Notes on a Theory…

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Posts Tagged ‘Social Insurance

Defending Social Insurance: Solidarity is More Powerful than Individualism

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I recently argued against a common framing when it comes to fending off attacks on Social Security and Medicare, which come in the form of referring to these programs as “entitlements” which must be “reformed.” The standard response, as I said then, is  ”Social Security (or Medicare) is not an entitlement.  It’s an earned benefit.” I argued that this is troubling because it is weak to simply deny the claim and that it is factually wrong, because these programs are entitlements (i.e. rights).  By making the rights frame explicit, we can put opponents on the defensive by using their own term against them and better mobilize our side. That’s how you build power.

I didn’t point out, but I should have, that this phrasing also suffers from the “Don’t Think of an Elephant” problem. As George Lakoff has says, when someone tells you not to think of an elephant, you will in fact think of an elephant. Using the word evokes the image, even if you do so as a denial. That’s just how our brains work.

But I also said that  ‘earned benefit’ is just a weak term.  It’s that claim I want to defend here.

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Written by David Kaib

October 31, 2013 at 2:46 pm

Entitlement Means Right

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By U.S. Government [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Democrats* have gotten at least part of the message–language matters. They know the GOP has long been using language to advance their agenda, and they know they want to as well.  Unfortunately, often this means simply denying Republicans’ framing and offering bloodless alternatives.

A good example involves talk about Social Security and Medicare, lumped together under the term ‘entitlements.’ Political elites (not, it should be noted, limited to Republicans) talk incessantly about the need to ‘reform entitlements’ because, they say, entitlement spending is out of control. To listen to this talk, our greatest threat as a nation is ballooning entitlement spending (not climate change, or inequality, or mass unemployment, or mass incarceration or anything the rest of us actually care about).

Now, this is utter nonsense. I’ve written about this before.  But for now I want to talk about the politics, not the substance.

The standard liberal rhetorical move when faced with this is denial.  Even more than the facts, the typical response denies the label.  “Social Security (or Medicare) is not an entitlement”, they insist.  “It’s an earned benefit.” Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

October 11, 2013 at 9:50 am

How Means Testing Exploits Well Intentioned Liberals

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Means testing of Social Security or Medicare is a bad idea.  It doesn’t generally save that much money and it undermines the very logic of social insurance–universal coverage paid for by dedicated taxation, thereby spreading risk over the whole population, protecting everyone.  Means testing is a way of welfarizing social insurance, that is, associating it with the poor (read : undeserving)  Most people, even politically active people, don’t understand the idea of social insurance, either its policy or political logic.

That said, I’ve found the idea is one that many liberals seem drawn to.  I’m not talking about neoliberals who are really skeptical of social insurance. I mean people who are primarily concerned with inequality, who have no ideological skepticism toward government. And I don’t mean the politicians and think tanks that are pushing it.  I mean why people think it sounds like a good idea.

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Written by David Kaib

December 17, 2012 at 11:16 pm

Drawing Lines on Social Insurance: Turning Tough Talk into Pressure

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Many people are taking heart in hard lines being drawn by progressives to oppose benefit cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.   As Alex Seitz-Wald notes, Politico is reporting a proposed deal to include $400 billion over 10 years in “entitlement” cuts.  Keith Ellison, chair of the Progressive Caucus, said “Progressives will not support any deal that cuts benefits for families and seniors who rely on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security to put food on the table or cover their health costs.”  Outside groups were making similar noises.

“If this report in Politico is correct, then some ‘senior Democrats’ are sorely misguided about where their base stands. So let me be crystal clear. Any benefit cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security, including raising the retirement or eligibility age, are absolutely unacceptable,” Ilya Sheyman, the campaign director at MoveOn.org told Salon. “More than 80 percent of MoveOn’s 7 million members say they want us to fight a deal that cuts those benefits, even if it also ends all of the Bush tax cuts for the top 2 percent. And that’s a mainstream position everywhere except in the lobbyist-cash-infused D.C. cocktail circuit,” Sheyman continued.

There will be consequences, he warned, for Democrats who support a deal that cuts entitlements. “Bottom line: Any Democrat who votes to cut Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security benefits does so at his or her own peril, and shouldn’t be in the least bit surprised to be held accountable by MoveOn members in the next primary election.”

Unfortunately, such statements don’t mean much. Members of the Progressive Caucus have made threats not to vote for things in the past and then didn’t follow through.  MoveOn and other groups have yet to show they have any ability to punish Democrats for betraying progressive values.  It will be small consolation if Congress seeks benefit cuts which undermine social insurance and progressive groups demonstrate they can punish Democrats for it after the fact.

But there is a bigger problem.  Even if the threat to punish Democrats for voting wrong could be credibly made, it’s not clear why that should work. Members of Congress all can look forward to well-paying lobbying jobs after leaving office.

The truly powerful don’t wait until the vote to flex their power. They go after people for merely suggesting things that deviate from their interests. They seek to pressure the first people to step out of line, long before a vote, to ensure that nothing threatening ever comes up for a vote.  If anyone, whether Keith Ellison, MoveOn, unions, or activists, wants to demonstrate their credibility–in terms of their commitment to hard lines or their willingness  to hold others accountable–they can do it now. They can do it by jumping on anyone who suggests that benefit cuts should be part of the deal, or who conflates benefit cuts with other spending cuts, or who (falsely) claims that Social Security is driving the deficit or that Medicare in inefficient, or otherwise use scare tactics to make cuts seems inevitable, should be viciously attacked.   They could start with Dick Durbin or Chris Van Hollen (“Mr. Van Hollen also said changing Social Security and increasing the Medicare eligibility age above 65 should be part of negotiations.”).  And when people say the right thing, that needs to be something that energizes us to demand that others do the same, not an opportunity to demobilize.

Written by David Kaib

November 30, 2012 at 9:44 am

Why is Dick Durbin Trying to Undermine Social Security and Medicare?

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Dick Durbin, who wants to undermine social insurance

Dick Durbin, doing his best to undermine social insurance and the long-term viability of the Democratic Party, is seeking to convince progressives to demobilize rather than fight attacks on Social Security and Medicare.

A top Democrat pressured fellow progressives Tuesday to support – rather than fight – a far-reaching budget deal that includes cuts to entitlement programs after resolving  the upcoming fiscal cliff.

“We can’t be so naive to believe that just taxing the rich will solve our problems,” said Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate. “Put everything on the table. Repeat. Everything on the table.”

This is nonsense. Why on earth should everything be on the table? Even if it was true that deficits were out of control (they aren’t) and that we had to act now to address them (we don’t), things that don’t contribute to the deficit at all – like Social Security – shouldn’t be part of the conversation.  But beyond that, it’s just false. Vastly popular, wildly successful programs that happen to be unpopular with elites shouldn’t be “on the table.”

This is how Social Security and Medicare ends – with false progressive officials, supposedly liberal commentators like Kevin Drum, and compromised organizations like the AARP all shifting the terms of the debate so we’re only talking about how to cut benefits not whether, let alone how to expand these programs.

As I said in my last post, never trust anyone who extolls the value of a political deal without talking about the substance of the deal.

If people like Durbin can float these sort of claims without being punished for it, everyone in Washington will know that they can go after these programs without consequences.  If, on the other hand, he is made suffer, few will want to be next in line.  Social insurance is only vulnerable if we fail to mobilize to protect it.  Which is why this sort of thing is unforgivable.

For what its worth, Durbin holds the number two position in the Senate. As the whip, his job is to get Democrats to vote correctly.  He represents everyone else in the caucus.  It strikes me that every member of the Democratic caucus should face angry constituents demanding that they condemn him.

Written by David Kaib

November 28, 2012 at 11:53 pm

Kevin Drum Tells Liberals to Chill Out Over Social Security

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Kevin Drum wants liberals to calm down about the possibility of a deal to address Social Security.

If we extended the solvency of Social Security for the next century, it’s true that the Cato Institute would be back the next day complaining that this wasn’t enough. After all, they’re ideologically opposed to the whole idea of Social Security. It might take the Heritage Foundation a little longer, but they’d get right back into the fight pretty quickly too.

But the Washington Post wouldn’t. The Pete Peterson folks wouldn’t. The truth is that all the earnest, centrist, Very Serious People who want to reform Social Security don’t want to starve your granny. They don’t have a problem with the concept of a guaranteed retirement program. They just want it to be properly funded.

They just want it properly funded?  The chorus of people who keep falsely claiming we must deal with “out of control entitlement spending” leading to an “exploding deficit” thereby conflating Medicare spending, which is increasing because medical costs are increasing, although more slowly than in the private sector, with Social Security spending, which is not rising at nearly the same rate and contributes nothing to the deficit?  Anyone who’s paying attention can see all the very serious people have been emphasizing the alleged threat of social insurance to the budget deficit.  Read Dean Baker to see the endless attacks on Social Security from all these VSP – including the Washington Post.

The fact is, as Andrea Campbell and Kimberly Morgan (pdf) have shown, that elites turned against the social insurance model in the 1970s, while the public has remained supportive, wanting expansions of these programs rather than cuts.  Given the vast unpopularity of that position, as opponents have long realized, the only way to undermine Social Security and Medicare is by claiming that changes are needed to protect it – that is, by constructing threats to the programs.  The incentive to lie is obvious.

Of course, those of us who want to expand Social Security and Medicare are fine with reforms like ending the cap on payroll taxes which will bring in more money.  But why talk of a deal instead of the specifics?  Are cuts or benefits interchangeable?

Never trust anyone who extolls the value of a political deal without talking about the substance of the deal.

The only thing that protects these programs is that the public would mobilize if they realized what was really going on. There was a time when the mere whiff of a mention of cuts would have led to DEFCOM 5.  The whole idea of Social Security as the third rail of politics was that it was unacceptable to even speak of cuts.  When Bush sought to privatize Social Security, the Democrats were a united front against any changes at all.  Nancy Pelosi famously said “We have a plan. It’s called Social Security”This time there is far too much talk about cuts, even from people who stood against Bush.  Even the AARP has been wishy washy on this score.  This talk removes the chief barrier protecting these programs – keeping it off the agenda.

We don’t need to chill out.  We need a massive mobilization. We need everyone to take clear, repeated, bold stands against any benefit cuts, for whatever reason.  We need to press politicians for merely talking about austerity, or a so called entitlement crisis.

And anyone who claims otherwise, regardless of their intentions, is working to “starve your granny.”

Written by David Kaib

November 28, 2012 at 2:06 pm

When is a Cut not a Cut? Framing and Medicare

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Scott Lemieux points to the confusion over “cutting” Medicare, arguing that not all cuts are created equal.

There’s nothing wrong with Medicare cuts per se; indeed, spending less per capita on Medicare should be a progressive goal. It’s a question of what these cuts mean. Evidently, cutting payments to the rentiers Republicans have sought to reward through Medicare Advantage is an unequivocally good thing. And reductions in payments to hospitals that come because there are fewer uninsured patients that hospitals have to treat are also a good thing. And this is what the Medicare cuts Obama supported come from. The Medicare cuts Ryan supports, conversely, come from requiring people to pay much more out of pocket for the same things, preventing them from getting insurance that will get the same things covered, or denying them the ability to get insurance at all.

I agree on the substance, but I think we need to rethink our terminology. Talk of ‘good cuts’ is counterproductive.  You can’t use the same word to denote taking benefits away from people that you use for delivering the exact same benefits for a better price. Those who oppose social insurance but want to shift as much public money into corporate hands as possible (that is, proponents of the Predator State) have an obvious interest in conflating the two. Those who want to protect Social Security and Medicare need to be a lot clearer about the difference.

Personally, I think “cuts” implies “benefits cuts” to most people, so I’d use it that way – always including the word benefits. Talk of saving money shouldn’t be referred to as a cut – and should always mention that it’s delivering the same benefits more cheaply. You should also always mention that Medicare is already providing health care more efficiently than the corporate insurance sector, misleadingly called the private sector.  Talk of Social Security cuts (which as Scott notes, are different, in that it’s always about a cut in benefits), in any form, should make one a social leper.  In essence, if you don’t want something to have a chance of happening, then you don’t want it to be floated without a massive freakout.  The reaction to such suggestions is how people know the boundaries of the possible. But ambiguity makes that more difficult.

Clarity is important both for getting the public engaged on this issue, where they are far more progressive than official Washington. It’s also important for ensuring accountability for those who present themselves as our allies.

Written by David Kaib

August 16, 2012 at 9:14 am

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