Tuesday, October 16, 2012

No, Social Security is not "going broke"

I don't want to get into a comprehensive rehashing of last Thursday's Biden-Ryan debate here.  (One place to go for a quick overview is this roundup of reactions & assessments that Greg Sargent posted the day after the debate.)

Obviously, for those of us who support Obama's re-election, the vice-presidential slugging match was a lot less disappointing, not to say excruciating, than the first Obama-Romney debate.  Still, it was not a knockout for either side, and I must confess that the parts of the discussion dealing with foreign policy, which consumed a lot of time, didn't strike me as having much depth or substance.  Both candidates stuck too much to sloganeering, evaded a lot of the most difficult and important issues, and made a number of questionable assertions.  Ryan came off looking a bit worse, I would say, if only because he made it clear that the Romney/Ryan attacks on Obama's foreign policies are superficial and mostly just rhetorical, at best, since they have no serious alternative policies to offer.  Ryan did repeat the standard Romney claims that Obama and his administration have been systematically "apologizing for America," "apologizing for our values," and so on.  Since these claims happen to be quite groundless and dishonest, I hope Ryan's demagoguery on this score helped chip away further at his highly inflated reputation for honesty and integrity; but I'm aware that for some parts of the electorate, these fabrications probably sound convincing.

On the other hand, when the discussion turned to domestic issues, which are the ones that most voters are really worried about, then it seems to me that Biden crushed Ryan—in terms of both substance and style.  (Of course, I realize that some readers, mostly Republicans, will disagree with me on that one.)  Biden hammed it up a bit, was sometimes a little imprecise, and pulled his punches on some important issues, which he mentioned but didn't drive home as fully or effectively as I would have liked.  On the other hand, the points he made were largely on-target and probably convincing to most voters (in my possibly fallible opinion).  And he responded effectively to Ryan's lies, prevarications, distortions, evasions, refusals to answer questions, and empty slogans by punching back with facts, cheerful mockery, and occasionally just laughing in Ryan's face.  The fact that so many Republicans and Republican-leaning pundits have been whining about Biden's impoliteness and "disrespect" for Ryan is good evidence that they know this strategy was pretty effective.

But as I said, I will avoid getting into detail on all that.

=> Instead, I'd like to highlight an interesting and revealing moment in the debate when the moderator, Martha Raddatz, offered a useful clue into the prevailing conventional wisdom by repeating a widely accepted but quite inaccurate right-wing propaganda point as though it were an established fact.
RADDATZ: Let's talk about Medicare and entitlements. Both Medicare and Social Security are going broke and taking a larger share of the budget in the process.
Will benefits for Americans under these programs have to change for the programs to survive?
Mr. Ryan?
RYAN: Absolutely. Medicare and Social Security are going bankrupt. These are indisputable facts. [....]
Actually, no.  The claim that Social Security is "going bankrupt" has been repeated so frequently over the past decades by Republican politicians and right-wing propagandists (whose real agenda is to undermine and eventually dismantle Social Security, which they dislike in principle) that even people who should know better often vaguely assume that this claim must be correct, or at least plausible.  But it happens to be false.

Since this canard keeps coming back, and has to be refuted over and over again, I will just quote some things I've already said about it in the past (here).  Sometime during the next few decades, Social Security may well require a few small fixes and adjustments.  But it is not facing urgent financial problems, let alone imminent crisis, and unless the Republicans and gullible Democrats manage to sabotage it, there are no good reasons to worry that it is headed for financial collapse.
It's true that Medicare is on a path toward financial unsustainability (a problem intensified, perhaps intentionally, by the way the Bush/Rove prescription drug plan was designed) and will require some serious reforms down the line. As Paul Krugman has pointed out, right-wingers often try to blur the two together by talking about Social-Security-and-Medicare as if they were a single pathological entity. But that's just a rhetorical trick. In fact, the Social Security system is quite solvent; it is not due to run into even slight financial difficulties for decades; and those potential problems could indeed be solved with "some minor adjustments".
The fact that so many intelligent, well-intentioned, and otherwise well-informed people appear to believe otherwise
is a tribute to the effectiveness of a decades-long campaign of distortion and disinformation by right-wing politicians and propagandists, aided and abetted by widespread economic illiteracy among journalists and pundits. The point, of course, is to panic the electorate into letting them undermine, eviscerate, and eventually dismantle Social Security under the guise of "reforming" it.

So far they haven't been able to do that, but if they continue to bamboozle the public so successfully, they might pull it off sometime in the future [....]  So it's important to make it clear that this whole Chicken Little story about the imminent collapse of the Social Security system (a "Ponzi scheme" and "a monstrous lie," according to Rick Perry) is simply bogus.
Anyone interested in some further explanation & elaboration can look here & here & here & here.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub