February 28, 2005

Fashionably Late

So the Sunday before last, I decided to expand on this old "Sorry, But No" post (and this) and write a short article for Mother Jones on, among other things, why Democrats shouldn't compromise on Social Security. It's up now, but sadly, in the interim Matt Yglesias and Josh Marshall hammered home the point far better and far more eloquently than I did. Oh well. Must... adjust... to blinding pace of blogosphere. Or start writing about things the bigger bumblebees aren't swarming around.

A few extra points, though, on this topic. Even if the GOP finally decides to abandon its idea of financing private accounts through payroll taxes, it still seems like a bad idea for the Democrats to compromise on add-on private accounts, at least for now. For one, this sort of thing can very easily get mangled in the legislative process, as the Medicare bill did. Even if it didn't, though, the privatizers certainly aren't going away, and as long as there's a massive budget deficit, Social Security is in grave, grave danger down the road. If we did get add-on private accounts for retirement, they likely would be financed at best in a revenue-neutral way. Fine, but there are still the deficits. Just five years down the road, things look even more desperate—those CBO ten-year budget projections start showing what happens when we need to dip into the Trust Fund to pay our retirees. Suddenly the deficits look more and more like an unsustainable burden, and Republicans start calling for Social Security benefits to be cut (or for payroll taxes to be diverted into the now-existing private accounts). Likely we'd hear cries of, "We already have personal retirement accounts, so why not expand those and slash SS benefits?" And in the face of massive budget deficits, those calls might sound more reasonable than they do now. So insisting on the reality of the Trust Fund, I think, is the major priority here, and judging from the polls, I'm not sure Democrats have yet won that battle. Happily, at least, Joe Biden has the cannon pointing in the right direction.

The rather humdrum point, I guess, is that the Social Security fight could turn into a decade-long chess match, and a win against privatization now doesn't mean a win forever. Reclaiming one of the branches of government would obviously help things, but it's not likely that that will happen for at least another four years. Sad but true.

The other danger, I think, occurred to me while reading this Washington Post article, where Harold Ickes says that "he is fearful that a compromise plan may yet allow the president to turn Social Security from a program identified with Democrats to one identified with Republicans." That's a real potential problem. Privatizers have a massive coalition that will hammer on this issue for the next twenty years or more. All the defenders have, really, is the fact that Democrats take pride in Social Security as the party's strongest and most popular program. As such, I really do think that helps them stay united and defend the issue with such vigor—it's not just the principle of social insurance at stake, it's a matter of partisan pride and honor. In the long term, it seems, it's best if that pride and honor stays with the party that also happens to be committed to the idea of social insurance.
-- Brad Plumer 1:50 AM || ||