Notes on a Theory…

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Posts Tagged ‘Social Security

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 writer’s 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 is 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.

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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

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

The Grand Bargain, Pressuring Democrats and the Future of Labor

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Greg Sargent has the story on how some of the largest unions, which also are among those who are closest to the White House and most inclined towards emphasizing supporting the Democrats as their central strategy, ‘have the President’s back’ when it comes to taxes and social insurance.

Along those lines, I’m told that SEIU, AFSCME, and the National Education Association are putting together a major push, including TV ads, to pressure Congress to adopt a fiscal cliff approach that doesn’t do any harm to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security — and includes higher taxes from the wealthy. If necessary, the campaign might target Dems who stray from these principles.

“We believe this election was a crystal clear expression by working people in this country that the rich need to pay their fair share,” SEIU president Mary Kay Henry told me in an interview. “The new majority needs to continue to hold everyone accountable — Democrats and Republicans — by making sure we back the president’s vision for the country.”

So if it’s necessary, these unions might pressure Democrats.  Let that sink in for a moment.  (Glenn Greenwald  gives a good indication of what will likely happen given past history.  Step one is that liberals declare that they won’t accept any cuts.  It’s never good when he’s insufficiently pessimistic.)  The phrase ‘doesn’t do any harm’ concerns me quite a bit as well.  A better one would be ‘absolutely no benefit cuts.’  That’s the people’s vision, something I’d say is far more important than the president’s vision.

I saw Sargent’s story passed around this past week, and most people seemed to take it to mean these unions were ready to play hardball with recalcitrant Democrats.  No doubt this is what they would like people to believe. But that isn’t what the story says.

Interestingly enough, these were some of the same unions that took out loans in the waning days of the campaign to add to the large sums of money they had already spent to support Senate Democratic candidates.  The Democrats did maintain ‘control’ of the Senate, and even extended their majority.  But unless they jettison the indefensible and unconstitutional filibuster, it’s not clear how valuable a few extra seats are.

Whether Democrats will return the favor, leaving aside whether they are capable of doing so, is another matter.  As Mike Elk put it,

But while labor spent heavily to re-elect Barack Obama, it’s not clear that Obama will return the favor. From failing to pass labor’s key priority, the Employee Free Choice Act (which would have made it easier for workers to organize), to freezing the pay of federal workers, to signing free trade treaties with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama (and now in the process of negotiating the largest free trade treaty ever, the Trans Pacific Partnership, which involves most of the nations on the Pacific Rim), Obama has hardly been labor’s strongest champion. Indeed, rumors are swirling around Washington that Obama might use his second term to strike a “Grand Bargain” in which he would agree to cut Social Security in order to raise taxes and reduce the deficit.

The last sentence is hard to square with Sargent’s story.  The reality is that the White House, along with key Democrats, have been making noise about a Grand Bargain since before Obama took office.  A number of Democrats have been incoherent and shifting – appearing to take stands that would halt this nonsense and then backing away.  Digby has been all over this story from the beginning.  Regardless of the reasons for this, it makes organizing opposition difficult, in a way that taking a clear position would not.  Indeed, Democrats in office as well as commentators have often not been clear on the difference between cutting costs, which is both necessary and popular, with benefits cuts, which are neither.  That said, as Corey Robin pointed out, on election night Obama “claimed that reducing the debt and the deficit—elsewhere they call that austerity—will be a top priority of his second administration.”

It’s also worth noting to that this list of Elk’s is not simply about failing to enact legislation, but includes active efforts by the White House to enact anti-worker policies.  And he doesn’t even mention the most important positive step to support working people the White House could take, yet has failed to – fair contracting.  Among other things, it could actually help to reverse the decline in union density by providing protections for workers in areas not covered by federal labor laws.

This problem is not limited to certain unions.  It can also be found in many liberal constituency groups, like the AARP.  They often share this perspective–that unqualified support for Democrats in both elections and policy will cultivate insider connections, under the belief that this is the most effective route to power.  But if you’re unwilling to challenge those you are negotiating with, how is there any power?  While some believe that Social Security remains the third rail of politics, in part because of the power of the AARP, I think that’s no longer true.  Throughout the election, the AARP ran commercials about the potential for changes in these programs.  You might have thought their opening position was to oppose any and all cuts.  Instead, the commercials insisted that retirees deserved the facts, deserved clear answers about what was going to be done.  Another version said that you’re earned your say, that politicians should listen to retirees, without specifying what exactly they were saying.  These are fairly low bars, and aren’t even close to being met.  But the AARP remains fairly quiet.  And they are not alone.

Part of the problem here is that the whole premise of the policy problem, accepted as unquestionably true by elites, is complete and utter nonsense.  Jamie Galbraith explains what is going on.

That the looming debt and deficit crisis is fake is something that, by now, even the most dim member of Congress must know.  The combination of hysterical rhetoric, small armies of lobbyists and pundits, and the proliferation of billionaire-backed front groups with names like the “Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget” is not a novelty in Washington. It happens whenever Big Money wants something badly enough.

Big Money has been gunning for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid for decades – since the beginning of Social Security in 1935. The motives are partly financial: As one scholar once put it to me, the payroll tax is the “Mississippi of cash flows.” Anything that diverts part of it into private funds and insurance premiums is a meal ticket for the elite of the predator state.

And the campaign is also partly political. The fact is, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are the main way ordinary Americans connect to their federal government, except in wars and disasters.  They have made a vast change in family life, unburdening the young of their parents and ensuring that every working person contributes whether they have parents, dependents, survivors or disabled of their own to look after. These programs do this work seamlessly, for next to nothing; their managers earn civil service salaries and the checks arrive on time. For the private competition, this is intolerable; the model is a threat to free markets and must be destroyed.

The media’s constant drum beating on this issue reminds me of the push for war in Iraq.  All pretense of objectivity and neutrality is out the window as they relentlessly push for a policy lacking public support but enjoying broad elite support.

We’re heading in exactly the wrong direction.  We should be expanding Social Security and Medicare, not cutting them.  And if unions were interested in garnering more public support, in demonstrating that they will fight for everyone not only their members, taking a strong stand–one that was maintained throughout the process–against any and all cuts would be a great place to start.  Either way, for those of us who care deeply about the idea of social insurance, it’s not enough to get periodic reassurances that someone might not allow cuts to happen or plans to fight them. We have to push all the players to take clear, unambiguous stands.  That means getting aggressive with those who are supposed to be allies.

Written by David Kaib

November 11, 2012 at 1:51 pm

Hypocrisy isn’t the important thing here. Ideological failure is.

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The title of this post comes from an excellent diary at Daily Kos, that you should read.  It’s great not just on it’s main point about Ayn Rand accepting Medicare and Social Security, but more generally. Hypocrisy arguments often end up failing to state what you are for.  They can even come off as though you agree with the conservative principle, implying that it’s a good thing. But Scientician shows how to use such moments as a hook to make a larger argument that is rooted in our values. Those values include the idea that everyone deserves security and opportunity, by virtue of being a human being.  Social insurance is designed to ensure our shared fate includes protecting against shared risk, risks that come about simply by living in our world.

That’s the failure here;  Rand needed society’s help.  Rand ran headlong into the very premise of why Medicare was created in the first place:  The for-profit insurance market  is terrible for the elderly and particularly to those already stricken with serious diseases.  It’s not about chortling at Rand as yet another greedy right wing hypocrite, it’s about realizing she implicitly acknowledged the superiority of liberalism with her actions.  This is her endorsement, and as Paul Ryan’s sort gears up to destroy Medicare, we shouldn’t hesitate to remind them that Ayn Rand, whatever her rhetoric and books, ended her life on our side.

To quote Will Ferrell: “That’s how you do it. That’s how you debate.” (Also, check out his blog, Autonomy for All).

Written by David Kaib

August 17, 2012 at 1:26 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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