What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, a president and a party who had just won an election with progressive rhetoric were quickly pivoting toward a "Grand Bargain" which would cut Social Security and Medicare. Leaders in both parties were obsessed with deficits, and there was "bipartisan" consensus that these "entitlements" needed to be cut. The only questions left to debate were when they would be cut, and by how much. To resist these moves was to be dismissed as "unserious" and "extreme" — in Washington, in newsprint, and on the airwaves.
Today the forces of corporate consensus are on the defensive. It's considered politically reckless to get too far out front on the subject of benefit cuts. Some of the think tanks who advocated Austerity Lite one year ago are focused now on inequality. And, as the leaders of Third Way learned recently, the same rhetoric which earned nods of approval all across Washington this time last year can get you slapped down today.
Social Security is a vital program, but the implications of this shifting debate run even deeper, to the future of the social contract itself.
Why Social Security?
For decades there has been a concerted, well-funded effort to cut Social Security benefits. It has successfully co-opted prominent leaders from both political parties, while recruiting lesser political figures like Republican Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles to serve as its pitchmen.
Social Security cutters have held virtually unchallenged dominance in recent years, both in the corridors of power and on the pages and airways of corporate-funded media. President Obama and a number of key Democrats on the Hill allied themselves with this effort. They distanced themselves only at election time, when they obscured their positions with vague rhetoric. The Republicans' support for these efforts was virtually unanimous and often took the form of a more generalized anti-government extremism.
As news stories later confirmed, only concerted action by labor and other groups prevented the president from pre-emptively offering Social Security cuts in his 2010 State of the Union address. He finally offered them in his budget earlier this year in the form of the "chained CPI."
Why is Social Security such a target? A number of government programs embody our social contract. Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, food assistance – each reflects the vision of a society which recognizes that its shared interests are reflected in the safety and well-being of each of its members. But perhaps no program in this country reflects the social contract more clearly than Social Security.
The name itself — "Social Security" — has a timeless ring to it. It might have appeared in one of John Locke's notebooks. And it reflects a universality in its design: Most living Americans have contributed to the program, directly or indirectly. Most will collect benefits from it someday, either when they reach retirement age or, in the case of disability, even earlier.
The program was reduced once before, at a time of genuine crisis. There is no such crisis today, and its long-term imbalances are easily fixed in ways that would also allow for increased benefits. But it has symbolic value. If this program — funded by its participants, financially self-supporting, and forbidden by law from contributing to the national debt — can be cut, it means that no aspect of the social contract is sacrosanct.
Social Security, like the social contract ideal which spawned it, enjoyed a long period of growth and evolution. The number of people it covered kept increasing — Republicans boasted about that in their 1956 party platform! — and its benefits were designed to keep pace with the cost of living for its recipients. Nobody in mainstream political thought would have dared to challenge it.
True, the social contract always had its opponents. But for decades they were marginalized by norms of political and social decency. Right-wing radicals like billionaire H. L. Hunt might rave about tearing up social programs, and democracy along with them, but they had no standing — not in politics, and not in legitimate debate.
Then something happened — or, rather, some things happened. Future Supreme Court Judge Lewis Powell wrote a paper for some wealthy corporate interests in 1970 which outlined a long-term strategy for bringing these radical ideologies of greed back into the mainstream. Ronald Reagan put a smiling face — perhaps even a smiley face — on these mean-spirited ideologies.
A new breed of Democrat began to offer, not a defense of the social contract, but a "kinder, gentler" plan for dismantlement. That approach was first epitomized by the DLC (Democratic Leadership Council) faction which helped elect Bill Clinton, and then by the Wall Street-funded (and self-described "progressive") ideas of groups like Third Way.
The anti-Social Security crowd claims the mantle of objectivity and rationality, but resorts instead to deception and highly emotional arguments. Alan Simpson routinely erupts in rage at anyone who disagrees with him, especially if they use actuarial data to make their case. Social Security advocates are smeared as "irrational," "extreme," and marginal, even as they marshal logic, information, and public opinion to make their case.
And never underestimate what a billion dollars can do. Billionaire hedge-funder Pete Peterson, a hard-core right-winger from Richard Nixon's cabinet, began a multi-decade assault on the social contract in general, and Social Security in particular. He backed politicians, including Clinton. He formed "bipartisan" foundations and gave sinecures to functionaries from both political parties.
How much has Peterson spent trying to tear up the social contract? He's not saying. But we know that in one five-year period alone he spent nearly half a billion dollars, and he's been pursuing this goal since the 1980s.
"Money doesn't talk," as the young Bob Dylan so aptly put it, "it swears."
The Fruits of Their Labors
But activists and experts had been working diligently behind the scenes. At first the efforts were defensive, and focused on preventing those cuts. But these individuals and groups eventually shifted the terms of the debate from cuts to expansion. Policy experts like Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson began proposing benefit increases, both to offset increasing wealth inequality and to shore up the nation's rapidly decaying retirement system. Economist and blogger Duncan Black took up the cause in op-eds. And a number of groups went to work privately educating political leaders on the need to strengthen, not weaken, Social Security.
The effort paid off. The idea of increasing Social Security benefits had been marginalized as "extreme" in the media and in DC power circles, despite being supported by most voters (including most Republicans). No longer. As proof of that, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa introduced a bill this year which would increase benefits. A number of other Democrats have signed on to the bill, including Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Hawaii's two Senators, and Mark Begich from conservative-leaning Alaska.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren's recent endorsement of the idea added considerable momentum to the effort, and sparked that ill-advised tirade from the leaders of Third Way.
The momentum and the power remains with the anti-Social Security crowd. But it's a sign of change to see the idea of increasing Social Security move into the mainstream debate. That's striking progress, in the course of only a single year. But it reflects an ancient struggle over the existence and nature of the social contract.
Today the anti-"entitlement" crowd is on the defensive. Its arguments are increasingly embedded in wider ad hominem arguments against "leftism" or "economic populism." The Third Way attack on Elizabeth Warren was a case in point. So was a recent column by former New York Times editor Bill Keller, which praised his fellow "centrists" — a faction whose views are actually far to the right of the general public's – for, among other things, wishing to "slow the growth of entitlements."
Keller, like most self-described "centrists," argue that it is reasonable and even "liberal" to argue that public investments can only be funded at the cost of the nation's seniors and disabled. At the same time, they argue that historically reasonable levels of taxation on the wealthy and on corporations are politically "impractical."
Theirs is a "kinder, gentler" assault on the social contract, one which argues that it can only be maintained at a reduced level — and that it can only be financed by further damaging the economic security of the vast majority. Call it a "lateral Robin Hood" approach — take from the unfortunate, and give to the even less-fortunate, but leave the wealthy alone. That's not liberalism, in any sense of the term.
Dean Baker dispatched Keller's arguments rather neatly here. We, among others, responded to Third Way's. But on a broader time scale, the debate isn't just a short-term argument about Social Security or economic policy. The assault on Social Security is a proxy war on the social contract itself. Combatants like Keller probably don't realize that's what they're doing. They're just repeating what they've heard. But they're waging a proxy war just the same.
Honoring the Contract
The social contract is an ancient concept, which arguably began with Plato. Worrying about its well-being can seem absurd, like worrying about the fate of entropy or the planetary crust. It seems unassailable, indestructible. But either we're a society or we're not. An attack on any aspect of the social contract, especially programs like Social Security, are an attack on the entire fabric of an indivisible whole.
It's been more than three hundred years since John Locke published his Two Treatises on Government. The social contract has continued to evolve since then. It was essential to the formation of this country, and to our best modern moments of prosperity. But today it's threatened by the forces of globalized wealth.
That's why the good news of the past year is more than just a glimmer of hope. It's been asymmetrical warfare between the highly-financed advocates for the 1 Percent and the outgunned, underfunded fighters for the majority. The shifting debate about Social Security is one sign that the balance of power may be shifting. There were others this year, including the Moral Mondays protests in North Carolina and the growing minimum-wage movement.
Social Security, like the social contract itself, is still in danger. Both need to be enlarged, not reduced. But these setbacks for corporate "centrism" show that change is possible, even against overwhelming resources and odds. If the "economic populists" redouble their efforts, we may someday look back on 2013 as the year the social contract began its big comeback.