Theocrats Veer Out of Their Lane to Opine (Foolishly) About Social Security
The new Speaker of the House, Dave Jones, is still largely unknown. Speaker Williams, who goes by his first name Rob, is often confused with Jim Miller, who has insisted that he is not in fact Speaker Steve Smith. What we do know is that Speaker Bill Davis apparently does not have a bank account, or has not reported one, which is perhaps unsurprising for someone whose name is a conveniently untraceable alias. That there is doubt about how many children he has (or acknowledges) seems more important than whether or not his name is in fact Joe Brown, but I digress.
[Side note: The other three surnames on the top-10 list in the US are Garcia, Rodriguez, and Martinez, which few people would mistakenly associate with our new man in Washington.]
Seriously, however, Speaker Generic-Name is being rightly raked over the coals as various aspects of his background have emerged. He was already going to be an albatross around the necks of the Republican House members who claim to be moderate but who voted without exception for an election-denying back-bencher whose previous claim to fame was putting his name (and his name alone) on an amicus brief imploring the Supreme Court to allow Republicans in Texas to invalidate four other states' 2020 election results. That brief was, in a word, embarrassing.
Moving forward, however, probably the most important thing to know about this guy is that he is an aggressive theocrat, as Professor Dorf explained in some detail in a column last week. Here, I want to explore (where "explore" is the reserved academic word choice standing in for "mock and deride") one especially odd aspect of Speakerguy's theocracy. In the long litany of head-scratching moments emerging from our growing knowledge about the highest-ranking Republican in the United States government, I was both confused and amused when I saw this in The Guardian. Apparently during a House hearing, the now-Speaker said:
You think about the implications on the economy. We’re all struggling here to cover the bases of social security and Medicare and Medicaid and all the rest. If we had all those able-bodied workers in the economy, we wouldn’t be going upside down and toppling over like this … I will not yield I will not. Roe was a terrible corruption of America’s constitutional jurisprudence.
The Guardian also reported this from a different hearing: "Roe v Wade did constitutional cover to the elective killing of unborn children in America, period." One could be forgiven for wondering how something does constitutional cover, period or otherwise, but the fact is that he wants to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits, which puts him in conflict with none other than Donald Trump.
More to the point, there is no reason to think that the Republicans' unanimous choice to be their Speaker would be in favor of keeping Social Security and Medicare intact, even if they were not "going upside down and toppling over like this" (which, readers will not be surprised to learn, they are not in fact doing). That is, even if his feverishly preferred alternative history had played out with abortion completely illegal in the US for the past half-century, nothing about him indicates that he would now be saying, "You know what, Social Security and Medicare are rightside-up and standing straight, so let's think about something else." As always, everything is pretextual.
The conservative movement from which this guy sprang has been opposed to "entitlement programs" for as long as they have existed, so the attempt to highlight financial challenges is to be expected. By contrast, connecting those programs' finances to Roe is a new one. Or is it? Just because I (and, I suspect, the vast majority of people reading this column) have never heard that oddball argument does not mean that it was dreamed up by the new guy.
This happens somewhat frequently. For example, I recall watching a Republican presidential non-debate two decades in which George W. Bush mentioned the Dred Scott case, seemingly out of nowhere. This left many observers puzzled, but it turned out that
to Christian conservatives who have long viewed the Scott decision as a parallel to the 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling legalizing abortion, the president’s historical reference was perfectly logical -- and his message was clear. [He] was giving a subtle nod to the belief of abortion foes ... that just as the high court denied rights to blacks in the Scott case it also shirked the rights of the unborn in Roe, which many conservatives call the Dred Scott case of the modern era.
Who knew? And it turns out that "Roe turned Social Security upside down and toppling over" is another longstanding talking point on the religious right. As one of my (excellent) research assistants found, one of the think-tanks that receives big Koch money (as well as funds from the usual run of Scaife, Bradley, and other bankrollers of the far right) found an economist who was willing to write a two-paragraph blog post in 2000 making that argument. To prevent trolling, I will not provide a link here, but the title and subtitle of the piece are: "How Abortion Has Weakened Social Security: The Social Security crisis is considerably more severe because of abortion."
Unsurprisingly, then, the current occupant of the Speaker's office was not saying anything novel or even mildly innovative. The argument, if one wants to call it that, is that the worker-to-retiree ratio would be higher if none of those abortions had been permitted, which would supposedly have made up almost half of any funding shortfall for Social Security. That analysis, in turn, is based on the most elementary misuses of averages and assumptions about alternative realities.
Before I get there, however, one has to wonder what exactly is the point of saying any of this. Is it score-settling: "Hey libs, your beloved Social Security is super-askew because you were so eager to kill so many babies! Ha ha to you"? Again, there is no reason to think that Republicans would be trimming their sails if the shortfalls that have been forecast were only half as big. After all, they do not only want to cut benefits. They want to use the "need" to cut benefits as a way to convince voters to support ending Social Security and Medicare entirely.
Beyond that, however, so what? In 2023, what was the point of White Evangelical Male Speaker saying what would have happened in a non-Roe world, as a matter of what to do now? Is he saying that the new wave of unwanted births is going to give us "all those able-bodied workers" to save Social Security (even though that is not what he wants to do) going forward? When the first wave of those newborns reaches working age in 2041 -- admittedly sooner in Arkansas -- will Social Security be saved?
After all, the supposed "drop-dead date" when Social Security's trust fund might reach zero -- which, to be clear, at worst would mean that benefits would be reduced by 20 percent from the higher-than-current levels that are scheduled -- is 2034 or 2035. And if we are going to look at the long-term impact of a new baby boom, we also have to look at the entire life cycle of those workers, not only their working years. The Social Security Trustees' annual report lays out 75-year forecasts. Do we know with certainty that the sudden surge of unplanned births will not be followed by another baby bust, as people figure out how to avoid pregnancies -- illegally and legally, including by not having sex?
The point is that any financing difficulties facing our major retirement program are decades in the making and take decades to die out (literally). And that makes it even more amusing (in a sad way) to think about Speaker Mike Johnson's -- wait, did I get it right that time? -- alternative history. Suppose that Roe had never happened (or had been quickly overturned or neutralized by a constitutional amendment). Fifty years later, what would we see?
The fundamental shift in the economy that has caused the Trust Fund to be at risk of early depletion (note: the Trust Fund was always supposed to reach zero, the only question being when) is the New Gilded Age. This had the effect of hollowing out the middle- and upper-middle-classes, a few of whom ended up making more than the annual limit on payroll taxes, but the vast majority of whom became lower-middle-class and working poor. The benefit structure of Social Security is progressive, paying more to lower-income workers -- as a percentage of their much lower incomes, not more in total dollars. That is, the "replacement rate" of benefits for low-income workers is higher than for middle- and upper-middle-income workers.
With the first generation of hypothetical non-Roe people turning fifty this year, they would have entered the labor force when inequality was worsening, which means that they would have paid the average payroll taxes during their lives that everyone in our reality paid only if they were average in terms of their earnings histories. Even without worrying about that, however, we know that the actual workers who are fifty or younger today are stuck in a rut of low-paid (no-benefit) jobs, which means that the hypothetical additional people would -- even if they were otherwise fully average -- have contributed to the long-term divergence between expected benefit/tax levels and actual benefit/tax levels. That is, these imaginary workers would have contributed to the problem, worsening it considerably.
Again, the problem (if there is to be one) is not that there is not enough money to pay Social Security benefits today. It is that there might not be enough money to pay scheduled benefits starting in about a dozen years. And we know what will happen in 2035: People born in 1973 will become eligible for early retirement benefits, and every year thereafter, non-Roe people would join the ranks of the retired, worsening any imbalance going forward.
Moreover, because those hypothetical people are by definition the result of "unwanted pregnancies," the idea that they would all grow up to be average workers with average educations, average skills, and thus average wages is preposterous. The bottom line is that the Speaker's imaginary world in which Social Security would have been saved by outlawing abortion is fatuous.
In the end, neither re-running history without Roe nor looking forward post-Dobbs adds up to a demographic answer to Social Security's financing questions. The former would have made any pending problem worse, and the latter would come too late and most likely cause another financing crisis for future generations.
I do understand that the damage that House Republicans would like to do regarding other issues -- LGBTQ+ rights, women's rights, race relations, appeasing Putin, autocracy, and so on -- is much more serious than chuckleheaded musings about Social Security. Even so, this is one more reason that House Republicans -- and especially their nearly anonymous new leader -- should not be taken seriously.