Friday, August 21, 2009

Ezra Klein: Democrats would do Social Security reform better. Why? Because I’m a Democrat.

The Washington Post's Ezra Klein takes a break from health care to talk about Social Security reform, spurred by a post by Brad DeLong in which DeLong argues for fixing Social Security by eliminating the cap on payroll taxes and raising the retirement age. Klein opposes raising the retirement age, citing the usual reasons of stress on workers, although not wrestling with the question of whether current workers face the same physical stresses as those in the past – who tended to work to the full retirement age or beyond, not retire at 62 or 63 as most workers today do. (See this post for some background.) In any case, nothing much new here.

But one thing struck me in Klein's post. Klein says:

There is an argument out there that if Social Security needs to be changed, it's better that a Democratic president makes the changes alongside a Democratic Congress. Any other configuration -- a Republican president dealing with a Democratic Congress, a Republican president working with a Republican Congress, or a Democratic president cutting a deal with a Republican Congress -- is likely to be substantially worse.

That's interesting, except that Klein doesn't actually make such an argument in the sense of marshalling facts or logic, but merely declares that Democrats would do it better than Republicans. Let me guess who that argument is "out there" with: Democrats.

I personally find it hard to believe that Democrats alone – or at least the Congressional Democratic leadership, which has shown precisely zero interest in fixing Social Security and just about the same level of willingness to deliver bad news to Democratic constituencies – would be willing to make the tough choices needed to fix the program. After all, remember Nancy Pelosi's reply in 2005 when asked when Democrats would put forward their own reform plan? "Never. Is never good enough for you?" For most Democrats, apparently it was good enough.

As of today, the sum total of Democratic reform proposals is President Obama's plan to levy a 2-4 percent tax on individuals earning over $250,000, which would fix around 15 percent of Social Security's long-term deficit. Republicans, by contrast, have put forward a number of Social Security reform plans that take on the tough choices, and many reformers have paid a political price for it. (Here's a list of reform plans on SSA's web site.)

Moreover, it seems pretty easy to construct a plausible counterargument to Klein, based simply on what we're seeing today regarding health reform, in which all the talk of restraining costs has fallen victim to traditional Democratic priorities of expanding coverage and increasing federal control over private sector health care. When faced with Social Security reform, Democrats consistently argued that Medicare was the real entitlements crisis. So what have they proposed to actually fix Medicare? Zip.


JG said...

Klein is just reflecting an attitude that DeLong has expressed more succinctly:
The Key Problem of Modern Liberalism

How can one support the idea of an activist government when half the time that government will be run by malevolent or incompetent Republicans?

Andrew G. Biggs said...

I disagree strongly. In most case, we Republicans are both malevolent AND incompetent. Don't sell us short!