Category Archives: Recession

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 The Meaning of Harry Reid’s Departure

“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 “Octomom” and the racial double standard

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 Of Groupthink, Financial Bubbles, and Lance Armstrong

Pie in the Sky in Eastern Europe: The Ryan Plan in Action

Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan has been pushing Social Security privatization for the better part of a decade. What if his plan was actually implemented? An important new paper looks at what happened when Hungary and Poland attempted something similar with their national pension systems. The results were ugly.

It’s been reported that Paul Ryan is no longer pushing Social Security privatization. House Republican leaders “refused” to let their Budget Committee chair “add changes to Social Security” into the budget he wrote last year and that passed the chamber with solid GOP support. This year, he and his colleagues again “left the program untouched.”

That’s not quite true. Ryan has now written two budgets, both of which include Continue reading Pie in the Sky in Eastern Europe: The Ryan Plan in Action

Why You Should Celebrate Social Security’s Birthday on Aug. 14

Social Security’s 77th birthday comes up on Tues., August 14. The Alliance for Retired American is planning events all over the country to celebrate (see details below!). As well it might – Social Security’s benefit checks keep 20 million people out of poverty every year and are helping to prop up consumer spending while the rest of us dig ourselves out of debt. Some people, however, would prefer you stayed home.

I recently spoke with a prominent, U.S.-based money manager for an unrelated project. First, he lambasted the Federal Reserve for keeping interest rates too low, “monetizing the debt,” and preventing a much needed dose of government austerity. Then he told me why Continue reading Why You Should Celebrate Social Security’s Birthday on Aug. 14

Reading FDR’s Mind: “Full Funding” and the Original Intent of Social Security

What kind of a program did Franklin Delano Roosevelt want Social Security to be? A narrowly designed, fully self-funded system, or a more expansive institution whose funding sources might change over time? Today’s three-way struggle between progressives, conservatives, and the center-right over Social Security’s future makes the question of FDR’s “original intent” more timely than ever.

When I was writing The People’s Pension, my history of the past 30 years of the Social Security debate, I sidestepped – for the most part – the question of what Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s precise intentions were for the program he signed into law in 1935. The early history of Social Security is extremely tangled. The political context was unique. FDR himself was a complex and contradictory figure, and Social Security was much changed by the time my story began, in 1980. But activists on all sides continue to evoke the debates that took place within and around the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s to defend their particular visions of what Social Security should be. In spite of myself, I got interested – and started forming opinions.

So have a lot of other people, at a time when Continue reading Reading FDR’s Mind: “Full Funding” and the Original Intent of Social Security

Demanding the Possible from Social Security

The dead-end debate over Social Security’s solvency has long stymied any discussion of how to improve the program for its participants. Now may be the time to break that logjam. Here’s a way that progressive lawmakers can help to do so.


Hard as it is to conceive, the last time a significant improvement was made for a broad swath of Social Security participants was almost 30 years ago. Enacted as part of the 1983 Amendment to the Social Security Act, those changes – four modest benefit boosts for widows and divorced spouses – were swamped in the news coverage by the larger effort to keep the program funded. Thus has it been ever since.


The result, tragically, is that the national conversation over Social Security has been bottled up in a never-ending wrangle over how best to “save” the program. If it’s true – per Clausewitz, Jack Dempsey, or Mao Zedong, depending on your source – that “a good offense is the best defense,” then perhaps it’s time for progressive friends of Social Security to go on the offensive.


Continue reading Demanding the Possible from Social Security

Paul Ryan’s Hammock

How stands the Social Security discussion in Washington following State-of-the-Union night? More or less where it was before. Which, for defenders of the program is mostly not good.

President Obama honored his pledge to congressional Democrats over the previous weekend not to endorse cuts to the program. In fact, he went a bit farther, rejecting any plan that would include “slashing benefits for future generations.”

There’s more to say about that. But first, what about Paul Ryan and that Michele Bachmann? Continue reading Paul Ryan’s Hammock

The Greed of the “Bottom Half”

We’ll shortly be hearing the objections of deficit hawks to the deficit reduction package Demos, The Century Foundation, and the Economic Policy Institute. No doubt they’ll echo the criticisms that have already been leveled at the deficit-shrinkage roadmap Rep. Jan Schakowsky put on the table earlier this month. To get a sense of what those criticisms are likely to be, I recently had a close look at a Schakowsky critique by The Atlantic’s resident deficit hawk, Derek Thompson.

The first thing that makes Thompson’s November 16 piece interesting is that it actually acknowledges the existence of Schakowsky’s plan. The second thing, only slightly less extraordinary, is that Thompson makes an effort to analyze and understand the proposal. It took the New York Times nearly two weeks after Schakowsky released it to even note that it was there (and even then, didn’t provide details).

What’s most remarkable about Thompson’s analysis, however, is that he lectures Schakowsky for not squeezing poor and low-income workers hard enough. Continue reading The Greed of the “Bottom Half”

Schakowsky’s Deficit Reduction Plan Is Game Changer

Rep. Jan Schakowsky’s deficit reduction proposal is a game changer: a serious, moderate, balanced blueprint for addressing the nation’s long-range fiscal challenges, by a leading progressive lawmaker. How her colleagues on the president’s deficit commission respond to it will be a test of how serious they really are about solving the deficit puzzle in a fair and equitable way.

Jan Schakowsky is sometimes described as “one of the most liberal members” of the commission. But the deficit reduction plan she released on Tuesday is moderate, sensible, and actually more effective at lowering the deficit over the next few years than the plan co-chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles tabled last week ($427 billion in savings by 2015, vs. $250 billion). Continue reading Schakowsky’s Deficit Reduction Plan Is Game Changer