“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.

Continue reading →

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 →

The Nobody-But-Ourselves-to-Blame Trip

If Americans can’t retire in comfort and relative security, who’s at fault? Increasingly, we’re being conditioned to point the finger at ourselves. It’s a brilliantly underhanded way to keep us from questioning the downsizing of successful, collective programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Every so often, the mainstream media anoints a new public intellectual—the big thinker who explains it all to us in newspaper or Internet columns, bestselling books, or on the Sunday morning chat shows. Sometimes they’re genuinely quite smart and insightful (Paul Krugman, Malcolm Gladwell), sometimes otherwise (David Brooks, anybody?).

The hottest new public intellectual may be Evgeny Morozov, a not-yet-30 scholar who has published two well-received debunking books, The Net Delusion, about the notion that the Internet promotes democracy; and To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, a broader-ranging attack on the belief that smart technologies and Big Data are the ultimate problem solvers.

Both books are needed antidotes to the grandiose claims being made for technology, and To Save Everything, in particular, is of vital importance to anyone concerned about the direction of public discourse on the looming retirement crisis in America. If you only have a few minutes, Continue reading →

The Real Meaning of Chained CPI

Switching to a stingier method of adjusting Social Security benefits is supposed to be OK because we can just “substitute” an equivalent good for one that’s become too costly. But what if that substitution becomes permanent? The chained CPI is perhaps the first—at least the most blatant—attempt to write the acceptance of downward mobility into the rules of economic management.

A lot has already been written about President Obama’s proposal to switch to the chained CPI for annual adjustments to Social Security (and many other) benefits. I hope you haven’t reached your limit on the subject, because I want to urge to read just one more, from last month. It’s FDL blogger Masaccio’s vital and bluntly titled piece, “Chained CPI Means You Can’t Have Nice Things.”

Masaccio, who’s been writing valuable economic commentary for years that all us non-professionals can easily understand, starts with a closer examination of the “substitution” concept behind the chained CPI, and then makes some provocative suggestions about what this all means—specifically, the end of the consumer-driven economy and the managing-down of the American standard of living.

Let’s start with the first point. As has been noted endlessly, proponents of the chained CPI assert that the standard Consumer Price Index has been getting it wrong all these years because Continue reading →

Social Security as a National Unification Policy

Legal scholar Karen N. Tani has published one of the most original and provocative  papers in years on one of the most important pieces of legislation in American history—the Social Security Act of 1935.

(Note: For the first time, a Democratic president has just launched a proposal to cut Social Security benefits. This is quite momentous and I’m not ignoring it. But please keep in mind that the history of this program is complex and operates on many levels. I’m highlighting this in the p[resent post. I’ll have more to say on Obama’s historic move soon.)

The Social Security Act was a huge bill, cobbled together in an astonishingly short period of time, and yet it was the culmination of nearly 30 years of thinking about social insurance and the role of government by an ideologically disparate army of scholars, social workers, economists, politicians, lawyers, and actuaries. The whole story of how it came about has still not been written.

Tani, in the Yale Law Journal, asks whether the Social Security Act wasn’t at least partly an exercise in nation-building. Among other things, Continue reading →

Why is “entitlement” such a nasty word?

Since his reelection, President Obama has been talking about “reforming entitlements” every chance he gets –or at least when he’s talking to Republicans. But why – and when – did “entitlement” become such a nasty word?

Since his reelection, the president has been trying hard to have it both ways when it comes to Social Security and Medicare. According to the Huffington Post’s Sabrina Siddiqui, Obama on March 14 assured House Democrats that he won’t “slash” the two programs – moments after a meeting with Senate Republicans at which he reaffirmed his commitment to “reforming” entitlements, including adopting the chained CPI for calculating Social Security and Medicare.

Knowing it was poison to his constituency, Obama had more or less avoided the subject on the campaign trail last year. And as Continue reading →

It’s All About the Taxes

It’s a simple question that progressive types – and many non-Washingtonians, for that matter –ask themselves all the time: If Social Security needs more money in coming decades, why not just raise the payroll tax? It’s how we’ve done it in the past, why can’t we just do it again? The reason is that the far right and the center-right – Washington’s Very Serious People – have agreed that the low-tax regime they’ve collaborated on putting in place for the affluent is here to stay, along with the income inequality it’s helped to spawn.  There will be no further increases, even in a comparatively un-progressive levy like the payroll tax, they insist.

It’s not news that you can’t mention the words “tax increase” in Washington without someone attaching an epithet like “job-killing” or “politically unpopular” to them as a matter of reflex. This goes for the payroll taxes that fund Social Security as for any other tax. House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan says Continue reading →

Of Groupthink, Financial Bubbles, and Lance Armstrong

Lance Armstrong got away with ringleading what now looks like a vast doping conspiracy, in part because the sports media refused to investigate what was right under their noses. Why? Because they were too invested in the heroic image that congealed around the Tour de France winner. In much the same way, groupthink in the financial media has repeatedly led our most prominent journalists to valorize hucksters and ignore scandals until they blow up into full-scale catastrophes.

Today’s New York Times includes a fine column by David Carr, taking the mainstream sports media to task as not-to-silent partners in the selling of the Lance Armstrong Legend. Carr gives the sports desk a good spanking. But the problem he describes is actually much bigger, extending deep into the business and economic coverage that is arguably the most critically important information we get from the media nowadays

Let’s review a bit of history. Continue reading →

Teaching Social Security, With and Without Prejudice

A Young Person’s Guide to Social Security is an excellent tool for teaching students and younger workers how the system works and what’s at stake in the struggle over Social Security’s future. But big money is behind “Understanding Fiscal Responsibility,” a competing curriculum that can’t hide its deep ideological bias.

The Social Security wars are fought on many fronts. One of the newest is for the hearts and minds of younger Americans – high school and college students and even young workers. These people – “future decision-makers,” as they’re sometimes called – don’t always have well-developed assumptions about Social Security, Medicare, and related programs. That makes them either a non-factor in the national debate or else a potentially crucial bloc of votes. Some of them will no doubt go on to influential careers in public policy. And so the messages that are fed to them as students could have an enormous impact in future decades.

Two sets of institutions with very different values and priorities have entered the lists with curricula designed to shape young people’s thinking about Social Security, Continue reading →