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By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Social Security, the social insurance program first implemented by Bismarck in 1889, was described by then-Emperor Wilhelm I as follows: “[T]hose who are disabled from work by age and invalid[ism] have a well-grounded claim to care from the state.” Social Security was implemented in the United States by FDR in 1935, and we generally formulate Wilhelm’s “claim to care” as the wish that elders should be enabled to retire in dignity (in the vulgate, without having to eat cat food). Of course, Social Security policy does not only affect all-too-soon-to-be old codgers like myself, but all citizens who’ve entered the labor force and paid the payroll tax, and all citizens who are making life decisions today, based on what their for future retirement will be. So Social Security policy has a huge impact, society-wide. (We should also note that a Republican budgetary Easter egg means that Social Security benefits will probably become a major issue in Congress in late 2016.)
Here’s the baseline for the left on Social Security. From The Nation:
With boomers retiring without pensions or adequate savings, progressives have proposed expanding Social Security benefits …. Obama, by contrast, has proposed cutting Social Security benefits as part of a “grand bargain” with the Republicans on deficit reduction, a position greatly appreciated on Wall Street. Clinton, like all Democratic candidates, will promise to protect Social Security, but will she support expanding it?
Corrections & Amplifications:
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said that when it comes to fixing Social Security, “putting everything on the table is not an answer. Raising the retirement age is not an answer. Cutting benefits is not an answer.” This article incorrectly summarizes her as saying cutting benefits or raising the eligibility age were “off the table.”
(You have to read that passage a few times to see that although cutting benefits and raising the retirement age each by themselves might not be “an” answer, taken together they might be “the” answer. See how easy?) Anyhow, one shouldn’t allow the evident glee the Journal’s writer took in composing that correction to detract from the fact that you always have to parse the words of Clintons very, very carefully. They are, after all, like Obama, lawyers trained at top schools.
With that caveat, this post will focus on Clinton’s views of what Wilhelm I’s “well-grounded claim to care from the state” by elders might mean to Clinton in practice, if it does not mean Social Security expansion. First, I’ll present Clinton’s views from her campaign site, the campaign trail, and the Democratic debate; then I’ll contrast those views to other political figures (Warren and Sanders); and finally I’ll drive some trucks through the loopholes in Clinton’s words.
Clinton’s Views on Social Security Expansion
“We need to make sure what we already do, like Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, to provide a level of security and support for people, continues to work really well.”
Throughout her career, Hillary has spoken out for seniors and stood up for Medicare and Social Security, and she is committed to preserving, protecting and strengthening these lifelines for today’s seniors and for future generations. Seniors have paid into these programs for a lifetime, and they’ve earned those benefits when they retire.
On Social Security, Hillary Clinton has stood firmly against Republican efforts to privatize the program and weaken it for our seniors. She believes that we should enhance—rather than roll back—Social Security, .
As president, Hillary will defend against the efforts to privatize Medicare and Social Security, and will work to enhance both programs for seniors.
What do words like “provide a level of security and support,” “work really well,” “preserving, protecting and strengthening,” and “will work to enhance” mean operationally? Do you see the word expansion there? Because “enhance” could mean just about anything, right? (And mentally mark down the underlined words “especially for women,” and “our most vulnerable” for later use.)
At a New Hampshire roundtable discussion (April 20, 2015):
“Let’s just take a deep breath here as a country and say, ‘OK, we are going to have a retirement issue and people who worked hard deserve to have enough security when they retire so they can have a good quality of life.’ So I’m 100 percent committed to that,” Mrs. Clinton said.
What do words like “enough security” and “good quality of life” mean operationally? What exactly is Clinton “100 percent committed” to? If not expansion, what?
From a campaign spokesperson clarifying Clinton’s views after that roundtable (April 20, 2015):
[Talking Points Memo] had previously asked the Democratic presidential candidate’s campaign about her position on Social Security —whether she supported expanding it as liberal Democrats have been arguing recently or what she thought of proposals like some of the likely Republican 2016 field.
Spokesman Jesse Ferguson responded, “Hillary has a record of fighting against privatizing Social Security and opposing cuts to seniors benefits and, as she said yesterday, dealing with challenges facing older Americans is a top priority for her.”
“Opposing cuts” doesn’t mean expansion. And what on earth does “dealing with challenges facing older Americans,” a “top priority,” mean?
And from the first Democratic debate (October 13, 2015):
CLINTON: Well, I fully support Social Security. And the most important fight we’re going to have is defending it against continuing Republican efforts to privatize it.
BASH: Do you want to expand it?
CLINTON: I want to enhance the benefits for of Social Security. We have a lot of women on Social Security, particularly widowed and single women who didn’t make a lot of money during their careers, and they are impoverished, and from the Social Security system.
And I will focus — I will focus on helping those people who need it the most. And of course I’m going to defend Social Security. I’m going to look for ways to try to make sure it’s solvent into the future.
What do words like “fully support” and “defend” mean? Do they mean “expand”? I’m guessing no, since Clinton could have answered “Yes” to the moderator who asked her the direct question. And while we’re at it, why isn’t the best defense a good offense? Surely the best way to “defend” Social Security would be to expand it? (And again, mentally mark down the underlined words “the poorest recipients,” “they need more help” and “those people who need it the most.”)
Other Views on Social Security Expansion
Before giving my own interpretation of Clinton’s views, let’s look at what some other political figures have to say. Elizabeth Warren (2013):
Seniors have worked their entire lives and have paid into the system, but right now, more people than ever are on the edge of financial disaster once they retire — and the numbers continue to get worse.
That is why we should be talking about expanding Social Security benefits — not cutting them. Senator Harkin from Iowa, Senator Begich from Alaska, Senator Sanders from Vermont, and others have been pushing hard in that direction. Social Security is incredibly effective, it is incredibly popular, and the calls for strengthening it are growing louder every day.
Indeed. Senator Sanders from the Democratic debates (October 13, 2015):
My view is that when you have millions of seniors in this country trying to get by — and I don’t know how they do on $11,000, $12,000, $13,000 a year — you don’t cut Social Security, you expand it. And the way you expand it is by lifting the cap on taxable incomes so that you do away with the absurdity of a millionaire paying the same amount into the system as somebody making $118,000. You do that, Social Security is solvent until 2061 and you can expand benefits.
And Sanders shows what an effective defense of Social Security looks like (October 12, 2015):
And, [Sanders] said, he had done “everything I could do to stop the Republicans—and, sadly, the President and a few Democrats—from cutting Social Security, through the chained C.P.I.” The chained C.P.I., a different way of calculating the annual cost-of-living increases in Social Security, would likely have lowered the increases for most people, and Obama proposed adopting it in his 2014 budget. Sanders helped lead the opposition, and the President recently stopped pushing for the proposal. “It was a tough fight,” Sanders said. “But now, as a result of a lot of grassroots activism, the debate is about expanding Social Security rather than about cutting it.”
So Warren and Sanders are quite clear on expansion; Clinton, to be charitable, is not. In fact, her words are a cold wind, as we shall now see.
Issues with Clinton’s Views on Social Security
To begin, remember the words I asked you to mentally mark down? (To review: “especially for women,” “our most vulnerable”, “the poorest recipients,” “they need more help” and “those people who need it the most.”) Think about it: They all imply that Clinton wishes to introduce Social Securiyt benefits that are defined using eligibility requirements (“especially,” “most vulnerable,” “poorest”, “need”). That is, Clinton proposes to convert Social Security from a universal program of social insurance to a welfare program. This is a poisoned chalice that will destroy Social Security as we know it. Social Security should not be means-tested:
Medicare and Social Security are not handouts to the needy. They are not even intended to be a safety net. In their design, they promote the fundamental notion that dignity and good health in old age are not special privileges that can be bestowed or taken away. They are fundamental rights that every working American who has contributed productively to the economy can expect to enjoy. As James K. Galbraith told me in an email, “It’s insurance, not charity.”
Make no mistake: If means-testing on the wealthy is allowed, conservatives will keep pushing until that same means-testing is applied to the middle class, who increasingly must rely on Social Security and Medicare in times of economic uncertainty and job insecurity.
Even the Democratic think tank Campaign for America’s Future calls Social Security means-testing a Trojan Horse:
What alarmed Social Security activists is that underneath Clinton’s positive language [in the Democratic debate] – “fully support,” “enhance” – appears to lie support for policies, including from leading conservatives like Pete Peterson – that would actually undermine Social Security.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the House Ways and Means Committee chairman who is being wooed to take over as House speaker, was broadly attacked for proposing a plan that singled out Social Security’s “poorest recipients” for protection. Ryan proposed “progressive price indexing” that would reduce benefits for the top 70 percent of wage earners while maintaining benefits for the bottom 30 percent. When Ryan first proposed this in 2010, coupling this with a plan to divert Social Security funds into stock market accounts, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities concluded that ‘the result would be a system in which Social Security is very unattractive to affluent people … These changes would risk undermining the broad-based support that Social Security now enjoys'”
Like your insurance policy, when you file a claim the size of the check you receive is not based on your income or net worth; it’s based on the amount of coverage you purchased. Car insurance companies that paid less in claims to Mercedes owners, presumably because they are wealthier than owners of a working-class Chevy Cruze, would lose high-end customers – and eventually would collapse.
Now let’s look at something Clinton isn’t mentioning today, but has mentioned in the past: A commission, that favorite device in official Washington for diverting hard choices to an unaccountable body. Here’s Clinton in a campaign 2008 debate, at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA (October 30, 2007):
A: I have said consistently that my plan for Social Security is fiscal responsibility first, then to deal with any long-term challenges. We would have a bipartisan commission. All of these would be considered. I do not want to balance Social Security on the backs of our seniors & middle-class families.
(Ah, memories: the 2008 campaign, when Obama, campaigning in Iowa, put Social Security on the table to differentiate himself from Clinton, after progressives, amazingly enough, had gotten Pelosi to take it off the table under the Bush administration.) And here’s Clinton in a primary debate with Obama at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, PA (April 16, 2008):
OBAMA: [to Clinton]: I think we should be honest in presenting our ideas in terms of how we’re going to stabilize the Social Security system and not just say that we’re going to form a commission and try to solve the problem some other way.
CLINTON: I am totally committed to making sure Social Security is solvent. You’ve got to begin to rein in the budget, pay as you go, to try to replenish our Social Security Trust Fund. And with all due respect, the last time we had a crisis in Social Security wa 1983. Pres. Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill came up with a commission. That was the best and smartest way, because you’ve got to get Republicans and Democrats together. That’s what I will do. And I will say, #1, don’t cut benefits on current beneficiaries they’re already having a hard enough time. And #2, do not impose additional tax burdens on middle-class families.
OBAMA: That commission raised the retirement age, and also raised the payroll tax. So Sen. Clinton can’t have it both ways.
And what’s the model for that commission? Everybody knows that:
When Mrs. Clinton last weighed in on Social Security, she supported a bipartisan commission to tackle the program’s long-term financial imbalance. The widespread view was that such a commission would lead to a compromise in which Democrats support benefit cuts in return for Republican support for a tax increase, all to extend the life of the program.
People on both sides have pointed to a 1983 bipartisan agreement, reached by a commission, as a model.
“The last time we had a crisis was 1983. President [Ronald] Reagan and Speaker Tip O’Neill came up with a commission,” she said. “That was the best and smartest way, because you’ve got to get Republicans and Democrats together.”
(Arguably, it’s better for Republicans and Democrats to do nothing than to get together and make things worse.) Anyhow, the bipartisan [genuflects] Reagan [genuflects] O’Neill deal was — and I didn’t understand this 2016 – 1983 = 30 years ago, and got suckered: I wanted to “save Social Security” — was the one where my payroll taxes were raised to “pay for” my mother and father’s Social Security and my own. That was fine, an act of filial piety, but what was not fine is that the Reagan-O-Neill deal also turned Social Security into a tiered program where benefits vary by age; they get worse, the younger you are. That’s unconscionable, and one excellent way to expand the program would be to make benefits age-neutral. (The random distributution of government services based on arbitrary criteria seems to be a feature of neoliberal programs generally; it certainly is with ObamaCare.) Right now, as a society, we’re sending the message that your dignity in old age should depend on your birth date. Is that really the message Democrats wish to send?
Finally, can we make a reasonble guess at what Clinton’s commission would come up with? I think we can. Chained CPI:
Back in 2013, Obama drew loud complaints from the left for embracing chained CPI for Social Security. In plain language, chained CPI is a different way of measuring cost-of-living increases that most people expect would result in lower Social Security payments over time.
That’s not a bug. It’s a feature.
Left-wing groups want to move things in the opposite direction. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) has sought backing for a measure that was first proposed in 2013 by then-Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa.)
That plan would scrap the ceiling for Social Security contributions and promises to give workers $452 more per year by the age of 75.
Backing such a proposal would go some way to answering the question that many ask about Clinton, on the left and elsewhere: What does she really stand for?
Well, if you want to know what Clinton stands for, one approach — I can’t come up with Clinton’s own views on Chained CPI — is to find out what the famed Clinton network thinks:
As for chained CPI being a “Boehner-McConnell demand,” referring to House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, this echoes a talking point made by the White House. McConnell did mention chained CPI in a television interview as an indication that Obama was serious about reducing mandatory spending; Boehner implicitly referenced in a letter to Obama by urging a proposal, along the lines of a new plan advanced by Erskine Bowles, as an “imperfect, but fair middle ground.” .
[A] prominent Democrat was a driving force behind the development of the concept, and others, such as Bowles, have embraced it, as well. … Opponents of chained CPI would do better to drop the partisan attacks and acknowledge that some Democrats are as responsible for promoting chained CPI as Republicans.
So Chained CPI is bipartisan [genuflects] and supported by at least one prominant member of the Clinton network. So I think we can guess what would be on the agenda of a Social Security Commission under a Clinton administration: Chained CPI, gutting benefits, and (“think of the widows!”) turning Social Security into a welfare program, destroying its universal character.
- Clinton will not commit to Social Security expanson
- Clinton would like to turn Social Security into a welfare program, destroying it
- Clinton would like a Social Security Commission, and past such commissions have produced unconscionable results.
I don’t much listen to political figures speak aloud, any more; I much prefer transcripts. (You can color them with Magic Markers!) As a result, I’ve lost touch with the tone and timbre of Clinton’s voice, and I’ve really struggled to bring to consciousness the metaphor that Clinton’s voice reminds me of. Finally I did: From William Gibson’s novel of virtual reality, Count Zero, where Beauvoir explains “ice” (Intrusion Countermeasures Electronics) to the young protagonist, Bobby:
Ice*, all the really hard stuff, the walls around every major store of data in the matrix, is always the produce of an AI, an artificial intelligence. Nothing else is fast enough to weave good ice and constantly alter and upgrade it.
Hillary Clinton’s speaking voice reminds me of an AI weaving ice around itself: Her words are a hard, shiny, artificial protective carapace, constantly and inventively altered to hide the Turing Test-passing intelligence and store of data within. Go back and read Clinton’s words, and see if you don’t agree.
The words: “As President, I’ll expand Social Security” would be very simple to say. Clinton should consider saying them. I can’t imagine why it’s so hard.
 I prefer “elder” to “senior” because elder, to me, connotes the human qualities that come with age, where senior merely connotes status. There are, after all, some advantages to having seen this or that type of change cycle through society two or three times, or to remembering a time when it was actually possible to reach a human through a phone tree. And you kids get offa my lawn!
 MMT teaches that Federal taxes do not “fund” spending, and proceeds from the unexceptionable premise that society’s provision of services is determined by the real resources, human and otherwise, available in the economy. Hence, the tendentious concern by some for Social Security’s “solvency” — decades off, even reasoning from non-MMT premises — is often a cynical ploy, pushed by those who, even after the disastrous outcome of our social experiment with 401(k)s, would prefer that Social Security be privatized so they can collect fees from managing the money. Ka-ching. That said, the “solvency” issue is outside the scope of this article; the link just given covers that discussion well. Of course, even if one believes that taxes do fund spending, one might question the trade-off between boondogggle aircraft carriers or gold-plated fighter aircraft that catch on fire, and the human dignity of elders, or one might ask “Where’s my bailout?”, the question that tugged at Ben Bernanke’s heartstrings so painfully.
 Tax policy omitted as not germane; see note .
 See note .
 See note .
 I’m tired of the “worked all their lives” trope, even though it’s true. How about we make the criterion “didn’t cause any real damage,” instead? That way, financial parasites wouldn’t get any Social Security benefits at all. I suppose, since that violates Social Security’s principle of universality, that would be poor public policy, since that would only encourage parasites to suck more from their hosts while still active. But still.
 See note .
 See note .
 See note .