Saving Social Security: Stopping Obama’s Next Bad Deal

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Dean Baker
Truthout, December 20, 2010

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President Obama insists that he is a really bad negotiator, therefore the deal he got on the two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts and the one-year extension of UI benefits was the best that he could do. This package also came with a one-year cut in the Social Security tax.

This cut will seriously threaten the program’s finances if next year, the Republican Congress is no more willing to end a temporary tax cut than this year’s Democratic Congress.

The logic here is straightforward. Under the law, the Bush tax cuts were supposed to end in 2010. Tax rates would have returned to their pre-tax cut levels in 2011. However, the Republicans maintained a steady drumbeat about the evils of raising taxes in the middle of a downturn, even if the tax increase would just apply to the richest 2 percent of the population.

As we saw, President Obama and the Democratic Congress could not muster the votes needed to overcome the Republicans and ended up extending the tax cuts for the richest 2 percent of the population. The Democrats will be faced with a similar situation at the end of 2011 when the Social Security tax cut is scheduled to expire, except that this time the tax cut in question will apply to overwhelming majority of working people.

Also, the House will be controlled by the Republicans and the Senate will be considerably less Democratic. This raises the possibility, if not the likelihood, that the tax cut will remain in place indefinitely, more than doubling the size of Social Security’s projected long-term shortfall.

Before we even get to this juncture the Republicans will have another opportunity to impose a really bad deal on President Obama. Sometime in the spring the government will run up against its debt ceiling. This will prevent the government from any further borrowing.

Since the government has a substantial deficit, with spending exceeding revenue, hitting this limit would mean that the government would not have sufficient funds to pay for all its programs. It also would mean that the government could not pay interest or principle on debt that is coming due; in effect requiring it to default on its debt.

The prospect of the U.S. government defaulting on its debt creates the sort of end-of-the-world scenario in which Congress rushed to pass the TARP in 2008. Back then, President Bush, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and all sorts of other luminaries told members of Congress and the public that we would have a second Great Depression if the Wall Street banks were not immediately bailed out, no questions asked. And the money flowed.

The prospect of defaulting on the debt will create a similar outbreak of shrill warnings of disaster. This would likely to lead to scenario in which President Obama signs whatever debt ceiling package House Republicans hand him, even if it includes the privatization of Social Security and Medicare and major cuts and/or elimination of other important programs. The argument from the administration will be that they have no choice.

In order to avoid this train wreck, supporters of Social Security and Medicare have to restructure the options. They have to push President Obama to announce in advance that he will never sign a debt ceiling bill that includes cuts to Social Security and Medicare, the countries two most important social programs.

These programs are crucial to the financial security and health of tens of millions of people. If there are to be changes in these programs then they should occur after a full public debate in the light of day, not as the result of Republican trickery and parliamentary game playing.

This would be a hugely popular position since not only Democrats, but also independents and even Tea Party Republicans overwhelmingly support Social Security and Medicare. Furthermore, the gun, in the form of a potential debt default, is actually pointed at the Wall Street banks, not the public.

A debt default would be a very bad situation and one that we absolutely should try to avoid. But the day after the default, the country would still have the same capital stock and infrastructure, the same skilled labor force and the same technical knowledge as it did the day before the default. In other words, the ability of our economy to produce more than $15 trillion in goods and services each year will not have been affected.

One thing that would not be around the day after a default is Wall Street. The default would wipe out the assets of the Wall Street banks, sending Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and the rest into bankruptcy. The recovery for the economy from such a situation will be difficult, but the shareholders of the Wall Street banks would be wiped out and their top executives unemployed.

For this reason, the threat of a default is a gun pointed most directly at Wall Street. Given the power of Wall Street over Congress, it is inconceivable that they would ever let the Republicans pull the trigger.

This means that if President Obama is prepared to take the right and popular position of supporting Social Security and Medicare, he will win. This is both good policy and great politics. The public just has to force President Obama to stand up and show some leadership.



Dean Baker is a macroeconomist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He previously worked as a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and an assistant professor at Bucknell University.