Robert Kuttner

Robert Kuttner is co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect, and professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility. He writes columns for The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe and the New York Times international edition. 

Recent Articles

Rampant Bull

Are liberals failing to rise in defense of their greatest legacy? As calls for privatizing Social Security grow louder, the time has come for a bold new defense of universal social insurance.

I n 1981, a young aide to Ronald Reagan named Peter Ferrara proposed a scheme to privatize Social Security. At the time, a serious shortfall was projected in the system's long-term financing. Even at his zenith, however, Reagan knew better than to tamper with America's best-loved (if most redistributive and costly) public program. Ferrara, the author of a Cato Institute book titled Social Security: The Inherent Contradiction , proposed to scrap the whole system in favor of private individual retirement accounts (IRAs). This was surely dear to the hearts of Reaganites-but Ferrara was kept far from the administration's Social Security policy, and even farther from the press. Social Security's financial crisis is exaggerated, but its political vulnerability and the allure of wealth creation are real. Herewith, a rebuttal and a proposal. A year later, a bipartisan commission headed by Alan Greenspan, with Democrats Daniel Patrick Moynihan and former Social Security Commissioner Robert...

Comment: Tax and Spend

P resident Bush insisted that we could afford both a tax cut and the shoring up of Social Security. He was dead wrong. So the Democrats could hardly pick a better set of galvanizing issues. But as Robert Borosage points out in "The Austerity Trap" (see page 13), many Democrats are taking surplus-worship to such an extreme that they are in danger of losing their raison d'être as a party. This odd condition reflects a collision of two trends. First, the Republicans are genuinely vulnerable on the tax cut and on Social Security. But second, conservative Democrats are determined to expunge the Democrats' legacy as the party of "tax and spend." The trouble is, the Democrats' signature programs are nothing if not tax and spend. Social Security raises trillions of dollars in payroll taxes and spends the money on secure retirement. Medicare, likewise, is tax and spend. So is public education. As a party, you can't make your centerpiece the defense of Social Security and Medicare, much less...

Comment: Different Strokes

V ice President Gore has unveiled a supplemental retirement plan. The government would match private savings put aside by working families, with a match as generous as three to one for families with incomes under $30,000. Families with incomes as high as $100,000 could qualify for a partial match. The plan works through refundable tax credits, so if your tax liability were lower than the earned tax credit, the government would just provide cash. The supplemental savings account, like Social Security, would be blocked until retirement. The plan would cost about $20 billion a year. The plan nicely sums up Al Gore's strengths and weaknesses as candidate, leader, and policy wonk. On the plus side, Gore's proposal is a supplement to America's basic retirement plan, and not a Bush-style raid on it. It uses government subsidy to build the assets of low- and middle-income working families. Bush, by contrast, would offer...

Beware Bush Words On Benefits

Although his proposed tax cut has captured the headlines, President Bush's budget is also offering America a radically different path for its two best-loved programs, Social Security and Medicare. Until recently, these towering monuments of social insurance were politically untouchable. Even President Reagan, who was at least honest about his conservative goals, did not dare mess with Social Security. Medicare, until lately, has also been sacrosanct. Both parties have vied with each other to pose as its champion. But buried in the fine print of the Bush budget and obscured by its rhetoric are two fundamental changes that would shift costs and risks from the social insurance pool to the individual for both Medicare and Social Security. As in the campaign, Bush has proved to be a master of cloaking radically conservative ideas in disarmingly liberal language. To listen to his budget message, for example, you'd think he was proposing prescription drug coverage for all seniors. But the...

Getting Over The Lock Box

For six decades, Democrats have been proud defenders of America's most popular government program, Social Security. But the debate is now becoming so muddled that when the dust settles, Social Security may well end up partly privatized with George W. Bush getting credit for saving it. How could this have happened? Twenty years ago, it became clear that Social Security needed adjustment because people were living longer. Unlike a private retirement account, Social Security keeps sending the checks as long as you live. In 1983, Congress slightly raised both taxes and the retirement age. It also adjusted the cost-of-living formula. These changes deliberately caused Social Security to take in more money than it paid out, through about 2013. This was done to bank reserves so that the system could keep paying full benefits when the baby-boom generation retires. Then the system will need to tap those reserves. These modifications will keep the system solvent until the 2030s. What then? There...

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