Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Undermining Social Security, Presidential Edition

This is is one more conspiracy theory. But it's my conspiracy theory, so it must be valid. (I’m starting to sound like Rush Limbaugh. This can’t be good.)

Seeingtheforest.com blogger Dave Johnson of Campaign for America's Future in February lamented "the right's noise machine" that has been determined to convince the electorate that "Obama tripled the deficit." He found a search of "obama tripled the deficit" on Google received 27,000 hits. Fortunately, the number now appears down to 988, but 52,000 without the quote markes.

Still, the propaganda machine has been very effective, arguably spearheaded by Limbaugh's beloved Heritage Foundation, though some attention now has been diverted to other issues with the passge of time. In February, pounding on a common theme of his, Rush would allege

But this is one of the biggest problems that people are having with Obama and therefore it is important. People are fed up with this spending. They're scared to death of it. They know full well what it portends. It portends massive tax increases for years on us, our kids and grandkids. It weakens the country. This is just an abomination. Nine years ago we were attacked. Barack Obama cannot tell the truth. Constitutionally, he's not capable of telling the truth. He has increased the deficit, not by twice, not by three times, but by four times -- and it was not necessary.

As Johnson notes, Fox News initially printed the headline "Obama triples budget deficit to $1.4 trillion." It now has been changed to the slightly less misleading "U.S. Budget Deficit Hit Record $1.4 Trillion in 2009"- still leaving the impression it is Obama's doing, inasmuch as everyone realizes Barack Obama was president for virtually all of 2009. $1.4 trillion was the deficit in Bush's last budget- not coincidentally, the same $1.4 trillion that conservatives claim Obama tripled the deficit to.

As the conservative libertarian Cato Institute explains, President Bush was significantly more responsible for the deficit (and the high level of spending) than was President Obama. The fiscal 2009 budget began on October 1, 2008 and "was largely set in place" by the time Barack Obama took office. Or as Johnson puts it, "A budget year that ends 8 months into a President's first year wasn't that President's budget."

But here is where it gets interesting. (If not, you have a money back guarantee!) Johnson argues

This dishonest propaganda campaign is the source of the political pressure to cut spending. Fine. What else would you expect from the right? It's what they do. But why has this campaign gone unanswered? Why haven't the forces allied with the President reached out with the facts? Why have they let themselves be put into this box?

A bigger question, why does the Obama administration still not seem to get it that this is what they do? The right has a coordinated, funded propaganda machine that just lies, and smears, belittles and humiliates people, makes the public afraid, stirs up division - even encourages sedition, all to get their way.

The right is well-funded because there is a monetary payoff to the big corporations and wealthy individuals who fund campaigns like this one. Their anti-government campaign is buying tax cuts, subsidies, deregulation or just non-enforcement of regulations, waivers or just lack of enforcement of anti-trust rules, military contracts, and a long list of other financial benefits.

Meanwhile people interested in democracy and good government are largely unfunded. They are largely shut out of TV and radio. For example, you rarely see a representative of labor on TV, radio or in the news. Bloggers reach a lot of people, but nothing like the talk radio/TV empire of the right. So how can we do this better?


A bigger question, why does the Obama administration still not seem to get it that this is what they do?

Perhaops this question should be asked rhetorically. Maybe the Obama administration does "get it"- and is just fine with it.

In a report about the February 2009 Fiscal Responsibility Summit's breakout session on Social Security, the Washington Post reported

Both Summers and Sperling said there would not be consensus in today's session about how to fix the program. They also said the public was more receptive to the government making hard decisions necessary to keep SS from running out of money in the long run, because Americans are anxious about their private retirement savings and the value of their houses.

Sperling said: "I think there may be a lot more openness than we thought in the past for people to have an honest discussion about the shared sacrifice necessary to have Social Security solvency. That this would be a sure thing they could count on, and they could count on for the next 50 to 75 years."

At the end, Sperling also tried to cut through disagreement over whether the program was in a state of crisis. "I really hate the whole argument about, is this a crisis or is this not a crisis? Why do we not want to preempt a crisis. Why do we not want to do something early? It is a shame on our political system that there has never been entitlement reform without a gun to our head. . .Wouldn't it be a tremendous confidence-building thing to act early and smart?"


That would be Gene Sperling, Counselor to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner of the administration which has convened a National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility. The commission is composed of two co-chairmen, a Democrat and a Republican; 4 appointees of President Obama; and 3 appointees by each of the following: Senate Majority Leader Reid, Senate Minority Leader McConnell, House Speaker Pelosi, and House Minority Leader Boehner. Fortunately, 14 of 18 members have to agree on a recommended change. However, there is little doubt that Republicans (of a party whose dominant theme is "government is hopeless"), wary of a successful and popular government program, will support efforts to undermine Social Security. The commission co-chairmen and three of the four individuals selected by Obama have been, or are believed to be, critical of the growth of entitlement programs. (The other Obama appointee, outgoing SEIU President Andy Stern, may be looking for a position in the Administration.) Two of the individuals- Representative Jan Schackowsky and Majority Whip Dick Durbin- selected by Democratic congressional leaders are avid Obama supporters, hail from Illinois and.... you get the picture.

Before convening the Fiscal Responsibility Summit, forerunner to the Deficit Commission, President Obama commented

What we have done is kicked this can down the road. We are now at the end of the road and are not in a position to kick it any further. We have to signal seriousness in this by making sure some of the hard decisions are made under my watch, not someone else's.

These are hard decisions- it's always uncomfortable (but "serious")- cutting benefits of the elderly while financial manipulations of the big banks, hedge fund managers, and corporate scofflaws are virtually unimpeded. Sacrifices will be demanded- but not by those who control the economy and can blackmail officeholders, only of the middle class. And it's always "hard" to summon the creativity to manufacture a crisis.

A report prior to the deficit commission's first meeting in April noted

Barbara Kennelly, CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, said Monday the commission should not seek to balance the budget in the short-term by cutting Social Security.

"Simply put, Social Security has not contributed one thin dime to the current deficit," said Kennelly, a former Democratic House member from Connecticut.

Kennelly noted that Social Security is paid for with payroll taxes and is expected to remain solvent through 2037.


Facts, though, don't dominate the discussion when the Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee (a Democrat, no less), hands wet from wringing over the projected status of Social Security 75 years from now, can state "so the idea of not doing anything to me is not the answer." That would put him on the same wavelength as Obama advisor Sperling, who wants to find an answer to a problem that doesn't exist. (Hurry, if it ain't broken, fix it!)

As Digby implies, the emphasis on deficit reduction and satisfying the bond markets finds its expression in the continuing failure to enact comprehensive and effective financial reform and in a desire to undermine the Social Security system. It's all a part of "the pain caucus," as Krugman termed it. Digby's remarks about Summer and Sperling apply also to those on the deficit reduction commission:

These people want credit for fixing social security, which they acknowledge means that people are going to have to "sacrifice." Why these silly Democrats think the Republicans are going to hold hands with them on this is beyond me and the idea that the people will appreciate them doing it is delusional.




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