March 15, 2005

Column 2005-3-16 Commentary

In this column, Brooks laments the failure of Social Security reform, leading to mixed feelings on the part of his readers. On the one hand, if Social Security reform, or at least Bush's version of Social Security reform, does fail, that is undoubtedly excellent news. On the other hand, that would involve Brooks being right about something, and the odds of such an occurrence are fairly slim. We can only hope that the failure of Social Security reform is so obvious that even Brooks is forced to acknowledge it, but from this column it appears that this is the only aspect of the debate over Social Security reform that he understands. Says Brooks, this episode is "a compendium of everything that is wrong with contemporary politics." This is incorrect, but does give a good way of describing this Brooks column: it is a compendium of everything that is wrong with David Brooks columns. To be fair, that's not entirely correct, as this column contains no bullshit cultural analyses, but other than that, it's got everything. To start with, Brooks fundamentally does not comprehend what's going on in the debate over Social Security reform. He sees it as purely a political issue: some form of reform is necessary. The Republicans want reform with private accounts, the Democrats want reform without private accounts, and the responsible thing would be for the parties to reach a compromise deal in which a scaled-down version of private accounts is combined with benefit cuts and tax increases to make the whole thing solvent. This is, of course, a completely, totally, 100% wrong interpretation. The fight over Social Security is not political but ideological. First of all, it should be made clear that privatization would inevitably lead to the elimination of Social Security as, well, Social Security. No longer would the elderly receive a guaranteed benefit from the government following their retirement: instead, they would be dependent on the vagaries of the economy and the stock market. Make no mistake: those pushing privatization are not just trying to improve Social Security. Their agenda has always been to eliminate the program, and that has not changed. Private accounts have nothing to do with helping to ensure Social Security's solvency: even Bush has admitted that "Personal accounts do not solve the issue". Furthermore, Social Security exemplifies liberalism: the basic idea of Social Security is that those who work their whole lives deserve to be able to retire with dignity -- not just those who got rich or were lucky in the stock market -- and that since the free market cannot provide a decent retirement to every worker, the government should do so. And on top of all this, Social Security is a vastly successful program: so successful, in fact, that it is held up as a model for other countries to emulate in constructing their pension plans. This is why the Democrats are opposing the privatization of Social Security: they are making a principled stand in defense of a program that works and that the American people support (barely one-third of Americans back Bush's plan). Brooks failure to understand this basic dynamic is an egregious error that discredits his entire column.

Brooks does get one of the mistakes the Republicans made right (he has to criticize the Republicans a little, so he can appear balanced when he puts most of the blame on the Democrats). He points out the obvious: most Americans don't want the Republicans version of Social Security reform. Brooks covers this with a claim that Republicans didn't realize "how much they would have to show they love [Social Security], too," though the actual problem is that the Republicans don't love Social Security and they did a really bad job of concealing this fact from the American people. Or perhaps the veneer of compassionate conservativism is finally wearing thin. However, Brooks immediately exposes his cluelessness again when he claims that if the Republicans had just had a better strategy for pushing reform through, they would have won out. Once again, he seems to think that this is simply a matter of the Republicans being more savvy politically, when in fact the issue is an ideological one, and simply trying to do tax reform first would not have smoothed things over. Finally, Brooks says that the Republicans just aren't good at compromising: "These anti-political creatures of conviction find sticking to orthodoxy easier than the art of compromise." This is a compliment disguised as a criticism. If Brooks were actually trying to be fair, he would have said something like "The Republicans, having taken Grover Norquist's advice that bipartisanship is just another word for date rape, were completely unwilling to undertake any compromise in which the end result is not something very close to what they want." It is interesting, though, that Brooks doesn't directly criticize Bush. After all, privatization is Bush's big plan: he was the one who started this whole debate, and he has spent much of his second term thus far criss-crossing the country in what the polls show is a largely futile attempt to drum up support for this proposed reform. Presumably, he shares some of the blame for the failure, does he not?

Well, of course not, because it turns out that the Democrats are the ones who are really at fault. Sure, the Republicans are a little stiff-necked, they misjudged the temperament of the populace, and they may not have thought through just how they were going to pass this piece of legislation (apparently, simply repeating the word mandate over and over again just doesn't cut it), but these are minor errors compared to the Democrats, who are full of hatred and living in the past. After all, the Republicans even made proposals containing a number of fairly progressive measures, and yet the Democrats just walked away! (Note that the Democrats are not "anti-political creatures of conviction", but instead obstructionists.) The fact is, of course, that no matter how many progressive sweeteners surround the poison pill of private accounts, the whole package is still poison. And the Democrats have a number of other reasons not to compromise. For one thing, they're in the minority in Congress, and though they can influence the Senate via the filibuster, they have no control over anything in the House of Representatives. Any compromise Social Security reform bill that they force through using the threat of a filibuster would have to be reconciled with the reform bill proposed by the House in a committee composed entirely of Republicans. The negotiators from the House would insist that the progressive parts of the compromise, which would certainly not appear in their version, be eliminated. Bush might even threaten a veto if those parts are not stripped out, and the Senate Republicans will gladly comply. Shorn of their power to filibuster, the Democrats would only be able to watch as their carefully crafted compromise became the bill the Republicans had originally proposed. Then there's the political standpoint. Why would the Democrats give the Republicans a victory on this issue when the Democrats are easily winning? The public is solidly behind the Democrats on Social Security. Bush has been unable to drum up support for it: in fact, the poll cited above reveals that almost 60% of people say that the more they hear about his plan, the less they like it. And Republican congressmen are feeling the heat from their constituents (for more, simply browse the archives). Perhaps Brooks has forgotten that the Republicans swept to power on the heels of their refusal to compromise on any sort of health care reform back in 1994, but the Democrats have not, and intend to use the Republican's tactics on them (but of course, as Brooks has already made clear, such tactics are only ok when the Republicans use them). Brooks even resorts to the familiar canard that the Democrats have no plan for Social Security (ignoring the fact that Bush himself has not yet laid out a plan). Actually, they do. It's called Social Security. It's worked just fine for the past 70 years or so, and with a few minor tweaks could continue working for the foreseeable future.

Brooks then resorts to an out-and-out falsehood. First, he accuses the Democrats of making "demagogic speeches about Republican benefit cuts". While this is a great exaggeration, we're willing to let it pass. However, in an ill-advised attempt to drive the point home, he follows up by adding "as if it is possible to fix the system without benefit cuts." If Brooks has not completely lost your confidence yet, this should be the final straw, for the simple reason that it is just not true. At all. Here are two plans to eliminate the funding shortfall without cutting benefits: phasing in a payroll tax increase (scroll down to "It's So Easy") and repealing the Bush tax cuts and using the revenue from one-fourth of the cuts to preserve the solvency of Social Security for the next 75 years (the Social Security trustees only project over a 75-year horizon). While it is likely that Social Security reform will eventually include some sort of benefit cuts, likely in the form of an increase in the retirement age, Brooks's assertion that Social Security cannot be saved without benefit cuts is, simply, a lie. While we're on the topic, it should be noted that it may not even be necessary to fix the system. The shortfall of $3.7 trillion over the next 75 years that is commonly cited is obtained (scroll down to "Those Gloomy Trustees") by assuming the economy grows at the rate of 1.8% over that time. Chances are that the economy will grow faster than that, which would eliminate a large part of the shortfall and might even get rid of the whole thing. So that when Brooks says that if Social Security reform fails, "it will be many years before any sort of big entitlement reform will come up again," that's really not a problem. It won't be necessary to dip into the Social Security trust fund until 2018, thirteen years from now, and that date may well be pushed back, so letting another decade expire before trying to fix social security again should not be an issue. After all, the last time Social Security was fixed, in 1983, Congress was told that it would have to act by April 1983 in order to prevent the checks from stopping in June. There is no such urgency here. Also, Brooks says that the failure of Social Security reform now will not just make Social Security reform unlikely in the near future, but will condemn "big entitlement reform" to oblivion, and we will end up "catastrophically buried under our own debt." This is a typically dishonest attempt to conflate the problems of Medicare and Medicaid with those of Social Security. The mountain of debt will be that of Medicare and Medicaid: the CBO predicts that the increase in Social Security costs will be dwarfed by government health spending. Unless, of course, Social Security reform with private accounts is implemented, in which case the government will need to borrow at least $15 trillion over the next few decades.

Finally, Brooks finishes up by criticizing the voters. How dare they expect low taxes and high entitlement spending? Maybe it has something to do with their being promised as much by the Republican party? While it is a truism to say that politicians always lie, if tax cuts were ever presented as not simply free money but as money that the government would not get to spend on popular programs, the people might have a change of heart. Regardless, I don't think this attack-the-voter strategy is likely to prove too popular. But that's really the least of the offenses of this column. Partisanship masquerading as fairness, straight-up lies, and basic misunderstandings of what he's discussing: is there nothing that Brooks won't stoop to? More to the point, is there nothing the Times won't let him stoop to?