The media have portrayed Governor Rick Perry's description of Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme" at a recent Iowa campaign event as the latest extreme statement of an unconventionally candid, conservative presidential candidate. But Perry's full remarks reveal just as much about the Republican Party's strategy for cutting Social Security as they do about Perry himself.
The question that prompted Perry to call Social Security a "Ponzi scheme" and the beginning of Perry's response -- which have not been flagged in the flurry of media attention over Perry's statement -- shed light on rank-and-file Republicans' support for Social Security and the delicate strategy Republican politicians employ in talking about how to "reform" the program, as a result.
(For a point-by-point takedown of Perry's biggest Social Security whoppers, click here.)
Here is the text of the question and the beginning of Perry's response:
Iowa Woman: The current Administration is promoting Social Security as an entitlement program (inaudible). The question is, is what it originally started out to be is not an entitlement program. Americans were working and putting money into it --
Rick Perry: It was a retirement program. And actually it's turned into a tax now --
Iowa Woman: There is such a bad sum of people who are on it who have never put into it --
Rick Perry: And the question is, What are we gonna do about Social Security? And actually it's a little broader than that. What are we gonna do with entitlements? And I think we need to be -- anyone who doesn't wanna engage in that conversation, or worse yet, they wanna say, the status quo is okay, are destroying these young people's futures.
Iowa Woman: You don't see that as an "entitlement" program though do you?
Rick Perry: I see Social Security as a program that was put in place to help people after they retired. It was put in place at a time when the average longevity of an individual was 65 years old.
The Republican voter's question perfectly encapsulates why Social Security remains deeply popular -- even among conservative Republicans. To be sure, Social Security and Medicare enjoy Republican support in part because they are programs that Republican voters depend on. As the voter's question illustrates, though, in the case of Social Security -- and, to a lesser extent, Medicare Part A -- Hospital Insurance -- the program's conservative funding structure is key to its bipartisan popularity.
Rank-and-file conservatives do not like so-called entitlements, but they do like benefits that are earned through hard work. For conservatives, and Americans more generally, the acceptability of government benefits hinge on whether it is given to "deserving" people -- folks who have worked hard, and earned their benefits, as opposed to the mythic "welfare queens." Social Security is paid for with contributions from all workers' pay-checks. Workers cannot receive benefits unless they have ten years of covered employment. It is also universal, which means that it does not punish people for earning more, or turn beneficiaries into a class of Others that can be easily demonized.
As a result, Americans who are normally averse to government-provided benefits, love Social Security. That means, that as Perry's Republican questioner noted, Social Security is a program that relies on "Americans working and putting money into it" and thus, not an "entitlement." An "entitlement" is presumably what conservatives perceive to be a welfare program that does not reward work.
This forces Republican elites who are ideologically hostile to Social Security into a balancing act. They have to market cuts to their voters without appearing to attack the program. Pols like Perry know they cannot attack the concept of Social Security, even if they are against the idea of a government-run pension program. Notice that Perry does not reiterate the claim in his book that Social Security's very creation was unconstitutional. Instead, Republican pols must convince voters that they are not trying to cut the Social Security conservative Americans know and love, but another mythic, "entitlement"-style program with the same name.
There are a number of ways that Republican politicians are able to sell Social Security cuts as curbing hated "entitlements." First, they blame Social Security's modest long-term funding gap on freeloaders. In Perry's town hall, the Republican questioner already did some of the work for him. She says, "The current Administration is promoting Social Security as an entitlement program" -- read: welfare program. The woman was apparently under the impression that Social Security now pays benefits to people who have "never put into it."
That the woman already believed an unsubstantiated conspiracy theory attests to the success of Republican messaging. GOP politicians and conservative media relentlessly push bogeyman theories about Social Security. She merely repeated one of the recurring lies about Social Security: that it has somehow been hijacked by welfare queens. Nowadays these welfare queens are more likely to come in the form of greedy "illegal immigrants."
Perry not only does not deny the Iowa woman's bizarre claim, he also encourages it. He chimes in with his contention that Social Security has "turned into a tax." The implication is that rather than an earned pension benefit, Social Security has become a tax on workers to fund some other abstract government program.
What is more, the Republican woman's focus on the Obama Administration, in particular, has its roots in Republicans' claims that President Obama raided the Social Security trust fund. The myth of the "raided trust fund," which is apparently widely believed, says that the president used Social Security's surplus to finance a lavish government spending spree.
By definition of course, the Social Security trust fund cannot be raided. It consists of United States treasury bonds backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government. Technically, any time the government issues a bond, it is borrowing from someone to fund spending.
But that did not stop many freshmen Republicans from riding that lie to victory in the 2010 midterm elections. Tim Walberg (R, MI-7) even used the claim in a televised political ad. Since we are meant to believe that the president has spent this money on giveaways for the poor, it was not too far of a leap for the Iowa woman to make that President Obama has somehow turned Social Security into a welfare program that bankrupted it.
Another trick Republicans politicians pull, and Perry apparently borrowed, is claiming that Social Security was never intended to be the large program that it is now. The implication is that Social Security was not a bad idea to start out, but it is now somehow outdated, and therefore unsustainable. That's what Perry meant when he repeated the misleading claim that Social Security was created at a time when the "average longevity of an individual was 65 years old." (Was he taking his cues from Fiscal Commission co-chair Alan Simpson, who refused to back down from the same claim back in May?)
In truth, the average longevity of an individual at birth was under 65 when Social Security was created, but only because of high infant and child mortality rates. If you lived to age 65, at the time, you could expect to live a long life. The average man, who made it to age 65 in 1940, was expected to live to age 77. The average woman, who made it to age 65 in 1940, was expected to live to age 78.
The good news is that Social Security remains a weak point for Republicans, should Democrats choose to take advantage of it. Voters in key swing states -- Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike -- support Social Security and oppose benefit cuts by wide margins. As long as Democrats speak truth to the Republican lies -- that Social Security is neither an "entitlement," nor outdated -- they will turn Social Security into a successful election issue.
If President Obama's declaration that Social Security is "not an entitlement" at a recent Minnesota town hall is any preview of what is to come in the 2012 election season, the Democrats may just be catching on.
Views expressed are his own.