, unless money is moved around.  Of course, he ignores that the Trustees have already said that it is possible to do exactly that, moving money from the retirement trust funds to the disability trust fund (as has been done in the past), and the whole system would not reach depletion until 2033.  He also ignores the fact that depleting a trust fund does not end the program, and he still claims that the overall Social Security and Medicare programs are heading toward a crisis.  And it is worth remembering that Camp is held up as a moderate, reasonable Republican, not some firebrand.

How would we solve those supposed fast-approaching crises?  The Times quotes the wonderful Nancy Altman as saying that any problems could be solved by progressive tax changes, but of course, even fake moderates like Camp would never allow that to happen.  And with Democrats like Reischauer on board as saying that "legislative intervention" is necessary to make the programs "sustainable," the only consensus position among the people who view themselves as the sensible, realistic center of the spectrum will be to cut benefits.

In short, there is no reason to think that there has been a fundamental reassessment by anyone who has been pushing a political agenda that will lead to a fake compromise to cut Social Security.  When the political moment is right, they will be back at it, on both sides of the political aisle, hacking away at the security of future middle class retirees.