Jan 05, 2011
For the third time in the last 20 years, establishment voices, with
high-profile slots in traditional media, are trying to convince the
public to accept cuts to Social Security by endlessly claiming such
cuts are necessary without giving coherent evidence to justify the
claim. Twice, under President Clinton and the second President Bush,
these voices were defeated. But they didn't give up. And now they are
in striking distance of their goal: the fact that Republicans have
taken over the House, combined with the fact that the President
appointed a deficit reduction commission which nearly recommended a
cut in Social Security benefits, and might well have done so if Rep.
Schakowsky hadn't worked to undermine the co-chairs' plan, means that
one can't be complacent; some reports have suggested that the
President may indicate support for cuts to Social Security in his
State of the Union speech. Of the two principal Washington political
actors who will shape the outcome - the Republican leadership and the
President's team - one is a determined adversary of the public
interest, the other a very uncertain ally. The most successful
anti-poverty program in U.S. history is again in grave danger.
Twenty years ago, Social Security was called the "third rail" of U.S.
politics. Touch it, you die. But it turned out that was not true. The
Establishment greedheads were not, in fact, afraid to try to mess with
this wildly popular program. Maybe Wall Street political power is the
In these two decades, Social Security hasn't been the third rail.
Instead, it's been the Grey Goose of folk song legend. The knife
couldn't cut him and the fork couldn't stick him. Try as they might,
they couldn't kill him. Can the Grey Goose survive the next assault?
You might think that this would be the worst time to try to cut Social
Security, with 10% measured unemployment, with many people's private
savings having been wiped out first in the stock market collapse and
then with the collapse in house prices. You might think is a great
time to remember why we have Social Security: because it's secure.
Housing bubbles and stock market bubbles may inflate and burst,
industries that paid living wages may be shipped to Mexico and China,
but since the program was established during the Great Depression,
Social Security has never failed to pay scheduled benefits.
But this reality is being turned upside down. The presence of
unnecessary suffering is being used not as an argument to alleviate
suffering, but as an argument for creating more unnecessary suffering.
"We all have to make sacrifices in these difficult times," although of
course the people at the top of the income and wealth distribution -
in particular, the high rolling gamblers on Wall Street who brought
down the economy - are not being asked to make any sacrifices.
So far, the public has not yet been rolled. In a new 60
asked "what would you do first," 61%? say raise taxes on the wealthy.
Twenty percent say cut military spending. Three percent say cut Social
If there were ever an issue and a time that seemed ripe for militant
protest, this should be the issue and the time. It's the broad public
vs. the establishment, and for the establishment to win, they seek an
environment of unquestioning obedience, like in the Milgrom
experiment, where people obey instructions to subject someone to
torture (so they think) because that's what Authority says to do. As
in the Milgrom experiment, a little bit of protest can go a long way
to disrupt the power of Authority, because intuitively, most people
know that what Authority is saying is wrong. Authority says we have to
accept Social Security cuts. It ain't so.
In the 1980s, during Reagan's war in Central America, there was a
movement called the Pledge of Resistance. The basic idea was that you
sign a pledge that if Reagan invades Nicaragua, you're willing to get
arrested in mass civil disobedience. Of course, people involved in the
Pledge of Resistance did not just sit around waiting for Reagan to
invade Nicaragua to take action. They lobbied Congress to cut off
funding for the US-organized Contra terrorists who were killing
Nicaraguan civilians; they wrote letters to the editor; they gave
talks in church basements; they organized material aid to Nicaragua;
they opposed Reagan's air war in El Salvador and US military aid to
the death squad government there. The pledge was to "resist" US
"intervention" in Central America by all the nonviolent means at our
disposal. But the willingness to participate in mass arrests in the
event of a US ground invasion was a fundamental animating idea.
We need a Pledge of Resistance now to defend Social Security from cuts
to benefits, including raising the normal retirement age. If Members
of Congress know that if they refuse to pledge to vote against cuts to
Social Security, their district offices are going to be occupied, that
they and their staffs are going to be dogged at every public
appearance, that their names are going to be mud in local media,
support for cutting Social Security will evaporate.
Moreover, a Pledge to Resist cuts to Social Security will allow local
activists to force a national discussion which traditional,
establishment media have so far largely excluded: the one in which
proposed cuts in domestic spending and proposed military spending are
examined on the same chalkboard, so everyone can see and discuss the
trade-offs that are implicit in the choices that are being proposed.
This will allow anti-war activists to pursue the Holy Grail of
anti-war activism: connecting the cost of the endless war with cuts in
domestic spending for human needs.
There are two ways to think about Social Security. One way is to
recognize that Social Security is a separately funded program with its
own dedicated tax stream and its own Social Security-tax funded Trust
Fund. According to this way of thinking, there is absolutely no
urgency to do anything about Social Security in terms of the budget,
because without touching the system at all it is projected to be able
to pay scheduled benefits through 2037, and if revenue adjustments are
needed before then there is plenty of time to enact them, and it would
be far more sensible to consider doing so after the economy has
The other way to think about it is that there is one government budget
which collects all the taxes and pays out all the expenses. According
to this view, the (combined) government deficit is too big, and
although Social Security is not the cause of projected deficits,
nonetheless Social Security is a good place to cut.
But, in the second view, in which the advertised goal is to cut the
deficit in the combined budget, there's nothing magic about Social
Security that indicates that it's an especially worthy place to seek
cuts, except the fact that some folks are just looking for any pretext
to cut it, and these same folks want to protect other parts of the
combined budget, like the spectacularly bloated military budget that
funds their beloved Empire, from any meaningful cuts. You will notice
that op-eds and editorials demanding cuts to Social Security typically
will omit the crucial fact of how much money will be saved by the
proposed cuts; still more they will typically omit any consideration
of what cuts elsewhere in the budget - like the military budget -
would achieve the same savings, while leaving Social Security alone.
Consider, for example, proposals to raise the normal retirement age.
How much would that save? How else could we save the same amount of
On September 29, the Washington Post editorial board -
Fox on 15th Street - expressed
outrage that President Obama, as portrayed in Bob Woodward's book,
"repeatedly cites the cost of the war and the need to shift resources
to domestic priorities," despite the fact, the Post assured
us, that "spending on Afghanistan is well below 1 percent of U.S.
gross domestic product." Thus, for the Washington Post, when
considering the war, spending of less than 1% of US GDP is not a big
At the time, I asked economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic
and Policy Research how much then-current proposals to raise the
Social Security retirement age would save. He said they would save
about 0.7% of GDP. For example, a proposal to raise the retirement age
to 70 by 2040 would save $155 billion by 2020. [This is shown in
Reduction Calculator.] Thus, less than 1% of GDP is not a big deal
when it is spending for the war that the Washington Post
supports, but it is a very needed savings when it comes to proposals
for cutting Social Security benefits by raising the normal retirement
age, a proposal that the Washington Post - Fox on
15th Street - supports.
This is not a mere rhetorical point. In the next few months, the Obama
Administration is expected to make a decision about the war that is
likely to dramatically affect its future cost: how fast to draw down
troops from the military escalation President Obama ordered a year
The rough estimate is that it costs about a billion dollars, all told,
to put 1000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan for a year. Right now, there
are 100,000 U.S. troops, for an annual cost of about $100 billion.
Consider two scenarios for 2012-2014.
In scenario one, the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan until 2014
remains about the same as it is today, for a total cost of $300
billion over 2012-2014.
In scenario two, starting July 1, U.S. forces in Afghanistan are drawn
down over the next year so that when President Obama runs for
re-election in mid-2012, they are at roughly the same level as when he
took office, about 40,000. They remain at roughly this level - about
the same level as we currently have in Iraq - until the U.S. fully
hands off responsibility for security in Afghanistan to a
Karzai-Taliban power-sharing government at the end of 2014.
Even putting to the side all the savings past 2014 that scenario two
would imply if there are zero U.S. troops there at the end of 2014, as
opposed to tens of thousands of troops, and also ignoring reduced
future costs for veterans' health care, scenario two would save about
$150 billion over 2012-2014 compared to scenario one.
By comparison, cutting Social Security benefits by lowering the cost
of living adjustment as called for by the co-chairs of the President's
deficit commission would save about $70 billion by 2020, Dean Baker
says. The co-chairs' proposal to raise the retirement age wouldn't
even go into effect until 2027, so no savings from that would be seen
for 17 years.
So, far from being uninformed, the public opinion to cut military
spending rather than Social Security makes much more sense than the
position of the Washington Post editorial board.
But what makes most sense won't necessarily carry the day, if a media
jihad for cutting Social Security isn't disrupted. We need to disrupt
the Milgrom experiment for throwing Grandma off the bus. If you would
sign a Pledge to Resist cuts in Social Security benefits, tell us in
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