Notes on a Theory…

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Posts Tagged ‘Social Security

Top Posts for 2013

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Here they are–the top posts, based on views, for 2013.

1. Blaming Consumers is a Cop Out

This is the no contest the most read piece this year, also the most comments for a post.  It included a shout out to John Kenneth Galbraith, and a link to Albert Hirschman. (Mental note, talk about more good economists.)

“our willingness” to buy products produced under these conditions is an odd way to talk about it. Businesses spend a lot of energy obscuring these working conditions, to tell those who are concerned about it that they have improved them, will work to improve them, or that they aren’t that bad or that they are inevitable.  Beyond that, it’s not clear what consumers are supposed to do. If all products were clearly labeled to give us a full sense of the conditions in which they were made, it’s not as if it would be possible to simply avoid such products. Anyone who’s ever spent time trying to do this knows while you can occasionally find something made in fair conditions, it’s next to impossible to do it consistently.  Despite the myth that markets always provide broad choice, this is simply not the case.

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Written by David Kaib

December 26, 2013 at 5:53 pm

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

Why Won’t You Rubes Get Excited About Cory Booker

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Cory Booker 2011 Shankbone

By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

[Update below. 8-28-13]

LEAVE CORY BOOKER ALOOOOOOOONE!!!!

Molly Ball is not impressed with “liberal” critics of Cory Booker. (And Paul Waldman agrees with her.)

“Cory Booker is not yet a senator,” Ball warns,”but many on the left have already made up their minds that the onetime Democratic wunderkind is a sellout.” I don’t think anyone thinks Booker is a sellout, which implies that someone was on the side of right and justice and then lost their way. If you want to boil it down to a phrase, ‘bought and paid for’ would be far closed to the truth than ‘sellout’. The attacks are largely a claim that he’s been motivated by ambition and support for the wealthy from the get go.  Progressive criticism of Booker is nothing new. It’s also odd to suggest that people are supposed to wait to criticize someone who’s been on the national stage for a while now, is running for Senate, and who has received effusive praise from many quarters all along. I do admit that I don’t understand the rules of when it’s appropriate to criticize Democratic politicians–not while we’re passing this policy, not before a presidential election, the midterms are coming. Somehow it’s always the wrong time.

If only there was a time when hippie punching was verboten! Even for a day. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by David Kaib

August 27, 2013 at 8:41 am

National and Social Security and the Right to Eat

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Vegetarian diet

By Scott Bauer, USDA ARS [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Section 2 of the National School Lunch Act of 1946 reads,

It is hereby declared to be the policy of Congress, as a measure of national security, to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food, by assisting the States,  through grants-in-aid and other means, in providing an adequate supply of foods and other facilities for the establishment, maintenance, and expansion of nonprofit school-lunch programs.

In the hearings for this Act,Major General Lewis B. Hershey testified to Congress that 16% of Selective Service registrants in World War II were rejected from service or placed in the limited service class and that malnutrition or underfeeding played a likely role in somewhere between 40% and 60% of these cases (U.S. Congress 1945). Congress felt the need to remedy this situation and, thus, the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), under which the federal government provides cash and commodity aid to states for localities to use in serving warm lunches to students, was seen as a “measure of national security.”

I ran across this in a paper by Peter Hinrichs on the health and educational effects of the school lunch program. It’s striking to think of a program designed to help the poor as a ‘national security’ measure, but it’s true that a great deal of government action in the  World War II and post-War period was justified on this basis. (I’d love to see a geneology of the ideas of social security–which originally meant something far more broad than today’s meaning of Old Age Insurance, and national security, and how the latter overcame the former as the main justification for the welfare state.)

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Written by David Kaib

May 24, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Chained CPI, Social Insurance and Two Kinds of Politics

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Social Security was enacted in response to mass mobilization. It can only be saved through mass mobilization.

The president’s new budget proposal includes both Chained CPI, a cut in Social Security benefits, and cuts in Medicare benefits.  As Shawn Fremstad  notes, the White House’s assurances that the ‘most vulnerable’ will be protected are not to be taken seriously.

It’s troubling for any number of reasons, including that the defenses offered are nonsense.  Chained CPI is arguably a more accurate measure for working people, but the existing measure clearly underestimates inflation for seniors, who spend far more of their income on health care, where costs are rising faster. Social Security doesn’t contribute to the deficit, which doesn’t matter (at least at the moment), and no one actually cares about it, and Medicare costs could be dealt with through costs controls rather than benefit cuts. Read the rest of this entry »

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

Treat Everything Like a Trial Balloon

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balloon-clipart-5Trial balloons are central to American politics, yet the idea gets very little attention from political scientists.  The basic point is simple–the administration anonymously floats an idea, for example, a name for a political appointment. This can be done by a source that can’t speak on the record, or by writers who are close to administration, portraying it as the writers idea.  Once the idea is put out there, the administration waits to see the reaction.  If the name is greeted with praise, or at least indifference, the name is a safe one.  If it’s greeted with attacks, depending on their intensity and from who they come, the administration knows appointing the individual will cause trouble, and another name can be chosen since they never admitted they were even considering the person in the first place.

This makes sense, given a central problem for all actors in the political system–nobody knows exactly what everyone else in thinking, or how strongly they feel. Watching how other people react when ideas are floated provides that information.  It lets you know if your position is popular (within elite circles in Washington, which is what matters for these things) or if a particular stand would mean that you were standing alone. It’s how the boundaries of what’s reasonable and what’s off the wall are drawn. It’s how you can tell if you will be called to account for your actions and whether you’ll be able to defend them if you are.  Since organizing opposition takes time, you can be sure it either won’t happen, or at least won’t happen effectively, if people don’t begin mobilizing long before a final decision, whether that means an appointment, or a legislative vote.

What’s interesting about all this is that all these problems exist regardless of whether anyone intended to float a trial balloon.  It doesn’t matter if reporting merely reflects internal deliberations, or if the story was only the result of a single disgruntled staffer.  In the end, the reaction to the story serves the same function.

Powerful people in Washington understand all this.  They pounce on people for merely suggesting anything that threatens their interests. That’s how they keep such ideas off the agenda, so that what is actually voted on is non-threatening, making wins and losses on the merits essentially beside the point. When Social Security and Medicare were untouchable, it was because the slightest whiff of a challenge to it would bring about a massive mobilization.

Since we can’t know whether an idea being floated in intended as a trial balloon or not–since the whole point of it is to deny responsibility–and since the impact is the same regardless, the answer is clear.  Treat everything as a trial balloon. If someone tries to convince you otherwise, say when it comes to talk of undermining Medicare, they are either bad at politics or trying to keep you powerless.

Written by David Kaib

December 8, 2012 at 11:00 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

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