Ignoring the Public on Social Security

To hear the deficit doomsayers, you would think the U.S.' fiscal collapse were imminent unless Democrats immediately agreed to painful cuts in core anti-poverty programs like Social Security. Last week, No Labels -- a supposedly nonpartisan group that seems to exist to promote Alan Simpson's austerity agenda -- blasted Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid for refusing to join in the deficit hysteria. "Senator Reid's position is out of step with the majority of [the] country when it comes to our financial woes. Most Americans want bipartisan action that goes to the heart of the fiscal crisis," said Lisa Borders, a No Labels' "founding leader." (Apparently, the organization's effort to avoid labels includes job titles.)

What is the supposed evidence that most Americans want cuts in Social Security, one of the most popular and successful domestic programs in the history of the federal government? A Washington Post/ABC poll that shows 81 percent of Americans "see the country's Social Security system as headed for a crisis, and most think a major overhaul is in order." This argument -- that Americans think there's a crisis, so there must be one, and action must be taken -- would be hilariously moronic were it not so lamentably powerful. Pardon me for questioning the wisdom of Americans -- a majority of whom cannot name two members of the Supreme Court or find Iraq on a map -- but the relevant question for policy-makers should not be whether we believe Social Security is headed for a crisis but whether it actually is. Ideologues masquerading as nonpartisan truth tellers have been telling the public for years that Social Security won't be able to meet its obligations, and now that they've convinced Americans, the ideologues have turned around and cited that public belief as evidence that the program must be cut.

But Social Security is not in crisis. According to a 2010 analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, Social Security spending will increase from less than 5 percent of gross domestic product today to about 6 percent in 2030 "and then stabilize at roughly that level." Even that projection could be brightened by better-than-expected economic or population growth. That's precisely why Reid told MSNBC: "Two decades from now, I'm willing to take a look at [Social Security reform], but I'm not willing to take a look at it right now."

If deficit hawks are really worried about those projections, they should look closely at the CBO numbers, which show that health care is a much larger problem than Social Security. "If current laws do not change," the CBO writes, "federal spending on major mandatory health care programs will grow from roughly 5 percent of GDP today to about 10 percent in 2035 and will continue to increase there-after." Ironically, it is the same Republicans fear-mongering about the deficit today who voted to expand those mandatory federal health-care obligations when they passed the Medicare prescription-drug benefit during George W. Bush's tenure. They also voted against the Affordable Care Act, which contained provisions intended to lower the cost of health-care delivery, especially in Medicare. So the supposed fiscal conservatives are 0-for-2 on correcting the potential future imbalances in entitlement programs, and the supposedly profligate Democrats are being lambasted for their unwillingness to agree to throw seniors out on the street.

Part of what makes using polls as a cudgel to beat politicians so pernicious is that even on matters of opinion, not just on matters of fact about which the public is ignorant, they can create a false impression of the public will. Polls with simple questions have a way of collapsing people with very different ideas into categories so broad as to be meaningless or even misleading. Consider all those polls supposedly showing that a plurality of the public disapproved of the Affordable Care Act. Republicans claimed those numbers as evidence that the public shared their opposition to health-care reform, but a significant portion of those registering disapproval were actually liberals who thought the bill did not go far enough. Likewise, the Post poll shows that only 32 percent of respondents think we should reduce Social Security benefits for future retirees. Bolstering Social Security's solvency could just as easily mean lifting the cap on payroll taxes.

Pundits demanding President Barack Obama and Congress "take America back from the AARP" need to take a deep breath. Many decisions in the years to come will affect our overall fiscal solvency. Will we let the Bush tax cuts, at least for the wealthy, finally expire? Will we remove wasteful tax expenditures, especially in the corporate income-tax code? Will we launch more expensive wars of choice? (It tells you a lot about the intellectual integrity of center-right deficit hawks that none could be heard objecting to our rush to war in Libya on the grounds of fiscal restraint.) That's why President Obama is holding back from endorsing Social Security modifications: Let the Republicans meet the Democrats halfway by agreeing to tax increases and cuts in defense spending, and then maybe Obama and Reid will get behind some reasonable adjustments to entitlement spending that they can sell to their party. But to expect Democrats to agree to make their painful concessions without a compromise deal in place is to ask them to trade away Social Security benefits for further tax cuts for the rich. There are already people doing that: They're called Republicans.

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