Leaning into Failure: Race, Public Welfare, and Modern Conservatism

The Republican Party is lurching ever farther to the right, hunkering down into a narrower and narrower (white) constituency with an increasingly paranoid, fortress mentality. If we want to understand its appeal, and the dynamic that enables it to attack popular institutions like Social Security and Medicare without being substantially punished for it, we first need to face the root element of that appeal: racism.

Donald Trump has released his third budget, and once again, he broke his campaign promise not to touch Social Security. Once again, the largest vehicle for these cuts is what conservatives have come to regard as the soft underbelly of the system, Disability Insurance. Trump’s budget includes some $25 billion in “savings” from different aspects of Social Security, the largest of which is $10 billion from DI. And yet again, Trump and his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, say they’ll achieve the savings by mounting a strenuous campaign against “disability fraud.”

This is where it gets weird: funds lost through fraud are minuscule compared with the total size of the DI program, and it’s already extremely difficult and time-consuming for anyone to jump through all the hoops necessary to prove they qualify for benefits. Quite a few people die every year before their applications are approved (or not). Realistically, no huge savings will result from Trump’s anti-fraud crusade—but a lot of needy people will be inconvenienced or unjustly denied benefits.

Failure is not a problem when it comes to the budget priorities of the American right, however, because its ideological appeal to its audience is so intensely powerful. At no time, arguably, has this been more easily observable than today, when the president and his party make no pretense of speaking to anyone other than their most hardcore supporters. But what are the roots of this right-populist strategy, and how do they connect with long-time policies like dismantling Social Security and Medicare, which only draw really passionate support from the right and center-right wings of the policy-making establishment?

For some important clues to the answer, a good starting point is Unworkable Conservatism: Small Government, Free Markets, and Impracticality, by political scientist Max J. Skidmore, which appeared shortly after Trump took office and offers many valuable insights leading into the 2020 campaigns. Continue reading Leaning into Failure: Race, Public Welfare, and Modern Conservatism

Prospects for Millennials: What’s Wrong and What Can Be Done

Last month’s National Academy of Social Insurance conference highlighted the grim world Millennials are inheriting. It also gave a platform to some creative solutions that include expanding and creating new social insurance programs. Example: Universal Family Care.

As someone who researches and writes about history, I’m naturally skeptical of the concept of generations. For the most part, “generations” are arbitrary categories that lump together groups of people whose experiences of life are starkly different, muddling our ability to decide the best policies—and politics—for society as a whole.

For “Millennials,” however, I’m inclined to make an exception. The National Academy of Social Insurance made “Regenerating Social Insurance for Millennials and the Millennium” the theme of its annual policy conference at the end of January, and the event made a strong case that this is one generation with distinct needs and a distinct profile.

On the surface, Millennials are still a vastly disparate group. They are the most diverse cohort, ethnically, in American history, Jean Accius, vice president at AARP Public Policy Institute, pointed out in the conference’s opening panel—and this at a time when income and life prospects between racial groups in the U.S. are diverging. But the Academy framed its definition of Millennials—individuals born between 1980 and 2000—in a different and very useful way. What marks them, and colors their lives profoundly, Continue reading Prospects for Millennials: What’s Wrong and What Can Be Done

Hank Aaron’s Chinese menu: Fixing Social Security at the NASI

The National Academy of Social Insurance hosted a decidedly unusual trio of luncheon speakers at its annual conference last week. Henry J. Aaron of the Brookings Institution, keynote, was there to unveil a new plan he’s devised to solidify Social Security’s funding for the next 75 years, if not beyond. Nancy J. Altman, president of Social Security Works, and Jason Fichtner, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, were on hand to respond to and discuss Aaron’s proposal.

Aaron has perhaps the deepest knowledge of the Social Security system – and social insurance in general – of anyone alive today. Altman is also a leading expert and a longtime, passionate defender of the program against right-wing attempts to dismantle it. Fichtner served in the Social Security Administration under George W. Bush and is a critic of the program who has argued that it crowds out private savings and offers negative incentives to work and who advocates stabilizing its finances by cutting benefits while cutting payroll taxes.

Aaron and Altman have never been friendly to such ideas. Normally, that would place them on one side of the Social Security discussion and Fichtner on the other. That wasn’t so last week.

Continue reading Hank Aaron’s Chinese menu: Fixing Social Security at the NASI

Obama “expands” the Social Security Conversation

President Obama’s statement last week that he supports expanding Social Security was indeed a watershed in the discussion of the program’s future. What happens next is not clear, however, not least because “expand” can mean so many things to people of different political persuasions.

We should be strengthening Social Security,” the president declared during an economic speech in Elkhart Indiana. “Not only do we need to strengthen it, it is time we finally made Social Security more generous and increase the benefits so that today’s retirees and future generations get the dignified retirement that they have earned.” Expansion, he said, should be financed by “asking the wealthiest Americans to contribute a little bit more.”

The location was important: Elkhart was the first city Obama visited after assuming the presidency, in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Depression. Last week’s speech itself was meant to highlight the progress the economy has made since then. In staking out his new position on Social Security, “Obama is getting on board a movement that’s been brewing within the Democratic party for a while now,” write Nancy Altman and Eric Kingson, co-directors of the advocacy group Social Security Works, noting that a host of prominent figures including this year’s presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley and even Hillary Clinton (somewhat guardedly) have endorsed the idea and that Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, among others, have proposed action in Congress to expand benefits and pay for them by extending payroll tax to cover higher incomes. Continue reading Obama “expands” the Social Security Conversation

The realism of Berniecare

Ever since Bernie Sanders released details of his single-payer health care proposal recently, critics right and center have been on the attack against his “revolutionary, unaffordable and unachievable” scheme. In fact, for those who truly want to achieve universal, affordable health care, Sanders’ path is the only realistic way forward.

“Be reasonable: demand the impossible.” So said revolutionary Ché Guevara. [NOTE: I’ve since been corrected; the origin of this slogan was not Ché, but a graffiti encountered during the 1968 Paris uprising. Check it out here.] It’s a lesson much of the Democratic Party establishment needs to relearn this election year.

For instance, Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institution. One of the country’s top experts on social insurance and health care financing and a smart political observer to boot, Aaron ran a piece in Newsweek recently that took apart presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’s health care reform plan as being “radical in a way that no legislation has ever been in the United States,” vague on details, and technically unfeasible. It’s “a health reform idea that was, is, and will remain a dream,” Aaron writes. “Single-payer health reform is a dream because, as the old joke goes, ‘you can’t get there from here.’”

Continue reading The realism of Berniecare

Of Carrots, Sticks, and Disability

In the world of Washington, incentives—carrots and sticks—seem to be the answer for everything, including how to get people on disability back to work. But a new study suggests the problem is the same one the Americans With Disabilities Act identified 25 years ago: discrimination.

I took a certain amount of impolite criticism for my last post, in which I decried the “veritable national jihad” against disability fraudsters. The amount of abuse in Social Security’s Disability Insurance (DI) system isn’t anything like the monster it’s made out to be, and it’s unfortunate, to say the least, that the just-passed Bipartisan Budget Act throws more resources at ferreting out fraud and creating stiffer penalties for false benefit claims. For calling the vast overreaction to disability fraud a jihad, I was accused of insulting conservatives and indulging in hyperbole.

I’m not sorry to have used strong language to describe a years-long campaign against DI that’s out of all proportion to the size of the problem (would that as much effort was going into exposing and cracking down on the Pentagon’s cozy relationships with its contractors) by people who seem to have no idea of the challenges facing working people with disabilities. (The Washington Post was at it again today.)

But if the goal is to get people back to work who have something to contribute and would be better off for it, the real issue is where “incentives” ought to be applied: to disability recipients? or to their potential employers? Continue reading Of Carrots, Sticks, and Disability

The Soft Underbelly

Having failed in numerous frontal assaults on Social Security, the Republican congressional leadership several years ago adopted a new strategy for dismantling the program: attack and demonize Disability Insurance, which they consider to be its soft underbelly. With this week’s passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, they drew blood.

We’ve been hearing it for years now: Disability Insurance is overgenerous, fraud-ridden, a well-intentioned program that’s mutated into a form of middle-class welfare. Criteria for awarding benefits need to be tightened, or the $150 billion DI trust fund will go bankrupt. The traditional solution for imbalances in Social Security’s trust funds—shifting money between the DI and the Old Age and Survivors’ (OASI) fund—shouldn’t be used unless “substantive reforms” are implemented.

How wonderful, then, that according to the Wall Street Journal, “Social Security will get its first upgrade since the 1980s to fix Disability Insurance,” thanks to a kumbaya moment between the White House and congressional Republican and Democratic leaders. The two-year Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, Continue reading The Soft Underbelly

Hardship Case

Means-testing Social Security is a popular position among Republican presidential candidates this election cycle—if not among prospective voters. That means, essentially, turning the nation’s retirement system into a welfare program, targeted at those with real hardships. But how do you figure out who’s a “real” hardship case and who’s not? In fact, it’s well-nigh impossible.

When Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, the chairs of President Obama’s 2010 deficit commission, gave up on finding common ground with their colleagues and released their own set of deficit reduction proposal, they called for two big changes in Social Security: gradually raising the eligibility age for full benefits from 67 to 69 and upping the early-retirement age for reduced benefits from 62 to 64. They also directed the Social Security Administration to design a “hardship exemption for those who cannot work past 62 but who do not qualify for disability benefits.”

It all seemed eminently reasonable—so much so that most of our current class of Republican presidential candidates are calling for Continue reading Hardship Case

Social Security’s future is being written in the streets of Ferguson

Bernie Sanders’s confrontation with members of Black Lives Matter should teach a lesson to everyone engaged in the struggle to defend Social Security: Unless the campaign for economic equality recognizes the need to prioritize racial equality as well—that racial and economic issues are not separate—preserving and expanding Social Security will become increasingly difficult.

In politics, context is everything. The most passionate advocacy, even for an utterly righteous cause, can sound presumptuous when the advocate ignores another issue more important to the same audience. Witness Sen. John McCain’s recent humiliating treatment by the Navajo, who chased him off their reservation on August 16, when he came to discuss a feel-good memorial to the World War II Code Talkers—but refused to address complaints that he had failed to protect tribal water rights or to oppose a copper mine that’s about to be built on Oak Flat campgrounds, an area of spiritual significance to the Apache.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, Sen. Bernie Sanders recently received a similar lesson. On July 18, Black Lives Matter protesters disrupted a Netroots Nation forum in Phoenix Continue reading Social Security’s future is being written in the streets of Ferguson

The liberal critics of Big Government

What does it mean to be a “progressive” or “liberal” in America today? More than anything else, perhaps, it implies a determination to defend the signature achievements of the New Deal/Great Society eras: Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance, and a collection of related programs. And that’s just the problem, say their critics on the right: for progressives, government is the answer for everything. But are conservatives the only ones concerned about the growth of the administrative state—of bureaucracy? Should progressives be worried as well?

We’re used to conservatives, from Ron Paul to Rush Limbaugh, complaining about Big Government. Believe it or not, however, there was a time when liberals—social scientists, lawyers, some members of the Roosevelt administration, even the philosopher John Rawls—worried about the consequences of a liberal state built on regulation and government services and the people’s loyalty to the institutions responsible for them. Anne Kornhauser’s new book, Debating the American State: Liberal Anxieties and the New Leviathan, 1930-1970 (University of Pennsylvania Press), reintroduces the liberal critics of Big Government, arguing that their concerns are still relevant today, particularly since Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency refocused concern on the surveillance bureaucracy.

Discussing the implications of her book for today, Kornhauser, a historian at City College of New York, ticks off a number of other areas where the New Deal institutions and their progeny are not fulfilling their expected role, including health care and regulation of the financial services sector along with national security. Continue reading The liberal critics of Big Government

Separating fact from superstition about Social Security, social insurance, and mutual aid.