Today, August 14, is Social Security's 77th birthday. That presents us with a difficult challenge: What do you give a government program that has everything... except a secure future of its own?
Let's take a look at the options for this year's celebration.
The Gift Pile
Talk about an embarrassment of riches! Look what Social Security can already list among its gifts. It's got:
Hundreds of millions of people who love it. Polls consistently show that Social Security, along with Medicare, is one of our most popular government programs.
The best balance sheet in the entire government. Despite all the scare talk (which we'll get to shortly), no program in U.S. history is on a firmer financial footing than Social Security. It's a stand-alone program which isn't allowed to contribute to the overall government deficit, and is absolutely solvent until the early 2030s.
No other program can say that.
A great profile. There's no way to say this delicately, so we'll come right out with it: Social Security has the slimmest, sleekest look in Washington. We don't like to encourage our society's fixation on thinness as the ideal of beauty, but let's face it -- Social Security is so cost-effective in delivering its benefits that it's got the most streamlined chassis around.
The Social Security Administration beats every private benefits program in the country when it comes to low overhead and efficient administrative design. One of the main reasons for that is the fact that everybody who pays into the system receives its benefits at qualification time.
There's no "means testing," no gamesmanship, no trick, just trim, no-overhead service delivery.
Great polls. Time and time again, overwhelming majorities of Americans have made it clear that they don't want this program to be cut. That means a lot: Of all the gifts in the world, the best any of us can hope for is friends who will defend you to the end.
Lumps of Coal
Unfortunately, Social Security also has some "gifts" it doesn't want -- and which the American people don't want either. It's got:
Political enemies. The Republican Party is determined to dismantle it and give its enormous financial resources to Wall Street as gambling money. They failed in 2005, but they're bound to try again.
Billionaire-funded attack campaigns. These propaganda campaigns are designed to convince the public that this fiscally stable program is in dire economic danger, and to distract people from the simple and easy solutions to its long-term instability.
Why? Because those solutions involve things like asking the wealthy to pay their fair share, and imposing a tax on the Wall Street gambling that's contributed to the program's long-term shortfall.
A lazy, misleading news media. Rather than do the research themselves, too many journalists are content to repeat the misleading propaganda put out by those billionaire-funded campaigns.
Here's the latest case of sloppy misreporting, debunked by economist Dean Baker. (These phony scare stories crop up so often that it's starting to feel like a George Romero movie, where a tiny band is all that's left to fight them. But if they keep coming the whole cast's going to get picked off one by one -- and everyone will get eaten.)
An artificial Washington "center" - one that's really way to the right of the American people. In fact, their so-called "center," occupied by leaders of both parties, is far to the right of the Tea Party. Self-described Tea Party supporters opposed Social Security cuts by a two-to-one margin in a 2011 poll. (Other polls have shown their opposition to be more than three to one.)
Why has this radical-right consensus formed in elite Washington circles? We don't know for sure, but all that "billionaire funded" activity couldn't have hurt. Which gets us to another lump of coal Social Security might be getting in its Christmas stocking this year:
Political "defenders" who'd rather switch than fight. Social Security is one of the Democratic Party's signature accomplishments. After the Republicans' 2005 attempt to privatize it, voters trusted Democrats by a margin of 30 percent (50 percent to the GOP's 20 percent) to manage it well.
But the White House has made a number of misguided attempts to score political points inside the Beltway by forcing an unnecessary "deficit reduction" deal along the lines of the one proposed in the "Simpson Bowles" plan proposed by the co-chairs of a failed Presidential Deficit Commission. By 2011, when the last conclusive polling was done, that lead had disappeared and the Republicans were more trusted than Democrats to protect the program.
What's more, Barack Obama was less trusted than George W. Bush when it came to "trust in the President's ability to handle Social Security vs. the opposition party in Congress."
Earlier this year Sen. Dick Durbin had a joint Meet the Press appearance with Rep. Paul Ryan, who's now the GOP's new VP pick, and said "I can tell you that Paul and I agree on the basic premise. We are facing serious deficit and debt challenge in this country."
Now they're still working on a December surprise to cut the program. Even Nancy Pelosi's gotten into the act, saying that "If (another bill) were Simpson/Bowles I would have voted for it ... (and) thought it was not even a controversial thing ..."
How's that for trading away one of your party's strongest political arguments? The Democrats' seeming urge to trade away this vital program casts a dark shadow of our birthday celebrant's future.
A "December surprise" that cuts Social Security at Christmastime? That would give the Grinch and Ebenezer Scrooge a run for their money.
I'll just put this on the table with the others ...
That's not to say the program hasn't received some beautiful gifts, too. Sen. Bernie Sanders has given it the gift of a stalwart defense, along with a practical proposal which ensures its long-term ablity to pay 100 percent of its projected bonuses. So has the Congressional Progressive caucus, whose budget proposal provides for responsible long-term deficit reduction without cutting Social Security's benefits.
Right now we're living in a political Bizarro World where the only people speaking for most Tea Party members, not to mention the vast majority of all Americans, are a socialist Senator from Vermont and a Congressional group that's usually called "extreme" and "leftist" by insider politicians and media types.
That means the Socialist and the "lefties" are the real "bipartisans" and the genuine "centrists," while Washington's self-described "bipartisanship" and "centrism" is really much more conservative than the political mainstream. Left is right, right is wrong, Ryan's with Romney ... I tell ya, it's exhausting to drive through a landscape as crazy as this one.
Here. You take the wheel for a while. We're going to take a nap.
The Gift That Keeps On Giving
OK, we're back.
And we've finally figured out what gift we're going to give the Social Security program. We're going to give it the gift of ongoing citizen activism to demand that it be protected from predators who would gut it in the name of Washington dealmaking or tax breaks for the wealthy.
We're going to make calls, send emails, and do whatever else it takes to let elected officials at all levels know how we feel. And we'll keep checking sites like Strengthen Social Security and Our Future to see what can be done to defend them.
That's our gift to you, Social Security. May you have a very Happy Birthday. And many more to come ...
... we hope.
But we're going to do more than hope this time around. We're going to give you the gift of action, too -- because in helping you, we're really helping ourselves.
Conflict alert: I'm affiliated with websites and organizations mentioned in this article. They're fine institutions anyway.