MY FELLOW AMERICANS, BEND OVER

Posted in Rants on February 16th, 2011 by Ed

There are few things that irk me more than working on a post here and there for a few weeks and then having someone else beat me to it, as Matt Yglesias did here. Nonetheless this is worth saying again and somewhat more forcefully.

It is hard to pick just one thing to earn the title of Most Infuriating in the faux-debate about Social Security reform, but if forced to choose I would have to pick the idea of grandfathering seniors out of the impending cuts. Leaving aside momentarily the fact that the claims of a rickety, insolvent system on the verge of going tits-up at any moment are a wild exaggeration at best, the institutionalized kissing of the asses of seniors is the biggest obstacle to introducing sanity into the upcoming reforms. Every proposal thus far, and we may safely assume any forthcoming ones as well, stipulate that no substantive changes will be made to the SS benefits of people currently 55 or older. You know, that voting bloc with extraordinarily high turnout composed of aging Boomers who want to burn every bridge once they have safely crossed it.

In keeping with the modern political tradition of refusing to demand any sacrifices from voters (at least not the ones who matter to the Beltway) we are about to be promised radical changes to Social Security that don't require the vast majority of current or near-future recipients to experience any changes. "But I paid into it my whole life!" they say, as if people who have merely paid into it for 30 years are not stakeholders. This is a politically expedient bit of ass covering used by both parties – and frankly a little more tasteful than some other efforts at pandering to seniors – but the absolute worst possible way to approach reform, virtually guaranteeing that the same portion of our society that spends most of its life being shat upon will bear the brunt of the consequences and see few if any benefits.

If reform is truly necessary (as opposed to austerity hysteria used as a canard for hostility toward the welfare state in general) then everyone should be in this boat together. We should be sharing the sacrifices. None of this "Let's screw a lot of our constituents but protect the ones most crucial to our re-election" nonsense. If political leadership still existed in this country, a real president or Congressional leader would stand up and say "We'd prefer not to change Social Security but it looks like we have to. Everybody bend over. This is going to be unpleasant, but take some solace in the fact that everybody is going to get screwed." I calculate the odds of that happening at about a million to one.

Of course I feel bad for current SS recipients who are struggling to make ends meet even at current benefit levels. In reality I would prefer that the system be left as-is and any future revenue shortfalls remedied by lifting the cap on high income contributions. But the larger point is that this is indicative of a deeply disturbing habit that is ingrained in our political system: selectively screwing various groups based on their perceived electoral importance. Sure, let's just dump all of the consequences on the young. Maybe we'll switch it up next time and screw the poor, or maybe the blacks and Latinos. Whatever we end up choosing, for the love of baby Jesus please make sure no consequences befall the elderly or the upper middle class.