That "Entitlements" Trope Again

by Neil H. Buchanan

My new Verdict column, "The Kasich Moderation Burlesque," is the second in what surprisingly turned out to be only a two-part series debunking claims that some candidates in the Republican field are "moderates."  When I wrote the first column two weeks ago, "Republicans Will Not Seriously Try to Sell Marco Rubio as a Moderate, Will They?" I assumed that I would at least have Jeb! to kick around for another few months, but that was not to be.

As I looked at the information that my research assistants had gathered for me regarding Kasich's stands on issues (as opposed to his attempts to reinvent his image as an aw-shucks regular guy), I decided not to include any discussion of Kasich's views on Social Security in the Verdict column.  This was in part because there were so many other issues on which to expose Kasich's immoderation -- so many that I filled a column without even mentioning Kasich's having signed a bill this month to end Ohio's funding of Planned Parenthood clinics -- but also because Republicans' views on Social Security are so indefensible that I really could not allow the column to be taken over by that one issue.

For what it might be worth, which is surely not much, Kasich is on board with the Republicans' plan to cut Social Security benefits for people who are currently younger than about 40 or so.  (His views are never quite clear or fixed.)  The irony of this is notable, because Republicans have spent decades telling young people that Baby Boomers are ripping them off, only now to tell those same young people that the solution to this supposed ripoff is not to prevent young people's benefits from being reduced (which could easily be done, through any of a number of means) but to go ahead and cut those benefits even before we are sure that there will be a reason to do so.

Kasich is especially unapologetic about this.  Last October, while campaigning in New Hampshire, he told a younger voter to "get over it" when that voter objected to the idea of benefit cuts.  According to CNN: "He initially said young people would see 'a lot' lower benefit, before correcting himself to say perhaps not 'a lot,' but some amount."  And of course, he went for the big diversion: "We can't balance a budget without entitlement reform. What are we, kidding?"

We can leave aside for now the reality that there is no good reason to run a balanced federal budget, and that the former chair of the House Budget Committee ought to be aware of that.  After all, Kasich's entire career has been built around an obsession with a balanced-budget amendment.  He is too far gone on that issue to say more than I said in today's Verdict column.  But sweeping Social Security under the label of "entitlements" is even more indicative of Kasich's fundamental dishonesty about budgetary issues -- a dishonesty that he shares fully with nearly every member of his party.

The problem for Republicans, as Paul Krugman has pointed out frequently, is that even Republican voters like "the entitlements."  Well, maybe not Medicaid, which is for poor people.  But they love Social Security and Medicare.  When Republicans nominated now-House Speaker Paul Ryan to be their Vice Presidential nominee in 2012, they had to "shake the etch-a-sketch" and pretend that Ryan had not been trying to privatize those programs for his entire career.  They even had Ryan attacking President Obama for cutting Medicare's costs, even though Ryan's own budgets had relied on those cuts to meet his budgetary goals.

Speaking of the Speaker, The New York Times noted today that likely Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (and doesn't that description make you shudder!) and Ryan might have some serious difficulties seeing eye to eye on a lot of issues.  Trump's popularity with the angry old white men who make up the Republican base puts the lie to the idea that they hate big government, whereas Ryan's entire persona is based on the laughable notion that he is an "ideas guy" who can lead the Republicans in a conservative revolution toward a small-government utopia.

(And too many liberals are still drinking this Kool Aid.  The Times's holier-than-thou columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote today that Ryan "seems to have genuine aspirations to legislate."  Which must be why he is refusing even to listen to Obama's budget spokesmen, and why he spent years having his colleagues pass "magic asterisk" budgets that never had a chance of becoming law.)

Interestingly, in a related news item contrasting Trump's and Ryan's views, the Times -- before quoting Trump's promise not to cut Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid -- printed this quote from Ryan: "All three entitlement programs that are in place today, Medicare, Medicaid Social Security, all go bankrupt in about 10 years."  A web search for that statement reveals that Ryan said that in 2007 (which the Times did not note, oddly), eight and a half years ago.  Let us take a moment to marvel at the multiple levels of ignorance embodied in that statement.

First, there is the obvious fact that none of these programs will go bankrupt in 2017, as Ryan claimed they would.  Even the worst predictions about Medicare and Social Security show them running without adjustments for at least another fourteen years, and Social Security could continue to run without any adjustments forever, depending on what happens to wage growth over the next two decades.

Second, there is an enormous difference between going "bankrupt" and needing to adjust a government funding program.  As Paul van de Water of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities pointed out last year, "Medicare Is Not 'Bankrupt,'" and it is not going to become bankrupt.  Bankruptcy is a technical term that people like Ryan toss around to scare people, suggesting that the programs will be dismantled when they "run out of money," which is simply false.  Kasich, too, relied on this scare tactic after that New Hampshire campaign appearance, saying that Democrats "basically allowed this program to get to a point where it could go bankrupt."

Third, even if one uses "trust fund reaches a zero balance and thus benefits need to be cut by some amount (maybe 10-20%), because we refuse to raise taxes" as a definition of the word bankruptcy -- because, hey, who cares that that is not what the word means? -- Medicaid is not even set up that way.  It is not reliant on a trust fund that could reach a zero balance, and it in fact acts as an important automatic stabilizer when the economy moves in the wrong direction.

This claim that Social Security and Medicare are going to bankrupt the country, of course, is not limited to Ryan and Kasich.  Thomas Byrnes Edsall, the veritable embodiment of the conventional wisdom, wrote a column this week claiming that Trump and Bernie Sanders are really quite similar.  (Not just wrong, but by this point hackneyed.)  He wrote: "Both reject mechanisms to limit spending on Social Security and Medicare."  Really?  Sanders and Trump "reject mechanisms" to limit spending on those programs?  Well, I would bet that everyone rejects some mechanisms but would embrace others.  Sanders, like almost all Democrats, thinks that the Republicans' refusal to let Medicare negotiate lower drug prices is insane.  But presumably because Sanders is not agreeing to cut benefits by increasing the retirement age or allowing inflation adjustments to lag actual inflation, he is an extremist.

In my Verdict columns discussing Rubio and Kasich, I set myself an easy task: Demonstrate that they are not moderate.  I allowed for the possibility that people could agree with those immoderate positions, but I insisted that both men be seen for the extremists that they truly are.  On Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, however, the issue is not moderation versus immoderation.  It is simply comprehension versus incomprehension, with people like Ryan leading the way in misleading people about those very popular programs.

Luckily, even Republican voters seem no longer to be buying that line.  I am obviously not happy with the person to whom they are turning, but it is good news indeed that they are turning away from Ryan's barely camouflaged attempts to benefit the rich at the expense of even middle class Republicans.