Now that Donald Trump seems to be a sure thing for the Republican nomination, a GOP-led “entitlement reform” movement is all but done—for now. The Republicans put “entitlement reform” front and center as a major issue in 2012, but given Clinton’s ostensible opposition and the meteoric rise of Trump, who says he opposes Social Security cuts, the legendary “Grand Bargain” is now on the political back burner. This, predictably, has left some of the “entitlement reform” holdouts very upset.
First, resident Washington Post fat-trimmer Charles Lane, in “Entitlement Reform, RIP” (4/27/16), lamented that a Trump/Clinton match-up means “entitlement reform” is all but dead. The Weekly Standard‘s Mark Hemingway (4/28/16) incredulously asked, “Whatever Happened to Entitlement Reform?” And the emerging “Never Trump” crowd, which is rushing to find a third party to help bring back the Romney-Ryan reform magic — including Sen. Ben Sasse, who published a call for an independent candidate, based largely on prioritizing “entitlement reform.”
There’s really no mystery why a public struggling to get by after watching Wall Street get trillions in interest-free loans isn’t eager to fork over their Social Security checks. And the fascinating part of all this concern with “stealing from future generations” is it almost never includes military spending or the trillions in offshore tax shelters. Even if one accepts the claim that Social Security and Medicare are urgent issues “bankrupting” our country, it’s curious why other things that also cost trillions don’t appear as part of that conversation.
By framing the problem, to the extent that there is one, as being the things the average citizen is “entitled” to—rather than the things military contractors and billionaires are afforded—we limit the scope almost entirely to the most vulnerable among us.
The Post’s Lane rarely writes about tax avoidance that cost the United States government at least $3 trillion a year — $500 billion of which is in tax havens and corporate avoidance schemes. His one attempt to gesture toward it was an argument in favor of a consumption tax—widely seen as regressive. He fails to harp on the problem of military spending overages. One of the few times Lane did complain about the Pentagon’s budget (9/3/14) he focused entirely on “reforming” the pensions of veterans. Indeed, his entire argument was that the Defense Department’s ability to take on “Putin’s aggression” and ISIS (e.g., blow things up) was being hampered by socialist-style healthcare for our vets:
As the United States’ defense budget shrinks relative to its economy, more and more of it is destined to purposes that have little, or nothing, to do with deterring or, if necessary, winning wars in the here and now.
Missing from his argument was anything on the corporate welfare side: No mention of an absurdly wasteful F-35 program whose lifetime costs are expected to exceed $1.5 trillion. No mention of the approximately $1 trillion cost of upgrading America’s nuclear weapons system. No mention of the over $4 trillion we set aside for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To “entitlement” reformers, only that which is guaranteed to the most vulnerable — the elderly, the sick, veterans — is in urgent need of cost-cutting. Everything else is an existential necessity, the wisdom of which is simply taken for granted.
Hemingway’s arbitrary concern for costs is even more cynical. Not only has he never called for a reduction in spending (not even to slash the pensions of those greedy Iraq War veterans), he—and the Weekly Standard in general—routinely call for America to increase its military spending. Indeed, they ran a sort of defense of the costly F-35 program, and aggressively lobbied for the multi-trillion-dollar war in Iraq.
The reason these pundits don’t spend time on non-“entitlement” costs, the expense of running a global empire and handing out tax breaks to the super rich, is entirely ideological. By simply asserting a premise — that military spending is untouchable, and tax-avoidance is a cost of doing business — they stack the deck in the wealthy’s favor and shift the burden to those groups least likely to have their voices heard in corporate media.