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Why Democrats Shouldn’t Put Social Security and Medicare on the Table

It’s not the first time Democrats have led with a compromise, but these particular pre-concessions are especially unwise.

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Meanwhile, over the last several decades Democrats have allowed Social Security taxes to grow and its revenue stream to become almost as important a source of overall government funding as income taxes; turned their backs on organized labor and labor-law reforms that would have made it easier to form unions; and then, even as they bailed out Wall Street, neglected the burdens of middle-class homeowners who found themselves underwater and their homes worth less than what they paid for them because of the Street’s excesses. 

In fairness, it could have been worse. Clinton did stand up to Gingrich. Obama did get the Affordable Care Act. Congressional Democrats have scored tactical victories against social conservatives and Tea Party radicals. But Democrats haven’t responded in any bold or meaningful way to the increasingly concentrated wealth and power, the steady demise of the middle class, and further impoverishment of the nation’s poor. The Party failed to become a movement to reclaim the economy and our democracy. 

And now come their pre-concessions on Social Security and Medicare. 

Technically, a “chained CPI” might be justifiable if seniors routinely substitute lower-cost alternatives as prices rise, as most other Americans do. But in reality, seniors pay 20 to 40 percent of their incomes for healthcare, including pharmaceuticals — the prices of which are rising much faster than inflation. So there’s no practical justification for reducing Social Security benefits on the assumption inflation isn’t really eating away at those benefits as much as the current cost-of-living adjustment allows.   

Likewise, although a case can be made for reducing the Medicare benefits of higher-income beneficiaries, as a practical matter their savings are almost as vulnerable to rising healthcare costs as are the more modest savings of middle-income retirees. “Means-testing” Medicare also runs the risk of transforming it into a program for the “less fortunate,” which can undermine its political support. 

In short, Medicare isn’t the problem. The underlying problem is the sky-rocketing costs of health care. Because Medicare’s administrative costs are a fraction of those of private health insurance, Medicare might be part of the solution. Medicare for all, or even a public option for Medicare, would give the program enough clout to demand health providers move from a fee-for-service system to one that paid instead for healthy outcomes. 

With healthcare costs under better control, retirees wouldn’t be paying a large and growing portion of their incomes for healthcare — which would alleviate pressure on Social Security. I’m still not convinced a “chained CPI” is necessary, though. A preferable alternative would be to raise the ceiling on the portion of income subject to Social Security taxes (now $113,600). 

Besides, Social Security and Medicare are the most popular programs ever devised by the federal government, which is why Republicans hate them so much. If average Americans have trusted the Democratic Party to do one thing it has been to guard these programs from the depredations of the GOP.  

Putting these two programs “on the table” is also tantamount to accepting the most insidious and dishonest of all Republican claims: That for too long most Americans have been living beyond their means; that we are rapidly approaching a day of reckoning when we can no longer afford these generous “entitlements;” and that prudence and responsibility dictate that we must now begin to live within our means and cut back these projected expenditures, particularly if we are to have any money left to invest in the young and the disadvantaged. 

The truth is the opposite: That for three decades the means of most Americans have been stagnant even though the overall economy has more than doubled in size; that because almost all the gains from growth have gone to the top, most Americans haven’t been able to save enough for retirement or the rising costs of healthcare; and that because of this, Social Security and Medicare are barely adequate as is.  

 
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