11/04/2010 06:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Collegial Question for Peter Orszag (and Alan Simpson, and Alice Rivlin, and... )

"The left," writes former White House Budget Director Peter Orszag, "is stridently opposed to any serious discussion of Social Security reform." What's more, says Orszag, the same nebulous "left" is "adamantly opposed to restoring actuarial balance to Social Security now."

Here's a suggestion, inspired perhaps by this weekend's rally: Can't we stop characterizing one another and discuss the issues in a thoughtful and collegial manner? I'll accept a portion of the blame for being excessively "strident" in the past. So let's start again, collegially and respectfully, by concentrating on the issues and not the personalities.

Here's a good place to begin: There's a proposal on the table that addresses all of Mr. Orszag's concerns about Social Security in a simple, fair manner, by removing the earnings cap on payroll taxes (which is currently about $106,000).

This simple act would make Social Security rock-solid for at least the next 75 years, and probably longer. What's more, polls show that Americans of all political persuasion would prefer it to cutting retirement benefits. Nevertheless, Mr. Orszag didn't mention it in his Times piece. Neither have any of the other people who have advocated cuts to Social Security in the past. So I'd like to pose this question to him -- and to Alice Rivlin, Alan Simpson, Erskine Bowles, John Boehner, and everyone else who has proposed cutting Social Security benefits:

Why are you against this simple, clean, and popular idea?

It's a sincere question. I'd really like to know. For years we've been reading proposals like Mr. Orszag's 2005 plan, which would cut benefits and require some minor tax increases, or Rivlin's, which is likely to be even more Draconian. But none of the people advocating benefit cuts have ever responded to it or refuted it directly and thoroughly, at least to my knowledge. Mr. Orszag didn't even acknowledge its existence this week, even though it disproves his suggestion that benefit defenders are "unserious" or unwilling to "restore actuarial balance" -- a goal that this proposal readily achieves.

Isn't it time that the burden of proof was shifted away from those who want to preserve Social Security benefits, and toward those who would cut them? After all, reducing benefits is a severe step that would hurt a lot of the people who are most in need. Before anyone proposes anything that drastic, the mature and responsible thing to do is to first explain why they're against the proposal that's already on the table.

It's a well-established management principle: Don't do something radical until you've proven conclusively that more judicious solutions won't work.

The other problem with Orszag's statement that "the left is adamantly opposed to restoring actuarial balance" is that criticism of plans to cut Social Security is not restricted to the left. Polls like this one, commissioned by the Campaign for America's Future and the Democracy Corps (1), show that voters of all political preferences would rather see taxes increased than see cuts to Social Security. This isn't just true of Democrats and Independents. Only 11 percent of Republicans polled would "strongly favor" cutting benefits to reduce the deficit, while 52 percent of Republicans strongly oppose cutting them. (2)

And leftists aren't the only ones who think lifting the payroll tax cap is the way to go. Harry J. Ballantyne thinks so too. Ballantyne co-authored a paper on the topic, in fact, that reached this conclusion: "(Social Security's) long term modest shortfall of less than 1% of GDP can be addressed by raising employer and employee payroll tax rates, by raising the cap on taxable earnings, or by some combination of the two." The report continues: "Raising the cap is an appealing option because in recent decades the lion's share of increases in both earnings and life expectancy has gone to those at the top of the income distribution."

Mr. Ballantyne should have some credibility on the topic of actuarial balance. He's an actuary. As a matter of fact, he was the Chief Actuary for Social Security for many years. And far from being a member of the "professional left," he was appointed to that position during the Reagan administration. So we've got a proposal to restore actuarial balance, and it has been endorsed by the most qualified actuary in the country.

So Messrs. Orszag, Simpson, Bowles, et al: What's your objection?

Granted, some people may have legitimate mathematical concerns with the payroll tax solution, despite Harry Ballantyne's credentials. If so, we'd love to hear them. After all, wouldn't it be better if we resolved these concerns by sitting shoulder to shoulder over a spreadsheet (metaphorically speaking, anyway), rather than calling each other names like "strident" or "unserious"?

We predicted that Tuesday's election would immediately be followed by ramped-up efforts to cut Social Security -- and Orszag's piece appeared on Wednesday. To be fair, that piece didn't propose benefit cuts. But Orszag did propose cutting them in 2005, and yesterday he referred to that proposal as "reasonable." What's more, his Times piece contrasts the alleged intransigence of "the left" with complimentary references to the Deficit Commission's co-chairs and Republican leaders who "have previously expressed a willingness to tackle the issue." Both the Commission's co-chairs and new House Speaker John Boehner have said that they want to raise the retirement age and cut retirement benefits in other ways as well.

But none of them has explained why they're opposed (I almost wrote "adamantly opposed," but we're not being strident here) to lifting the payroll tax cap.

Look, I'll even take the rap for the "strident" part personally, if it helps. I've written about Orszag before, and I thought in retrospect I was a little harsh last time. So consider this an apology. But the question still stands. There's a concrete proposal on the table: Are you for it or against it? If not, why not?

Once the would-be benefit cutters answer this question directly, soberly, and honestly, without name calling or evasion, we can all get started on an important and very serious discussion about the future.


(1) With support from; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the Service Employees International Union.

(2) The survey's questions addressed cutting Social Security to reduce the deficit, rather than to restore its own long-term financial integrity. But how would Republicans react if the reasons given were those Mr. Orszag offered on Wednesday? Those included "establishing some credibility on out-year fiscal problems... (that) could open up admittedly limited running room to pass necessary additional stimulus legislation in the long run." That statement's not just implausible -- Republicans aren't going to vote for "stimulus legislation" no matter what else happens -- it's guaranteed to ensure that Republican voters are even more opposed to benefit cuts than they were in this poll.

What's more, it's not necessary to cut benefits in order to "save Social Security." And it's political suicide for any president or member of Congress who supports it, although that's a different topic.

Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.

He can be reached at ""

Website: Eskow and Associates