Social Security: The Empire Strikes Back

04/10/2015 12:36 am ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015

The long knives have been coming out over Social Security lately. The latest wave of attacks was triggered by an amendment from Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Joe Manchin which would have expanded Social Security benefits, and which won the support of most Democrats in the Senate. That signaled a potential shift in the political tide -- toward Social Security in particular and economic populism in general. It also meant that it was time to suit up conservatism's frayed old straw men and send them into dubious battle once again.

The attackers this time around include a "libertarian" finance writer, an editor for the National Review, and -- inevitably -- the editorial board of the Washington Post. But the battle against economic populism isn't just being waged by the right. There are factions within the Democratic Party that want to re-empower its "centrist" wing, and they've been pushing back on the party's new populism -- which the movement to expand Social Security both reflects and reinforces -- this week as well.

(These issues will be discussed next week at the Populism 2015 conference, cosponsored by the Campaign for America's Future.)

War on Warren ... and the elderly

The first volley came from Megan McArdle, a conservative economics writer who once blogged as "Jane Galt" (as in "John Galt," the hero of Ayn Rand's government-hating, poor-despising, fraud-celebrating, and occasionally sadomasochistic novel "Atlas Shrugged.") There were several reasons why McArdle was likely to attack the Warren Amendment. One is her longstanding hostility to Warren herself. That hostility is evidenced in blog posts like this one, in which McArdle characterizes Warren's academic work as "actively, aggressively wrong" and "terrible advocacy masquerading of (sic) social science." Journalists who cover Warren's work, McArdle wrote, were "wearing duncecaps."

Unfortunately, McArdle's weak grasp of the facts and carelessness with methodology seriously undercut her Warren critiques. (Mike Konczal points out some of McArdle's early mistakes here, while I addressed some of her other errors here.)

In addition, McArdle has long demonstrated a truly Randian antipathy toward retired people. Case in point: When columnist Allison Schrager wrote that "I don't know if it's ever going to be realistic that everyone saves enough to spend the last third of their life on vacation" about retirees, McArdle gushed that Schrager's comment was "my favorite line in my newest column ..."

The "vacation" comment, addressed toward the aged and infirm from young and healthy commentators, was insensitive to the point of brutality. So, perhaps predictably, McArdle doubled down on it. McArdle writes: "It was nice that a combination of rising life expectancy and broader pension coverage allowed a large segment of American workers to take what amounted to a multi-decade vacation" -- (see what she did there?) -- "... but this was never going to be sustainable."

That statement isn't just fiscally incorrect. It also smears retired Americans with work-battered bodies -- a cohort which includes 75-year old retired warehouse workers, 80-year-old former coal miners, and 90-year-old ex-waitresses -- as lazy and undeserving "vacationers."

Ayn Rand would be proud.

The right gets it wrong about the left getting it wrong about ... well, you know.

This combination of traits -- a hostility toward older Americans and working people, conjoined with an inability or unwillingness to grasp the basic financial mechanisms of social insurance -- is characteristic of Social Security's diehard opponents. So it must have galled them to see Social Security expansion become the expressed goal of most Senate Democrats with the Warren Amendment vote.

McArdle beat the rest of her cohort out of the gate, responding with a piece in Bloomberg View entitled "The Left Gets It Wrong About Social Security." While McArdle doesn't mention Warren by name, her amendment is the cause of her ire, and her editors illustrate the piece with a color photograph of the Massachusetts senator gesticulating from a podium.

McArdle's piece is a rehash of repeatedly-discredited tropes and talking points, beginning with its first (slightly Yoda-ish) sentence: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that Americans are underprepared for retirement." (See "Update," below.)

There's an implicit rebuke in that word, "unprepared" -- as if saving for retirement, like washing the dog, is a chore Americans are just too lazy or too forgetful to perform. If you get fleas -- well, it's your own fault then, isn't it?

In reality, most Americans are incapable of saving for retirement. Their wages have been decimated by the diversion of wealth toward the powerful few, their pensions have been gutted by corporate cutbacks, and surveys show that they're struggling from month to month just to make ends meet.

And that zinger's just the opener. Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times deserves bonus pay for wading through the rest of McArdle's methodological muck for his rebuttal -- including the implication that Social Security benefits are "generous" (they lag behind those of other developed countries); the conflation of Social Security with "the welfare state"; and the attempts to discredit the government's legal obligation to repay the trust funds.

Hiltzik writes that "it's rare to find so much sophistry, misunderstanding and misinformation about Social Security packed into one article," and he's right. McArdle's work should be placed in a time capsule for eventual study by archaeologists of the future, who will no doubt marvel at our capacity for political and economic self-delusion.

A thin veneer.

But McArdle is not alone. National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru wrote on the same subject this week, also in Bloomberg View. (Does ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg share the elites' desire to cut Social Security, along with their misconceptions about its fiscal status? Why, yes he does.)

Ponnuru's piece is called -- well, funny thing about that. It looks like it once had a much harsher headline. It's currently entitled "Elizabeth Warren is Wrong About Social Security." But it can also be found on the internet as "Democrats Offer Delusional Social Security Plan." And the url for the piece reads "elizabeth-warren-is-delusional-about-social-security." (Here's a screen grab, in case it's changed later.)


The apparent morphing of its title seems intended to provide a veneer of objectivity to Ponnuru's slanted piece. Ponnuru, who once wrote a book characterizing Democrats as the "Party of Death," undoubtedly needs to trim his rhetorical sails once in a while. But it doesn't take long until the cracks in the veneer become visible.

"Neither political party has a plan to pay for the promises we've already made to people contributing to the system," Ponnuru begins. But that's not true. Both Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, who put forth a similar proposal, have proposed payment mechanisms.

From that misleading opener we're taken on a wild ride that includes misperceptions about the financing of social insurance, the mischaracterization of Social Security as an anti-poverty program, and the citation of a methodologically flawed study from the American Enterprise Institute which incorrectly ascribes all sorts of economic evils -- including "reducing work, saving, and even birth rates" -- to Social Security.

Ponnuru writes about "reduc(ing) reduce Social Security's unfunded liability -- assuming, of course, that anyone still cares about that." The left does, with a set of proposed funding mechanisms that includes a financial transaction tax, a small increase in the overall payroll tax (which for most voters would only amount to a dollar or so per week), and higher taxes on the wealthy. Since these ideas are taboo on the right -- though popular with everyone else -- Ponnuru may have concluded that it's better to pretend that this part of the populist agenda simply doesn't exist.

But then, the anti-Social Security crowd has been playing by the same rules for decades: Ignore the needs and wishes of the majority, mislead the public about the fiscal facts and your opponents' arguments, and stigmatize the elderly (a cohort which most of us will eventually join) as a morally flawed "special interest."

Post traumatic.

Which gets us to the Washington Post. That newspaper's editorial column has long been a mainstay of the political "center" -- if the "center" is defined as the consensus view of corporate-funded Republicans and corporate-funded Democrats. That "center" -- as opposed to the one occupied by the midrange of voter opinion -- has wanted to cut Social Security for some time. Expansion is anathema.

The Post's editorial board has always hewn dutifully to the anti-Social Security script: stigmatize older people, marginalize those who would support them, and repeat the economic misconceptions promulgated by the funders of the "anti-entitlement" movement.

True to form, a new Post editorial is headlined "How progressives are pandering to the elderly." That's a phrase worth unpacking. In certain circles the "elderly" are considered some sort of narrow special interest group, rather than -- well, most of us, sooner or later. And reflecting the majority's will on an issue -- which is presumably part of a politician's job in a democracy -- becomes "pandering" when it defies the wishes of elites and insiders.

How does the Post argue its case? If you've been following the script, you already know: By wrongly characterizing Social Security as an anti-poverty program. By describing a benefit increase for cash-strapped seniors as even "more lavish" than their current income. (It's currently $1,328 per month; pretty lavish, eh?) And by gently libeling the trust funds as "a bit of a fiction."

Just in case their ultimate target isn't clear to readers, the editors illustrate their editorial with the image of a beaming Elizabeth Warren.

What about the Democrats?

Social Security expansion, and economic populism, aren't just bones of contention for the right. They're also key elements in the battle for the Democratic Party's future. The leading (if as yet undeclared) candidate for the presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, has yet to say whether she still supports the idea of a bipartisan commission to recommend Social Security cuts. Some on the left are encouraging her to join Warren, Manchin, Sanders and others in supporting Social Security expansion and other populist ideas.

The party's "centrist" wing isn't taking that lying down. Politico summarizes the counter-arguments to a populist presidential campaign theme in an article about the Chicago mayoral election entitled "Rahm shows Hillary how to tame the left." Edward-Isaac Dovere quotes Clinton and Obama insiders like Ben LaBolt, who says that "a roadshow of national progressive groups ... tried to use (Chicago's mayoral race) to send a message about the issues and messages they cared about, but in some ways, they misjudged the race ..."

Concludes Dovere: "To many Democrats, there are two possible lessons: First, that the professional left talks a much better game than it delivers ... and second, that focusing voters on the progressive elements of a candidate's record, as Emanuel did during his runoff, can blunt a challenge from an ineffective opponent."

In other words: Who needs proposals like Social Security expansion -- ideas which are popular (and populist) as well as pragmatic -- when it's easier to just talk up a couple progressive (or progressive-seeming) items already in your resume? Besides, the left can't deliver anyway.

Unfortunately, that's a serious misreading of the Chicago election. (My very different take is here.) And it misses the point to say, as Paul Begala does, that "Democrats are in array" (meaning united) for 2016. That may be true, but the real concern should be elsewhere: with unmotivated independents, persuadable Republicans (they exist), and disaffected elements within the party's base. All three groups feel very strongly about Social Security, according to the polls, and there is evidence that it's a vote-shifting "valence issue" for a large chunk of the electorate.

The world is not what it was 20 or 30 years ago. As the economy changes, bringing more inequality and uncertainty, the political world is changing too. Candidates would be well advised to pay more attention to voter opinion, economic realities, and the shifting political tide -- and less attention to the empty racket emanating from the reflexively anti-Social Security and anti-populist peanut gallery.

UPDATE: It has been pointed out that McArdle's opening sentence is a takeoff on the first line of "Pride and Prejudice," not Yoda's inverse grammar. I knew it sounded familiar! But why -- unless McArdle was really thinking of this work of literature instead?

That must be it. The first sentence of that book, which can be found at the link, does seem more apropos.