The Real Reason Social Security Is the Third Rail of American Politics

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The Real Reason Social Security Is the Third Rail of American Politics

Chris Christie still harbors hopes of becoming the Republican nominee for president, and in search of a way to convince conservatives that he's one of them—and reinforce the idea that he's a bold truth-teller who doesn't care whose feathers he ruffles, and you might not agree with him but you'll always know he's telling it like it is—Christie has announced a plan to cut Social Security benefits. He would do it in two ways. First, he would means-test benefits, reducing them for those who have over $80,000 in income and phasing them out entirely past $200,000 in income. Second, he would raise the retirement age to 69 (it's currently 66 and will soon rise to 67).

As Matt Yglesias explains, the cut in upper-income benefits is getting most of the attention, which works to Christie's benefit because it sounds like his plan hurts rich people. But in fact, the number of people affected would be fairly small, while increasing the retirement age would be devastating to people of modest incomes. That's particularly true of people who do manual labor, which in your late 60s becomes increasingly difficult. So Christie is proposing a plan that is actually an attack on retired poor and middle-class people, but it's being described as an attack on the rich.

I should point out that even means-testing benefits can be a clever way to undermine the program as a whole. It eliminates the understanding that it's a program for everyone and instead changes it to a program just for people of modest incomes, which then opens it up to further cuts and changes in the future. This is why most liberals oppose means-testing, even though it sounds like something they would support.

In any case, I want to return to this idea that Chris Christie is willing to tell the hard truths. Every story about Social Security mentions that it is the "third rail of American politics," meaning you can't touch it without being zapped. Anyone who would do so naturally deserves praise for their courage and for doing what's right despite the risk. But why is touching Social Security dangerous?

It isn't because of some magical incantation that FDR spoke over the bill as he signed it. It's because, with the possible exception of Medicare, Social Security is the most successful and therefore beloved social program in American history. Before Social Security, aging was almost a guarantee of falling into poverty. If you're below a certain age, you've probably never heard the cliché of old ladies eating cat food to survive, but at one time in America that was an actual thing.

But don't we need to do something before Social Security goes broke? No. Social Security is not going broke, and if we want to fix the funding problems that we will confront a few decades from now there are relatively easy ways to do it; I discussed that years ago in this piece, and not much has changed since.

But back to Christie: Is it courageous to propose a policy change that would be tremendously cruel to millions of Americans? I guess it is in a way. But that doesn't make it praiseworthy.

The Real Reason Social Security Is the Third Rail of American Politics

Chris Christie still harbors hopes of becoming the Republican nominee for president, and in search of a way to convince conservatives that he's one of them—and reinforce the idea that he's a bold truth-teller who doesn't care whose feathers he ruffles, and you might not agree with him but you'll always know he's telling it like it is—Christie has announced a plan to cut Social Security benefits. He would do it in two ways. First, he would means-test benefits, reducing them for those who have over $80,000 in income and phasing them out entirely past $200,000 in income. Second, he would raise the retirement age to 69 (it's currently 66 and will soon rise to 67).

As Matt Yglesias explains, the cut in upper-income benefits is getting most of the attention, which works to Christie's benefit because it sounds like his plan hurts rich people. But in fact, the number of people affected would be fairly small, while increasing the retirement age would be devastating to people of modest incomes. That's particularly true of people who do manual labor, which in your late 60s becomes increasingly difficult. So Christie is proposing a plan that is actually an attack on retired poor and middle-class people, but it's being described as an attack on the rich.

I should point out that even means-testing benefits can be a clever way to undermine the program as a whole. It eliminates the understanding that it's a program for everyone and instead changes it to a program just for people of modest incomes, which then opens it up to further cuts and changes in the future. This is why most liberals oppose means-testing, even though it sounds like something they would support.

In any case, I want to return to this idea that Chris Christie is willing to tell the hard truths. Every story about Social Security mentions that it is the "third rail of American politics," meaning you can't touch it without being zapped. Anyone who would do so naturally deserves praise for their courage and for doing what's right despite the risk. But why is touching Social Security dangerous?

It isn't because of some magical incantation that FDR spoke over the bill as he signed it. It's because, with the possible exception of Medicare, Social Security is the most successful and therefore beloved social program in American history. Before Social Security, aging was almost a guarantee of falling into poverty. If you're below a certain age, you've probably never heard the cliché of old ladies eating cat food to survive, but at one time in America that was an actual thing.

But don't we need to do something before Social Security goes broke? No. Social Security is not going broke, and if we want to fix the funding problems that we will confront a few decades from now there are relatively easy ways to do it; I discussed that years ago in this piece, and not much has changed since.

But back to Christie: Is it courageous to propose a policy change that would be tremendously cruel to millions of Americans? I guess it is in a way. But that doesn't make it praiseworthy.