Social Security: MIA


Candidates do not have the right to remain silent.

Good old Molly Ivins, a fellow texan and a liberal political commentator for decades, passed away earlier this year. Over the course of her career, Ivins was called many things by the crackerjack politicos of the right (few of them kind), but she held on to the important, oft-forgotten issues with a grip the likes of which neither Mr. Russert nor Mr. Matthews can ever hope to match. And she pulled it off while working in a state like Texas, which is a feat unto itself.

I wish to invoke her tenacity about a now forgotten topic: Social Security. With last Monday’s widely reported Social Security benefits registration of the first Baby Boomer, a Kathleen Casey-Kirschling of New Jersey, the issue of the program’s potential insolvency has finally hit home. Only now are the Democratic primary candidates even beginning to gain a voice on the issue. Front-runner Hillary Clinton, never stating support for any system of solutions on the record, was recently caught unofficially backing John Edwards’s reform plan. Edwards’s plan involves a tax hike for certain parts of the population, among other things. Barack Obama, meanwhile, has said next to nothing. None of these candidates’ web sites dares mention anything easily accessible.

As for the Republicans, they haven’t even talked in substance about healthcare policy, itself a hot-button issue, let alone Social Security. In their debates, they prefer to focus on fighting terrorists, Asian economies, and gays.

Ironically, the sole candidate to offer a Social Security reform plan on the Republican side is Fred Thompson, the man who on the whole has said very little about anything. He suggested, according to the Boston Globe (in an article written once Mrs. Casey-Kirschling made obvious the necessity of reform), cutting benefits to certain segments of the population. The other andidates, the article said, did not think the issue important enough to address.

Perhaps they have a point. In AlterNet editorials written during the 2004 presidential election, liberals (including Molly Ivins) considered the Social Security scare just that: a scare. Ivins argued that the predicted death date of Social Security moves forward in time constantly. She further contended that were the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals never implemented, the funding for the system would have persisted in full. And if additional funding were needed in the long term, a tax hike equal to the value of the Iraq War (far cheaper in 2004 than now) would resolve the deficit.

Of course, not all agree with this view. The conservative Heritage Foundation argued in 2004 that Social Security will run out by 2018. They claimed that since the Social Security Fund never contained actual money, but rather only debt caused by the government borrowing from the Fund to pay its expenses, an Insufficient Funds returned check will be hitting the government rather soon.

In a way, both of these interpretations seem to fit quite well with the Congressional Budget Office’s data. The data agrees with the right — outlays will exceed revenue, and if the government cannot repay its debt to the Social Security Fund, then something will need to be done. On the flip side, the data seems to agree with Ivins, in that were the Fund repaid, initially via economic growth and later by devoting a larger piece of the economic pie to Social Security, then the crisis is resolvable.

What is clear is that the discussion needs to occur. No one doubts that health care expenditures, also expected by economists to swallow the federal budget if left unexpanded by the 2040’s, merits attention. This problem is more immediate. With increasing numbers of uninsured and strong links between lacking insurance and inferior health outcomes, it is difficult for a politician to ignore. And it becomes still more difficult when we consider that the current pre-tax deduction of health expenses functions as a subsidy for the rich even as many of the poor and middle class remain uninsured.

But Social Security and health care projections are quite alike, as far as the timeline to insolvency is concerned. The affected groups are often related, and the solutions — cutting expenditures or redistributing the economic pie — function in the same basic fashion. Moreover, even with the Medicare Plan D prescription drug plan passed by Congress and Bush in 2003, the money flows together: Social Security pays the Medicare co-pays of many, though no statistics on this seem to have been taken since Plan D passed.

Even without the numbers, it does not seem an unreasonable assumption that Social Security and medical expenditures are tied at the hip. Nor does it seem unreasonable to ask of our presidential candidates that they define a position on the issue, even if stating a plan sets them up for attack. If they believe there to be no problem, then they should say so — and defend the stance. If they believe that the program is in dire straits, then they should declare and defend that view.

This continued evasion, most artfully displayed by Clinton, is abusive to voters and creates a giant policy gap. They cannot claim to support full medical care and insurance if they cannot sustain the welfare programs that go along with it. What good is it to care for someone’s cancer when they have no home, no food, and no sustainable lifestyle? Extreme, yes, but millions are forced to trade off basic necessities in keep up with their healthcare expenditures. These issues cannot be separated, and the American people should begin to demand of their primary candidates comprehensive positions as tenaciously as Molly would have.

Ralph Mayrell ’09 (rmayrell@fas) is a crackerjack politico.