Monday, July 03, 2006

Social Security is back

Well, after Bush reiterated his goal to social security in a speech last week, it looks like Josh Marshall is back on the war path, hunting down senators. His primary target of choice was '06 candidate and Cantwell challenger Mike McGavick. He even went so far as to place a bounty on his head.

Well, David Postman of the Seattle Times interviewed McGavick and came away with, what seem to me, to be some very straight answers. And good ones. But Marshall seems unimpressed.

To review, in his speech at the Manhattan Institute, Bush said,

"I addressed that issue last year, focusing on Social Security reform. I'm not through talking about the issue. I spent some time today in the Oval Office with the United States senators, and they're not through talking about the issue either. It's important for this country -- (applause) -- I know it's hard politically to address these issues. Sometimes it just seems easier for people to say, we'll deal with it later on. Now is the time for the Congress and the President to work together to reform Medicare and reform Social Security so we can leave behind a solvent balance sheet for our next generation of Americans. (Applause.)

If we can't get it done this year, I'm going to try next year. And if we can't get it done next year, I'm going to try the year after that, because it is the right thing to do. It's just so easy to say, let somebody else deal with it. Now is the time to solve the problems of Medicare and Social Security, and I want your help. I need the Manhattan Institute to continue to agitate for change and reform. You've got a big voice. You got creative thinkers, and if you don't mind, I'd like to put this on your agenda, and let you know the White House and members of the Senate and the House are anxious to deal with this issue and get it done once and for all."

First of all, the language strikes me as exactly the same used in raising purely political 'policy' issues, that of agitating, putting it on the table, and drawing lines between those who will and those who won't. Making it a moral issue. And just like last time around, Bush isn't selling any particular plan, which means this probably isn't going anywhere. Just like last time.

So, why keep hammering it? Well, for starters, it makes the Glenn Reynolds etc. of the world happy, giving them something to actually embrace the president for, rather than simply protect him as not that bad. It's perfect timing to throw a bone to the libertarian-minded republicans, since most aren't seeing much to like about this administration these days (lib-rs aren't fond of the surveillance state, in general).

Anyway, Marshall offered various items of value including "a special TPM 'Privatize This' t-shirt, a TPM mug and ... and a special place in our new TPM Hall of Social Security Heroes." Which he described as "really exciting stuff".

I guess all that excitement must have really gotten Postman interested (he certainly seems upset that his results didn't qualify as a 'straight answer'. He wants his mug! And the T-Shirt/enshrining probably wouldn't hurt...). Here’s what he got from McGavick. His 3 main points:

"1. He supports means testing, voluntarily at first but if people don't turn back enough money he'd support making it mandatory and creating income limits for benefits.

2. Benefit levels must be guaranteed for people at or near retirement age.

3. He wants a phased-in system of individually controlled, privately managed retirement accounts that could provide a higher yield than the government-run system, but would come with a lower guaranteed payment."

"Here are some details. On means testing, McGavick said that each year Social Security recipients would be given the chance to send money "back into the trust to extend the life of Social Security for the good of society." He said it should be promoted as a "patriotic endeavor." But if people weren't willing to give back benefits, he'd support mandatory means testing.

McGavick said that would save money at the front end of the transition to individual accounts. Bush, he said, "didn't do anything at the front-end to shrink the problem."

McGavick said he knows that people will refer to his talk of personally controlled accounts as privatization. He said financial institutions would be involved, but would not control, the investments. "I'm not turning it over to banks to run. I'm turning it over to the individuals for them to run." The accounts would be similar to 401 K programs, with investment choices "that could provide a higher yield than the current Social Security investment strategy." But with individual control would come a lower guaranteed benefit."

Frankly, that sounds like a promising, well-thought-out proposal, quite a bit better than I was expecting from this. But how about this money quote...

"President Bush said this week he's going to keep trying to change Social Security. But McGavick says he doubts anything will happen until after the next presidential election.

"I don't think there's enough juice left in this administration to push that through. That's just my own opinion.""

Ouch. But probably true. Anyway, McGavick sure sounds like he's thought this out a bit more than Cantwell, whose solution seems to be....throwing more money (that isn't there) at the program.

On Postman’s results, Marshall says....McGavick comes 'kinda sorta clean', and puts him down in favor of the 'Bush plan'. But did Bush ever have a plan? And did it make as much sense as McGavick's? Means testing? Appealing to American public patriotism and concern? What sounds to me like an opt-in risk taking system? The first two, and hopefully the 3rd, sure sound like things 'progressives' could get behind. And they should get behind them and get them. It would be a tremendous political and national achievement all around. Obviously the 3rd part is going to do little to solve the fiscal realities of social security, but it will probably make people less inclined to turn down the means tested reward. Maybe it's not a great idea, who knows. But I feel like if Republicans like McGavick can philosophically get behind means testing, then surely Dems can. Moreover, congressional disapproval ratings are disastrously bad for both parties, indicating, it seems, little faith in, and respect for, congress. Come on congressmen, let’s see you show some ego!


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