By Bob Cesca
Author, “One Nation Under Fear”
Last week, the president released his 2014 budget and, among some solid line items like additional infrastructure spending, universal preschool and reductions in tax breaks for Big Oil, he also proposed the truly stupid idea of linking Social Security cost-of-living-adjustments (COLAs) to something called “chained CPI” (chained consumer price index).
Briefly put, Social Security benefits are routinely hiked by a few percentage points each year based on inflation. Lately, those bumps have been scarce and more than a little weak, but adjustments based on chained CPI would be even weaker because the government would presume that as retail prices increase with inflation seniors will substitute lower-cost items. In other words, the government currently calculates benefits based on inflation, but with chained CPI, the government would calculate benefits based on an assumed consumer reaction to inflation (buying cheaper stuff). Consequently, Social Security benefits would be reduced to follow this assumption.
Yeah, it sucks. And the president, while attempting to play the role of the grown-up in the room and apparently taking responsible steps toward deficit reduction and Social Security salvation, is only managing to wrap his entire presidency around the big political third rail. It’s not as huge as George W. Bush’s second-term embrace of Social Security tinkering, but it’s a bad move.
Not only is the idea a punitive one for seniors, but the president is also fueling a series of inside-D.C. myths. They are:
1) Social Security is broke! IEEE! This might, in fact, be biggest D.C. myth of all D.C. myths. It originated with Republican concern trolls who pretend to care about Social Security but, in reality, are trying to kill it. The strategy is to weaken it to the point of being unpopular and unsalvageable — ripe for a private takeover or total shutdown. And so we get this on-going panic-button freakout that echoes through the complacent false equivalence press corp, and is ultimately fueled by Democrats like the president. But according to the Social Security trustees, the program will be capable of paying full benefits based on the current COLA formula for the next 20 years. Actually, the outlook is even better than that: the trustees also reported that Social Security will run a surplus until 2033. Can you imagine if any program in the federal government was projected to run a surplus for even half of that time? Budget hawks would crap their cages demanding immediate action to give back the taxpayers’ money by slashing the program to the line. Furthermore, once 2033 rolls around, Social Security will be capable of paying 75 to 80 percent of total benefits in 2033 money, which, accounting for inflation, is more than Social Security recipients receive today.
2) We have to tinker with Social Security because of the deficit. Whenever deficit hawks suffer from one of these routine fits of apoplexy, they always manage to loop Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid cuts into the mix, along with cuts to minor spending areas like foreign aid. Put another way, a gaggle of super-wealthy politicians and pundits who will never really need Social Security are always way, way, waaaay too eager to dump these programs onto the chopping block. In a budget crisis that’s ginned up by multi-millionaires, we should demand that they get in line first — cut programs and spending on areas that effect the wealthiest Americans, including corporations, before anyone else is forced to pitch in. (more…)