William Greider on Social Security

A superb take on Obama’s deficit commission

William Greider, writing in The Nation, didn’t mince words when it came to explaining what’s at stake in the looming fight over Social Security—and Medicare along with it. Anyone who wants to understand what most mainstream media are omitting from their reports on the deficit commission and the drive to end Social Security as we know it should immediately read Greider’s piece. (Disclosure: I am a longtime contributor to The Nation.)

The politics: They are screwy, Greider says. A popular Democratic president standing on the third rail of politics? C’est impossible! Yet, Greider notes:

The president intends to offer Social Security as a sacrificial lamb to entice conservative deficit hawks into a grand bipartisan compromise in which Democrats agree to cut Social Security benefits for future retirees while Republicans accede to significant tax increases to reduce government red ink.

Obama is being coy about his grand bargain, Greider reports. “He ducks questions about his preferences, saying only that ‘everything has to be on the table.’” As Campaign Desk has pointed out, that’s the same song that his commission co-chairs, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, are singing. It’s also vintage Obama, and the parallels between this fight and the last one are remarkable. Recall that he used the same tactics during the debate on health reform. Every option (except single payer) would be considered, but he was coy about his intentions to support one of them—the public plan. In the end, there was no White House enthusiasm for a public option, and it died aborning.

Greider argues that Obama is “arm in arm with GOP conservatives like Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson, who for decades has demonized Social Security as a grave threat to the Republic,” and has spread around $12 million to sell the public on the notion that Social Security is in dire straits. (Disclosure: Peterson is a CJR funder.) It’s his version of “Nixon goes to China,” Greider says, “a leader proving his manhood by going against his party’s convictions.”

Embracing conservative ideas? Why, that’s exactly what his health reform legislation was all about—the individual mandate; taxing good benefits secured by unionized workers; tax credits to help folks buy private health insurance; high deductible plans to encourage “personal responsibility.” Those are all Republican/conservative solutions that finally found receptivity from a Democratic president.

The economics: They are screwy, too. Greider argues that, despite the conservative propaganda about Social Security being the cause of the deficit problem, cutting the program “will have no impact on the deficit problem that so stirs public anxiety.” Then why is the program that is wildly popular with the public and has lifted the elderly out of poverty on the chopping block? Here’s his answer:

Targeting Social Security is a smokescreen designed to reassure foreign creditors and avoid confronting the true sources of US indebtedness. The politicians might instead address the cost of fighting two wars on borrowed money or the tax cuts for the rich and corporations or the deregulation that led to the recent financial catastrophe and destroyed vast wealth. But those and other sources of deficits involve very powerful interests. Instead of taking them on, the thinking in Washington goes, let’s whack the old folks while they’re not watching.

Greider urges citizens to mobilize and ask politicians to pledge to keep their hands off Social Security. I urge the media—which after all, supply the public with their information on the subject—to start reporting what’s really going on, and delve into the politics, the economics, and, most important, what affect all this cutting will have on those in their thirties, forties, and fifties who will have no other source of retirement income, except Social Security.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.