Mike the Mad Biologist

Actually, I’m not just mad at the pundit, but also at Senator Obama: he knows his position is intellectually dishonest.

By way of Ezra Klein, I came across a discussion at Hotline about this interview with Senator Obama:

For the first time as a presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, posed a question about entitlement reform, said that “everything was on the table,” except for private accounts, and in doing so, because the first top-tier Democratic presidential candidate to acknowledge that Social Security deficits could not, and would not, be solved without pain.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You’ve also said that with Social Security, everything should be on the table.

OBAMA: Yes.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Raising the retirement age?

OBAMA: Everything should be on the table.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Raising payroll taxes?

OBAMA: Everything should be on the table. I think we should
approach it the same way Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan did back in
1983. They came together. I don’t want to lay out my preferences
beforehand, but what I know is that Social Security is solvable. It
is not as difficult a problem as we’re going to have with Medicaid and
Medicare.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Partial privatization?

OBAMA: Privatization is not something that I would consider, and
the reason is this: Social Security, I think, is — that’s the floor.
That’s the baseline. Social Security is that safety net that can’t be
frayed, and we shouldn’t put at risk.

But — will John Edwards or Hillary Clinton have the gumption to claim that they can fix Social Security and Medicare without the options troika mentioned above? [raising the minimum age, increase payroll taxes, or cutting benefits] And will any lower-tier candidate have enough money by the time Floridians are paying attention to even try? Yes, Dick Gephardt was able to dent Howard Dean’s margin in Iowa by pointing to Dean’s own honest remarks about the subject, but few Iowans seemed to care on caucus day. [MARC AMBINDER]

First, Ambinder pull a classic Samuelson (which is different than the Samuelson unit): he conflates Social Security with Medicare. The two programs have distinct and dedicated revenue streams. Medicare is a basketcase due to spiraling medical costs which are rising much faster than the payroll taxes–and the wages that support those payroll taxes–that are dedicated to the Medicare program. Social Security, however, barring a severe economic downturn that lasts for several decades, will remain fully solvent in its current form. As I’ve noted before the crisis will not be an inability to meet the Social Security obligations, but the disappearance of the Social Security surplus and the Trust Fund, which are used to lower the annual budget deficit and the national debt respectively.

And that’s why I’m troubled by what Obama said. It is true that if the Social Security surplus were to suddenly disappear, our annual budget deficit would increase by about $150 billion. If the Trust Fund were to vanish overnight, the national debt would increase by roughly $2 trillion. But remember: we are now describing the entire federal budget.

So why does the responsibility of solving problems in the general budget fall on the most successful anti-poverty program ever developed in the U.S.?* If Social Security is on the table, then everything else in the general budget should be on the table–including defense-related spending (which in 2006, totaled over $700 billion). Of course, there’s the flip side: raising revenue–that is, taxes. Once upon a time, people actually thought there were ways to increase revenue other than through payroll tax increases (the young’uns probably don’t believe me, but it’s true). But that’s a discussion very few people want to have openly, other than some liberal Democrats (particularly those not running for president).

So shame on Obama–I think he’s smart enough to know better. He knows Social Security is a stable program. And shame on Ambinder: he just seems too lazy to actually read the Social Security Trustees’ report. If he read the report, he would realize that a real maverick would argue that Social Security isn’t doomed.

*Thomas Geoghan makes the argument that another Social Security ‘crisis’ is that, as pensions go, Social Security is pretty meager.

Comments

  1. #1 Science Avenger
    May 21, 2007

    As I’ve noted before the crisis will not be an inability to meet the Social Security obligations, but the disappearance of the Social Security surplus and the Trust Fund, which are used to lower the annual budget deficit and the national debt respectively.

    Which in turn begs the question of where the money is going to come from to pay those IOUs (I don’t care for the misleading term “trust fund”). When the SS program begins running deficits instead of surpluses, they’ll have to cash in the IOUs, which would be paid from general revenue. This means the government will either have to cut spending in other areas (fat chance), raise taxes (possibly), or borrow more and increase the deficit further (my bet). Reagan solved nothing in 1986 except to find a new way for the government to borrow, while leaving the real cost of SS reform to the future generation that will have to deal with the choices I outlined above.

  2. #2 Joshua
    May 21, 2007

    I suspect Obama’s response is really just politics. I’m not convinced he actually thinks Social Security is a problem.

    However, given that there’s an election coming up, he can’t say that Social Security isn’t a problem, because that makes him look like he’s ignoring the Very Serious Problem that all these Very Serious Commentators keep mentioning. He’s kind of forced to play their game. I suspect that Gore’s “lockbox” was a similar ploy. It really was just “do exactly what we’re doing now” only framed in a way that made it sound like a change in policy to respond to a looming crisis.

    I doubt a President Obama would actually do anything to Social Security.

  3. #3 Ted
    May 21, 2007

    Bravo Mike for taking the time to discuss this.

    The best thing that the next administration can do is to educate the public in repeatedly decoupling the medicare, medicaid and social security crisis linking that goes on in NYT, WP and WSJ. In my opinion, we are not allowed to discuss the runaway costs of healthcare (and specifically medicare) without invoking the libertarian desire to shut down SS as some sort of solution to a manufactured (and relatively disconnected) crisis.

    Brad DeLong has a chart on his blog that sort of illustrates this.

  4. #4 Colst
    May 21, 2007

    “first time”?

    I recently read an article which included a bit about a speech where he used a similar line about O’Neil and Reagan. I don’t remember when they said he gave the speech, but I’m pretty sure it was when he was in NH, campaigning for president, and almost got stuck in a snowstorm. I know winters can be long in NH, but I suspect that was before May 13.

  5. #5 lisa
    May 22, 2007

    Well I for one am just glad to see Obama get the usual campaign bullshitting underway early! I just hope he’s actually as smart as he seems, and will not only leave SS the hell alone, but actually attemt to educate the mainstream about “The Problem”…once he earns their trust and develops some more credibility, of course. To “shoot his wad” too soon would be suicide. (Crude reference just seemed appropo…sorry to the PC).

  6. #6 Blair
    May 23, 2007

    So Obama’s position is intellectually dishonest?

    He is a Senator running for President.

    What do you expect?

    We all know the Democrats are as corrput as the Republicans.

    They are all beholden to the same military/industrial/medical complex.

    Who ya kiddin?

  7. #7 Edward
    May 24, 2007

    I think any intellectual dishonesty on Obama’s part is a reflection of the general intellectual dishonesty of the American people. We want things from our government, but we don’t want to pay for them, for example.

    Republicans seem to understand better than Democrats that the American public is intellectually dishonest, and pander to that dishonesty. The whole “Reagan revolution” was based on intellectual dishonesty – there was never any way he could have cut taxes and balanced the budget, while only cutting “fraud and waste” in the government as promised in 1980. Sure enough, the deficit mushroomed. But the Republican base still considers Reagan a great hero.

    Democrats, on the other hand, seem to demand that their leaders be more honest, and get more upset when their leaders, well, act like elected politicians and pander to the masses.

    Now, that being said, I think that while there is much dishonesty in both parties, there is a big difference in the policies of the two parties, so it does matter for whom you vote. I used to believe in voting for the person, not the party, but the Republican party seems to exert a much greater degree of controll over its politicians than does the Democratic party. So long as the Republicans continue to embrace creationism and support injecting politics into science and scientific reports, I’m not voting for any Republicans.

  8. #8 seks shop
    May 20, 2009

    However, given that there’s an election coming up, he can’t say that Social Security isn’t a problem, because that makes him look like he’s ignoring the Very Serious Problem that all these Very Serious Commentators keep mentioning. He’s kind of forced to play their game. I suspect that Gore’s “lockbox” was a similar ploy. It really was just “do exactly what we’re doing now” only framed in a way that made it sound like a change in policy to respond to a looming crisis

  9. #9 şişme bebek
    June 8, 2009

    Now, that being said, I think that while there is much dishonesty in both parties, there is a big difference in the policies of the two parties, so it does matter for whom you vote. I used to believe in voting for the person, not the party, but the Republican party seems to exert a much greater degree of controll over its politicians than does the Democratic party. So long as the Republicans continue to embrace creationism and support injecting politics into science and scientific reports, I’m not voting for any Republicans

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!