On Social Security, Boehner Doesn't "Have a Clue"
March 7, 2011 - 4:26pm ET
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We finally got a sneak peak of the Republicans’ much-anticipated “adult conversation” on America’s “entitlement problem.” And there is nothing particularly “adult” about it. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last Friday House Speaker John Boehner said, “Most Americans don’t have a clue” how unsustainable Social Security and Medicare are. In reality, it’s Boehner who is clueless--to the facts about Social Security and Medicare, and the day-to-day world of working Americans.
Boehner made his condescending comments while announcing that the GOP will offer a budget this spring that “curbs Social Security and Medicare, despite the political risks.” Apparently, as the GOP would have it, the “political risks” involved in such proposals are just the result of an ignorant and misinformed public. In short, the “adult conversation” is between Republican adults, on the one hand, and American children, on the other.
To those of us familiar with the polling data, it comes as no surprise that Boehner is convinced that the American people just don’t "get" Social Security and Medicare. The vast majority of the American people are dead-set against Social Security and Medicare cuts, a position which puts them at odds with Boehner, which makes them well, wrong—I mean, uh, poorly informed.
But does Boehner even actually believe that Americans don't "get" it, or does he just want us to think we don't get it, so we will be more receptive to his Party's version of the truth?
Market Fundamentalism, Masquerading as Fact
Whatever he believes, Boehner is no more interested in clarifying for the public the true scope of the “entitlement problem” than the public is interested in cutting Social Security and Medicare. That’s because whatever funding problems Social Security and Medicare are facing, there is no reading of the situation that would necessitate the dramatic cuts Boehner would like to see enacted. But Republicans can’t come right out and explain the ideology behind their policy positions. To do that, they would have to tell it like they believe it, that Americans are stuck in a “social safety hammock,” as Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan has said. That is to say, Americans are parasites, feeding on our country’s most popular government programs; they would be harder, better workers, if the government cut ‘em loose.
Those views are not likely to resonate with average Americans, who are struggling to make ends meet. When people can find work these days, they are working harder for lower pay and fewer benefits.
Instead, Boehner and his colleagues plan to scare the American people into accepting cuts. They are gearing up to deploy the ever-reliable Shock Doctrine. It’s the political equivalent of mafia racketeering. “You like that Social Security, eh? Well, a little birdie told me it ain’t gonna be there for long. That is, unless you want our, er, ‘protection.’” Give us the benefit cuts or the program itself gets whacked.
Of course, they have the sense to masquerade as objective analysts, just presenting the “hard” truth to the American public. Even though they are manufacturing a crisis, they must make it seem like an objective threat. As Boehner put it: "Once they understand how big the problem is, I think people will be more receptive to what the possible solutions may be." I think it’s safe to assume modest tax increases on those who can most afford it are not among the “possible solutions,” Boehner is pushing.
No, Boehner wants to convince the public that Social Security and Medicare are in crisis, so they will think major cuts are necessary. In other words, the public will come around to raising the age of eligibility for benefits, means-testing, reductions in the cost-of-living adjustment, and other devastating benefit cuts, so long as they are terrorized into believing that the alternative is that Social Security and Medicare disappear altogether and our Chinese creditors eat our children like wontons.
The Inconvenient Truth about Social Security (for Boehner that is)
Americans need to call Boehner and his Shock Doctrine mafia out on their bluff. On Social Security, the math is simple. The American people are right and Boehner is wrong. Americans know that Social Security has not contributed a penny to the deficit, it’s forbidden by law from borrowing, and unlike many other government programs it is completely financed by contributions Americans see deducted from their paychecks every week (and the interest that money earns once it is invested in U.S. Treasury bonds). The same goes for Medicare Part A (Hospital Insurance), which is also financed through FICA contributions.
Americans also know that Social Security has a modest long-term funding shortfall, but most Americans remain opposed to benefit cuts. That's because they don’t want to cut benefits in order to avoid them later on, or pay down a deficit Social Security did not cause. Instead, they favor basic, common-sense revenue increases like scrapping the cap on taxable payroll, which, at its current level, has Bill Gates paying a smaller percentage of his income in Social Security taxes than your average postal worker. Nearly two-thirds of voters favor scrapping the cap on wages that are taxed for Social Security, including 60% of Republicans and Tea Partiers.
Medicare: It’s the Private Health Care Costs, Stupid
As for Medicare Parts B (Supplementary Medical Insurance) and D (the prescription drug benefit), Americans should know that costs are indeed growing too fast, but Republicans are fighting to make them higher, not lower. They fought President Obama’s health care reform law tooth and nail, which cut $500 billion in Medicare waste, thereby extending the life of the program.
And it’s not Medicare itself that is the problem. Medicare boasts administrative costs of less than 2 percent. In the coming years, growing Medicare costs are the result of exploding private healthcare costs for which Medicare must pick up the tab in reimbursements. What remains of growing Medicare costs is because our for-profit medical insurers and providers—the insurance companies, drug companies, hospitals, and yes, even doctors—continue to squeeze consumers for as much as they can. Instead of throwing people under the bus as costs increase, we should work to reduce costs by establishing a public option.
The Bush Tax Cuts, Social Security and Boehner’s Budget Hawk Hypocrisy
The most despicable part of the whole GOP “entitlement reform” drive is that it comes on the heels of another racketeering job they pulled in December over the Bush tax cuts. Back then, they threatened to let unemployment insurance and the Bush tax cuts for the other 98% expire if they didn’t get the renewal of the tax cuts for the top 2%.
Ironically, the cost of extending the Bush tax cuts for the top 2% of Americans is equivalent to the cost of filling Social Security’s 75-year shortfall. Both equal 0.7% of the GDP. That is not to say that we should be putting Social Security on the hook to the general budget, but it does put Social Security’s modest funding gap in some perspective—and put the lie to Republican double-talk on the deficit.
And while, absent major legal changes, Social Security will remain distinct from the general budget, its benefits can still be adjusted because of overall fiscal pressures. As the government loses revenue needed for other programs, the more likely there is to be pressure to fix Social Security’s shortfall through benefit reductions, rather than the more popular revenue increases.
Faced with a choice between restoring taxes to their Clinton-era levels for the likes of John Boehner and his lobbyist friends, and cutting Social Security benefits by as much as 42% for middle class workers, it is clear what the majority of Americans would choose. It’s a shame that is an “adult conversation” that Republicans will never have.
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