Before this week’s Republican presidential debate had even ended, President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign had already jumped in to remind everyone that Biden has no plan for Social Security other than letting it plunge into insolvency.

Republicans on the debate stage “explicitly talked about” possible cuts to Social Security, Biden campaign spokesman Seth Schuster wrote in a statement to the media. “If Trump returns to office, the benefits millions of America’s seniors rely on—and spent their careers contributing to—will once again be on the chopping block.”

This has become a familiar tactic for Biden, one that he deployed most famously at this year’s State of the Union address: Attack Republicans for supposedly trying to cut Social Security in order to deflect attention away from the fact that Social Security will cut itself in about a decade if nothing is done. When the old-age entitlement program hits insolvency in the early 2030s, it will be able to pay out only as much money as it collects each year. That will translate into an across-the-board cut of 23 percent for all beneficiaries, according to the latest projections from the trustees who run the program.

Pointing the finger at Donald Trump put Biden an extra degree removed from reality: The former president has opposed making changes to Social Security whenever the topic has come up. Indeed, Trump’s campaign is running ads attacking his 2024 primary challengers on this issue. On Social Security, Biden and Trump are experiencing a shared delusion, a political folie à deux.

In contrast, a few of the Republican candidates on the debate stage Wednesday night offered at least a glimpse of reality. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie even went so far as to offer a few actual policy ideas that would help solve the looming problem.

“Any candidate that tells you that they’re not going to take on entitlements is not being serious,” Haley said, before pointing the finger at Biden, Trump, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has also rejected serious changes to the Social Security system.  

“We have to deal with this problem,” Christie said, before calling for raising the retirement age for younger workers and means-testing benefits, which would reduce or eliminate payments to wealthier retirees.

As Christie pointed out, correctly, the math for Social Security is not all that complicated: If policymakers don’t want the program to go insolvent, the options are essentially to reduce benefits (by changing eligibility requirements such as the retirement age or reducing how much is distributed) or to raise payroll taxes to close the funding gap. And he was clear about which side he would favor: “We are already overtaxed in this country, and we should not raise those taxes.”

Christie went on to make a strong argument for reevaluating the purpose of Social Security, which he said should be viewed like the food stamp program: a safety net that everyone helps fund but doesn’t necessarily benefit from. “Social Security…was established as a safety net program to make sure that no one would grow old in this country in poverty,” he said.That’s what we got to get back to. Rich people should not be collecting Social Security.”

The former governor is right that means-testing benefits is absolutely fairer than raising payroll taxes to keep Social Security solvent—a move that would accelerate the program’s transfer of wealth from relatively poorer current workers to relatively richer retirees. You wouldn’t guess it from much of the rhetoric around Social Security, but no one is actually legally entitled to the program’s benefits. A national discussion that treats Social Security more like the open-ended old-age welfare program that it is would be a productive shift.

That being said, simply raising the retirement age and means-testing benefits might not be enough to keep Social Security solvent—depending on the specifics of the changes. And, more importantly, any changes to the structure of Social Security should allow workers to opt out of the program entirely.

Haley agreed in principle with Christie—she put raising the retirement age and means-testing on the table—but she seemed less aggressive about phasing in the changes. “What we need to do is keep our promises those that have been promised should keep it short for like my kids in their 20s you go when you say we’re going to change the rules you change the retirement age for them.”

That’s a fine answer, but if Haley wants to head off a problem that will hit in the next 10 years, she will have to make changes that will affect people older than their 20s. That’s why Social Security’s long-term instability should have been addressed in the 2000s or the 2010s, when there would have been a longer timeframe for phasing in changes.

And like Christie, Haley didn’t say anything about letting younger workers escape the program entirely.

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy chimed in to point out that a solution must come soon to prevent benefit cuts to current retirees. But he offered nothing in the way of a substantial plan for entitlements other than a vague promise to reduce future government spending.

That’s certainly welcome, but Social Security dwarfs almost every other aspect of federal spending—by 2033, it will cost as much as the entire discretionary portion of the budget, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Cutting wasteful domestic spending and reducing the cost of the military are important, but those cuts (even if achieved) are unlikely to solve the entitlement crisis.

Finally, DeSantis and Sen. Tim Scott (R–S.C.) argued against making any changes.

“I will protect your Social Security,” said Scott. “If we’re going to actually tame this tiger, the way you do it is not by picking on seniors who have paid into a program [and] that deserve their money coming back out to them.”

That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how Social Security works. Retirees are not receiving “their money” taken out of their paychecks over their careers. They are receiving transfer payments from current workers—and the average retiree gets more in benefits than what the retiree paid into the system in the first place. By continuing to spread those misconceptions about Social Security, Scott is not helping anything.

DeSantis, meanwhile, said he would not reduce benefits for seniors and would not consider raising the retirement age, citing the fact that average life expectancy in the United States has dipped in recent years. He promised to cut spending and get the economy growing at a 3 percent annual rate—both would be nice, of course, but neither will effectively solve Social Security’s structural problems.

Wednesday’s debate isn’t proof that the Republican Party will welcome a serious discussion of entitlements—or that voters will reward candidates who try to offer substantial ideas on that front. But it was a good starting point, and the disagreement among the five GOP candidates on stage should signal to reporters and future debate moderators that there’s room for more questions on this point.

And any candidates who won’t take part in that discussion—especially Biden and Trump—will only continue to underline their unseriousness.


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