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 featuring Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley; on August 8, Black Lives Matter struck again as two members took over the podium just as Sanders was about to start speaking.

On both occasions, and within seconds, the coalition progressives Democrats need to hold together to win elections seemed to fall apart, in a very ugly way. According to the Seattle Times, “some in the mostly white audience booed and hissed as they urged protesters to let the senator talk. A few yelled for police to make arrests.” Marissa Johnson, one of the protesters, “shot back at the crowd, ‘I was going to tell Bernie how racist this city is filled with progressives, but you did it for me,’ accusing the audience of ‘white supremacist liberalism.’”

Sanders himself seemed not to believe what he was hearing.

“I am disappointed that two people disrupted a rally attended by thousands at which I was invited to speak about fighting to protect Social Security and Medicare,” he said. “I was especially disappointed because on criminal justice reform and the need to fight racism there is no other candidate for president who will fight harder than me.”

The coming weeks will show whether the Sanders campaign fully comprehends how arrogant and paternalistic that sounded. It’s true that Social Security is disproportionately vital to disabled and retired African American workers and their survivors, but in our market-based economy, the first priority is always jobs—and the opportunity to qualify or be considered for a good job, not to mention one’s prospects once that job is obtained, are still deeply impacted by racial prejudice. Likewise, while Social Security provides a dependable minimal stream of income in retirement for lower-income working people, what kind of life does that provide when one is effectively red-lined out of middle-class neighborhoods, subjected to constant police intimidation and violence, and victimized by the “poor tax” through lack of access to reasonably priced banking and other services?

It’s not just that Social Security isn’t politicians’ magic path to the hearts of American working households. The problem goes back to the fact that in American politics, economic and racial issues are treated as separate and, generally, unequal, when in fact they are closely bound up.

On the 80th anniversary of the passage of the Social Security Act, it’s important to remember this lesson. That law, along with much of the legislation that launched the modern welfare state, was formulated at a time when black people were effectively barred from voting in the region they occupied in the greatest numbers. Politically, much of the New Deal was geared to appeal to urban white working families—the core of the Democratic Party outside the South. So it was easy to address economic and racial issues discretely, or to argue that if the one is taken care of, the other will surely follow. Improvements to Social Security over the next 35 years enabled blacks to enjoy its benefits, but liberal Democratic politicians continued to fool themselves that economic issues were, somehow, color-blind.

It’s been a long time since this made any political sense. The beginnings of the contemporary conservative counterattack against the New Deal—including Social Security—date from the early 1970s, when the law-and-order backlash against the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. In those years, the state’s preferred response to the problems of black Americans switched from housing, education, and social services to gentrification, militarized policing, and three-strikes-you’re-out laws. Programs to help the poor were reinterpreted as doing them harm by reducing their motivation to self-improve. Aid to Families with Dependent Children (“welfare”) was the first target, in part because it wasn’t an “earned” benefit and therefore easy to caricature as a giveaway.

At the same time, however, Social Security came under attack. Drastic cuts were being proposed under the Cater administration, and the retirement age for full benefits was raised for the first time—effectively cutting benefits—in 1983; by then, many on the right and center-right were regularly referring to Social Security and Medicare as “entitlements,” a form of middle-class welfare. What was bad policy for the African American poor, it stood to reason, was also bad policy for the white middle. Members of the Reagan administration openly argued that Social Security undermined families’ incentives to support their older members and that it eroded personal savings and encouraged dependency on government—a position Mitt Romney merely reiterated in his notorious “47%” speech in 2012.

As for the police violence that has caught the public’s attention in the wake of Michael Brown’s and Eric Garner’s killings, Bernie Sanders certainly isn’t the only presidential candidate who has yet to grant it the urgency it demands. Real estate mogul Donald Trump declared that if anyone attempted to take over a podium in the same manner that Black Lives Matter appropriated Sanders’s, he’d fight them, and accused Sanders of “weakness.” Hillary Clinton, confronted in her turn by BLM activists, evaded their question whether anything “in her has changed” since the killings, given that she had lobbied for the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that helped propel America’s incarceration levels to the highest in the world. This despite the fact that her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who signed the bill, has publicly regretted doing so.

Republican insensitivity on the issue is no surprise. (Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, asked if he’d meet with BLM organizers, said, “I meet with voters. Who knows who that is?”) Clinton’s evasiveness extends to her statements on Social Security, which have distinctly not included support for expanding the program. But Sanders’ response—thus far—to BLM is especially disturbing, since he has set himself up as the standard-bearer for progressives. As such, part of his mission has been to try to win back the support of working-class whites in parts of the country, like the South, where they have turned away from Democrats. Social Security is a big part of what he hopes will be his leverage. But that can’t mean ignoring, or downplaying, an issue that’s a matter of life and death to African Americans.

If progressives want to protect Social Security—as Sanders clearly does—they’ll have to understand that racial and economic issues are not separate. Racial injustice bolsters economic injustice, and the cultural arguments against policies that promote social and economic equity between races can be deployed just as easily against white working people. One of the lessons of the trail of African American lives in the streets of Ferguson, Baltimore, New York, St. Louis, Oakland, and other places is that these victims’ communities can’t wait any longer for the conditions of their lives—which are dictated, to a great extent, by police and prosecutors—to improve. It’s hard to give priority even to Social Security when you live under what’s quickly evolving into a quasi-military occupation.

White progressive politicians need to learn this lesson, and quickly, because otherwise their coalition will fracture and their opponents will be encouraged once again to extend their prescriptions for social “reform” from the urban poor to the white middle class. It’s no answer to lecture African Americans, as Sanders did, that he’s their best hope of having their needs addressed, despite his failure to speak directly to those needs. They’ve heard it too many times before.

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 →

A Lifeline, Not a Safety Net

What’s the biggest source of income for Americans in the last years of their lives? Whether you live to 65, 75, or 85-plus, no matter if you’re married or single, the answer is the same: Social Security. And in the you’re-on-your-own, 401(k) era, this hard fact is only becoming more so.

More Americans are elderly—over 65—today than at any time in the nation’s history, and more of these older people are living to a really advanced age than ever before. It’s safe to say we collect more data on them than ever before, as well. That means we’ve never had as good a chance to study the financial health of the elderly.

Using data from University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study (HRS), sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, the Employee Benefit Research Institute has just released a fascinating analysis of individuals who responded to the HRS survey in 2010 and died before the next, 2012 survey. Continue reading →

Why Hillary Clinton Is Beyond the Pale

This is a bit off-topic for this blog, but it has to be said: By her calculated failure to take a stand on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the former secretary of state has made herself absolutely unacceptable as a presidential candidate for working Americans.

It’s crunch time for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the most sweeping multilateral trade agreement since NAFTA. Fast-track authority for the president, gussied up with some face-saving amendments to make it look like Congress will have a real debate when Obama submits the deal to lawmakers later this year, has passed out of committee in both the House and Senate. That means fast-track will be decided upon in a matter of days or weeks.

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The Meaning of Harry Reid’s Departure

For the last decade, Harry Reid has been a bulwark against efforts by Republicans and members of his own party to send the core of the New Deal achievement down the road to oblivion. Other Democratic lawmakers may be equally committed, but almost none have the same close emotional ties that he possesses to the Rooseveltian state.

When Senate minority leader Harry Reid announced last week that he won’t run for reelection in 2016, the first thing that flashed through my mind was his age: he’s 75. Only nine senators are older than Reid, and only two of them are Democrats. That underscores how few people still serving in the Senate were born during the New Deal, the period that formed the modern US government, with its social protections, administrative apparatus, and (not so happily) military-industrial complex. For the past 35 years, roughly corresponding to Reid’s career in electoral office, the legislation that Washington enacted during the Great Depression has been a war zone, Continue reading →

AK Press Needs Your Help

Independent publishers are a bulwark of free speech, free exchange of ideas, and the struggle for a better world. The last thing one of our best indy publishers (and distributors) needed was a warehouse fire.

AK Press, publishers of my book, The People’s Pension, suffered a calamity just 10 days ago when a fire broke out in the printing plant that adjoins AK’s warehouse and offices in Oakland, California. Three days later, the City of Oakland red-tagged the entire building, which means no one can re-occupy it until it is again deemed safe. AK are still waiting to get back in, which means it’s difficult for the publishing collective to take care of day-to-day business. As they announced last week, Continue reading →

The Origins of Pension Privatization: A New Perspective

Starting in the 1970s, governments authorized and promoted individual retirement accounts of various sorts. The commonly accepted explanation was that public pensions were no longer affordable and had to be supplemented or replaced by private saving. The truth, according to a revealing new paper, is that stock exchanges in developed countries promoted tax-advantaged private accounts as a quick way to build up domestic capital markets at a time of increasing global competition. The result has been an underfunded public sector—including cash-starved public pensions—and overfunded capital markets feeding unproductive financial speculation.

A wise person who had observed the private pension industry for many years once told me to remember that none of its structures—public pensions, employer-sponsored pensions, 401(k) plans, and every variation on these themes—are set up for the good of working people. They are products, designed to make money for the bank or insurance or mutual fund company that set it up and collects fees for managing and investing it.

That sensible, “follow the money” approach to understanding pensions informs an excellent new academic paper, “Feed the Beast: Finance Capitalism and the Spread of Pension Privatisation in Europe.” The authors, Marek Naczyk of Oxford University and Bruno Palier of the Centre d’Etudes Européenes at Sciences Po Paris, who first presented it at a conference last July, connect the dots to explain why the financial services industry in Europe first started pushing for pension privatization and why political leaders in these countries went along with the idea.  Continue reading →

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.

Continue reading →

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