What I Didn’t Hear in the President’s SOTU

Democrats of both progressive and center-right stripe generally gave President Obama high marks for his State of the Union address Tuesday night. When it comes to Social Security, however, he disappointed; merely refraining from supporting cuts to the program isn’t good enough anymore at a time when progressives should be demanding their president back measures to improve it.

“Obama in campaign mode, pushes middle class agenda,” declared Bill Galston, the Brookings Institution’s leading center-right commentator on the economy and fiscal policy. The Wall Street Journal agreed the president’s State of the Union address was a “middle-class pitch.”

Progressives mostly liked the president’s speech as well, except, of course, for his in-your-face demand for fast-track authority to pass another slew of corporate-backed trade deals. “Obama gets some of his swagger back,” Robert Borosage of the Campaign for America’s Future wrote.

There were things in the speech for people to like who were looking for signs that Washington cares about working people Continue reading →

Where’s the Rip-Off? Rand Paul in Perspective

Critics of Social Security’s Disability Insurance program would like you to think it’s riddled with incompetence and fraud. As for the spectacularly dysfunctional accounting and payment systems at the Defense Department … well, we just have to live with them, right?

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul kicked up a fuss last week when he claimed the Disability Insurance rolls are rife with fraudsters claiming phantom ailments.

What I tell people is, if you look like me and you hop out of your truck, you shouldn’t be getting a disability check. Over half of the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts—join the club. Who doesn’t get a little anxious for work everyday and their back hurts? Everybody over 40 has back pain.

This came soon after the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives announced new budget rules designed to force Congress to “repair” Social Security as a whole instead of shifting money into the DI fund to shore it up. Paul’s statement reinforced a line of attack Continue reading →

Mario Cuomo was not a “liberal beacon”

The former New York governor, who was laid to rest yesterday, is being mourned as a “forceful defender of liberalism.” In reality, he was a creator of the Democratic center-right and consistent supporter of anti-entitlement crusades.

For anyone who’s followed American politics closely for the past 40 years or so, the headlines following his death were enough to set your teeth on edge: “Mario Cuomo, Ex-New York Governor and Liberal Beacon” (New York Times); “Three-Time Governor; Liberal Leader” (Wall Street Journal). This image of the late politician is even enshrined in Wikipedia: “Cuomo was known for his liberal views and public speeches.”

None of this has much to do with the truth, or Cuomo’s place in history. Indeed, the notion that he was any kind of liberal stems almost entirely from a single speech he delivered at the Democratic National Convention in 1984. The substance of his career tells a different story. So let’s look at the facts.

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Enlisting AARP

Social Security will be under attack again in 2015. The best way for progressives to defend it is to go on the offensive as well, pressing Congress to pass one of the four bills now on the table to expand the program. Getting AARP on board would be a big help—but the giant older-Americans’ organization seems in no hurry.

AARP is by far the largest organization representing older Americans, and the most influential. Traditionally, it’s been reluctant to enter into coalitions with more overtly political groups advocating for seniors, presumably to sustain its image as a non-partisan organization. It’s a delicate balancing act, and not always successful, because no matter how moderate its policy positions, Republicans will always regard AARP as only slightly less evil than, say, the Socialist Workers Party.

With its 39 million members, AARP would be an invaluable ally in a 2015 push to expand Social Security. But an editorial by AARP’s CEO, Jo Ann Jenkins, suggests this is not a priority. Continue reading →

Social Security’s enemies, in search of the politically “doable”

In Washington, it’s fashionable to bill oneself as a pragmatist, attuned to political realities and more interested in finding politically doable solutions to practical problems than fighting unwinnable wars. But there’s a double standard in what The Village defines as “realistic.”

C. Eugene Steuerle is a bona fide member of the Washington policy elite. A former deputy assistant secretary of the Treasury for tax analysis and a longtime fellow at the Urban Institute, he is considered one of the architects of the 1986 tax reform and, on the center-right, a Social Security guru. With two other think-tank researchers, Benjamin H. Harris at the Brookings Institution and Pamela J. Perun of the Aspen Institute, he recently co-authored a major paper for the Pension Research Council at The Wharton School on Social Security and retirement policy, titled “Entitlement Reform and the Future of Pensions.”

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Brookings, Social Security, and the welfare state

We’ve had the evidence before us for a long time: Social Security is the most effective—and cost-effective—US anti-poverty program, both for adults and children. So why do recent writings by scholars at the Brookings Institution ignore it?

“Evidence-based decision-making” may be the most popular catch phrase in Washington. The Big Data revolution has convinced The Village—OK, and lots of other strongholds of mainstream consensus thinking—that everything can now be measured, and that the metrics can yield smart, “actionable” decisions. “Evidence” appears to center-right Democrats as the talisman that will bridge the partisan divide and coax Republicans to play nicely with them.

I’m not writing this to step all over the need to measure program effectiveness—like every other secular religion of the past 200-some years, it’s probably true to some extent, just not as true as the true believers often think. What puzzles me, however, is why some evidence grabs the spotlight and some doesn’t.

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GOP to block Dem nominee to protest troubles with GOP program

That’s right: Republican senators are upset about delays and cost overruns on a new computer system at the Social Security Administration—so upset, they want to block the president’s nominee for commissioner. The only the trouble is, the new computer system was planned and ordered up by the prior commissioner—a Bush appointee.

The 11 Republican members of the Senate Finance Committee were in high dudgeon last week when they released a letter to Carolyn Colvin, acting commissioner of Social Security and President Obama’s nominee for a six-year slot as commissioner, regarding the troubled implementation of a new computer system for processing disability benefit claims.

We have received information from whistleblowers that the ongoing investigation [of the computer system] has centered around the activities of certain members of your immediate office, including several high-level agency officials. Therefore, it is essential to address your role with respect to this inquiry before each of us can make an informed decision on how to vote for your nomination once it reaches the full Senate for consideration.

A lot of this is simply hyperventilating. It’s not clear that the GOP senators “received information from whistleblowers,” as they claim. What happened for sure was that Continue reading →

“Octomom” and the racial double standard

Social Security’s right-wing critics like to argue that a program guaranteeing a minimal income in old age undermines the family by discouraging working people from having children—and that the resulting decline in the birthrate undermines Social Security. Yet, the right also likes to vilify people of color who have too many children. Could it be that we’ve got a double standard here?

Remember when Nadya Suleman was always in the news ? Perhaps you remember her by her media epithet: Octomom.

Suleman was the 33-year-old Los Angeles mother of six who, in 2009, gave birth to octuplets after receiving fertility treatments, allegedly to qualify for more government assistance and launch a reality-TV career. Single and unemployed, “Octomom” became the focus of bobble-head media outrage in the early years of the Great Recession, a ready target for pundits looking for a way—any way—to deflect attention from the sins of the Wall Street elite. To the reliably quotable Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, Suleman was “dizzy, selfish,” the living symbol of America’s national decline. Her statements that she never meant to give birth to octuplets—plausible though they were—somehow never seemed to convince mainstream journalists in possession of what they thought was a story.

What does all this have to do with Social Security? We’ll get to that shortly. But first, an update on one of the more remarkable media circuses of the past few years.

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Ted Cruz as Scrooge: A Commentary Fable

We’re still savoring the last echoes of the holiday season, so please enjoy this extremely apt take on Dickens’s A Christmas Carol by Susan Feiner, a professor of economics and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine.

This is probably as good a time as any to remind ourselves of Toynbee’s dictum:

The lifespan of any civilization can be measured by the respect and care that is given to its elderly citizens, and those societies which treat their elderly with contempt have the seeds of their own destruction within them.

Humor aside, Feiner’s tale is a great reminder of this truth. Check out the commentary that follows her Cruz-Scrooge tale in the link: A lot of people still don’t get it.

A momentous—and ominous—week for Social Security

The last week of June saw the effective end of DOMA and passage of a landmark Senate immigration reform bill. Both will widen access to Social Security, although the exact extent is still unknown. But it also saw the Supreme Court wipe out the enforcement mechanism for the landmark Voting Rights Act. The latter, unfortunately, will have a powerful if indirect effect on the future of Social Security, making last week less of a cause for celebration than it might have initially appeared.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the operative provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, opening the way for federal recognition of same-sex marriages, was an astonishing and welcome development for equal rights and social justice in America. It also represents the first major expansion of Social Security in 40 years. There are well over 130,000 same-sex marriages in the U.S. today—over 115,000 with children—and that number will no doubt burgeon as more non-traditional couples add the prospect of Social Security, Medicare, and other federal benefits into their personal finance calculations.

The just-passed Senate immigration reform bill represents, at least potentially, an even greater expansion, enabling millions of undocumented workers to start accumulating benefits under Social Security. There are a lot of ifs here: Continue reading →