To be sure, Social Security is not in perfect fiscal health, but follow-the-meme reporting forecloses a robust discussion of the range of remedies to fix it. Edsall’s piece provides just that. He argues that the Beltway cognoscenti are far more inclined to discuss less costly approaches for the affluent: means testing benefits and raising the eligibility age. The one remedy that easily fixes the problem for decades to come is raising the cap on the amount of earned income subject to the payroll tax—$113,700 this year. Edsall cites a Congressional Budget Office estimate showing that eliminating the earnings cap would cost the affluent the equivalent of 0.6 percent of GDP. Reducing Social Security payments to the top third of the income distribution through means testing would cost them the equivalent of 0.1 percent of GDP. In other words, the affluent wouldn’t take as much of a hit with means testing—and means testing would also begin to turn Social Security into a welfare program instead of social insurance, a goal long-sought by some Beltway elites.
And where is the public in all of this? To find out I rang up Harvard pollster Robert Blendon who has just conducted a survey for the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “This generational gap doesn’t appear to be as important politically as many influentials like to cite,” he said, “because many young adults know they have close family members who depend on these programs, and know they will depend on them in the future.” Unlike HUD or the Department of Commerce, he pointed out, “these programs directly affect peoples’ lives.”
Blendon added that people don’t see cutting Medicare and Social Security as priorities for solving the deficit or the national debt. In other words, there’s a disconnect between the people, the elites, and the press. Why? “There’s a conflict between the influential class and people worried about the future of retirement for their familes,” he said.
It’s that conflict the press has yet to report.