May 08, 2005

Column 2005-5-8 Commentary

My first thought on reading yesterday's John Tierney column was that Tierney had set a new standard for mendacity by supposedly respectable conservative columnists writing about Social Security, beating out even Brooks's previous efforts in this regard, but then I decided to reserve judgement until Brooks got a chance to strike back. After all, Tierney has been mounting a fierce challenge to Brooks for possession of his niche as a pseudo-reasonable conservative columnist with a penchant for analyzing American culture. Two weeks ago, Tierney neatly swiped the idea of writing a column about some study suggesting that being fat wasn't as dangerous as had been thought from Brooks. Last week, Tierney wrote a column about how much better red-staters are than blue staters. And now Tierney comes out with a column in which he lies through his teeth about Social Security, thus proving that he can do everything Brooks can. Surely Brooks would not take this lying down? Somehow, I picture this whole thing as being one of those nature programs, with a guy with a British accent narrating as the two male columnists circle each other, hackles raised and teeth bared. Will the older male be able to respond to the challenge, or will he back down and be driven out? Well, with today's column, Brooks responded, serving notice that he has not yet weakened sufficiently for Tierney to supplant him. Anybody can lie about Social Security, but it takes a truly special talent to lie, smear and distort the Democratic position, AND distort the Republican position all in the same column. "You have learned well, John," Brook says, "but you are not a Jedi yet."

Brooks starts off by saying "Don't listen to them when they tell you how to be virtuous. They're faking it." Where has he drawn this lesson from? Surprisingly (or rather, unsurprisingly), not from the radical Christian right, but from the Democratic party. The Democratic party certainly has many flaws, but what's bothering Brooks is that after much rhetoric directed at Bush about making "shared sacrifices for the common good", caring for the poor, not the rich, and "imposing fiscal discipline", they are objecting when Bush calls for so-called progessive indexing of Social Security benefits. A bit of background for those of you unfamiliar with the idea of progressive indexing: it means that the benefits of the "better off" are cut, while everybody else's are preserved. The first sign that progressive indexing might not be quite as friendly as it sounds is that the "better off" are defined as all those earning more than $20,000 a year. For the average worker, earning $37,000 a year, benefits are currently scheduled to make up 36% of pre-retirement income, but under Bush's plan would be reduced to 26%. For a worker making $58,000 a year, benefits would be reduced by 13% of pre-retirement income. After that, though, cuts become less and less significant, to the point that someone making $1,000,000 would stand to lose only 1% of pre-retirement income in cuts. So the middle class would take the brunt of the cuts: benefit for the rich would also be cut, but since the rich don't need the money, it wouldn't hurt them. Furthermore, Bush's plan encourages workers to put sizable portions of their payroll taxes in private accounts, effectively borrowing against their future benefits and thus cutting those future benefits even more. The end result of this plan would be that many of those in the middle class would not even recieve Social Security checks, turning Social Security into welfare for the elderly poor, and, of course, once programs are only used by the poor, they're easy to destroy. And Social Security was not designed as a welfare program: that's why everybody, even the very rich, receives Social Security checks when they retire. Conservatives seem to have trouble understanding this, so it's worth reiterating: Social Security is an insurance program. It provides insurance against a member of the family becoming disabled and being unable to work, against a member of the family dying, and against people being unable, through bad luck or bad planning, to support themselves in their old age. It's not simply for poor people who would otherwise be eating cat food: it's also important for the middle class, who would otherwise be able to retire only if they were willing to accept a sizable decrease in their standard of living. This is why Democrats oppose so-called progressive indexing.

Brooks, of course, ignores these facts and simply lies about the whole issue, starting when he claims that Bush "has asked us to make a shared sacrifice for the common good." As the numbers suggest, this sacrifice would not actually be shared by the rich. Instead, most of the sacrificing would be done by people making from $20,000-$60,000 when they retire, people who could probably use an extra few thousand dollars a year. Even more ridiculously, Brooks says "Why should programs for children and families be strangled so Donald Trump can get bigger benefit checks?" Given the size of the checks, Trump won't even notice if they stop coming. But what's really mystifying is that Brooks suggests that Social Security benefits going to Donald Trump are being taken away from programs for children and families. Under Bush's plan, benefits taken from Trump would be given to the elderly poor. Children and families don't enter into it. Such programs are being strangled, of course, so Trump can pay smaller income tax checks, but Brooks doesn't seem to want to mention that. Brooks pretends to be flabbergasted that Democrats wouldn't jump at this chance to redistribute wealth, but most of the redistributing would be from the middle class, especially the lower middle class, to the poor, which is not exactly what the Democrats have in mind. There are proposals, largely made by Democrats, so they don't get much press, for wealth transfer down the income scale -- for instance, by reinstating the estate tax, which falls only on the very wealthy, and using it to cover part of the Social Security funding gap -- which would actually transfer significant amounts of wealth, but this is not one.

This is bad enough, but in the next paragraph, Brooks surpasses himself. First, he asserts that Bush "has made the hard choices" by "facing up to the fact that there are going to be benefit cuts". Actually, making benefit cuts is not really a very hard choice, since that is the default option: if nothing is done, benefit cuts happen. The hard choice would be to figure out some way to preserve benefits intact at currently scheduled levels by raising taxes, but naturally any such idea is anathema to Bush. Brooks then goes on to grossly insult the intelligence of his readers by asserting that in calling for cutting Social Security benefits, Bush has offended various Republican party constituencies. Supply-siders, for instance, are apparently aghast that Bush would cut Social Security benefits. Who knew that they were holding out for a tax increase on the rich to cover the funding gap? The fact is, the Republican party has always disliked Social Security and tries to eliminate it on a regular basis, only to get kicked in the teeth by the voters. Right now is one of those eliminationist periods -- if you don't believe that the Republican party really wants to get rid of Social Security, consider this excerpt from the platform of the Texas GOP: "The Party supports an orderly transition to a system of private pensions based on the concept of individual retirement accounts, and gradually phasing out the Social Security tax." -- and the whole party will back Bush until it becomes clear that phase-out is impossible, at which point the whole thing will probably be dropped, possibly because the Republicans have lost their congressional majorities.

Presumably aware that he's skating on thin ice here, Brooks goes back to bashing Democrats. First he takes the idea of shared sacrifice, a theme used by Democrats to suggest that cutting taxes in wartime is a bad idea, and twists it to suggest that Democrats should be jumping for joy at the idea of sacrificing Social Security benefits, since that will help fight terror, apparently (if your Social Security benefits are not cut, the terrorists have already won!). Then he accuses the Democrats of "
making demagogic appeals to people's narrow self-interest." The hypocrisy of this is fairly stunning -- i.e., par for the course for Brooks -- given that Bush has attempted to sell his plan by appealing to naked self-interest, reassuring the elderly that their benefits will not be cut while luring the young with visions of vast private accounts (neither group has believed him, showing that naked self-interest only goes so far). And what do these demagogic appeals consist of? Well, they appear to consist of statements of fact. Nancy Pelosi points out that the benefits of middle-class seniors will be cut, which is completely true. Representative Sander Levin says that this is the biggest benefit cut in the history of Social Security, which is probably true. It's unclear what is demagogic about this.

Brooks also attacks "sober chin-pullers", by which he means the fiscally prudent and those who are worried about deficits. Why aren't they applauding Bush's plan? Well, it might have something to do with the line of thinking espoused by noted Communist Warren Buffett, who says "There is no question that the Bush Administration is ignoring the most serious economic problems facing America and that they are more interested in ideological driven issues. The most serious fiscal issues are: the General Fund deficit, the current account / trade deficit, and health care. Why are we talking about Social Security?" By now, the "sober chin-pullers" have presumably figured out that the Social Security problem is not that big of a problem -- in fact, if growth is faster than the not-particularly-optimistic predictions we have at present assume, it may not be a problem -- and are worrying about more important issues. And Brooks finishes up by condemning moderate Democrats for not supporting means-testing of Social Security, as they supposedly have for the past 20 years. Excuse me, but didn't conservatives used to be all about balanced budgets? And small government? And states rights? I could have sworn that those were important parts of the Republican ideology is recently as, oh, 2000.

Brooks then finishes by claiming that the Democrats don't have any productive ideas, only "half-truths from the peanut gallery." This is a lie: there are Democratic plans, only since they don't stand a chance in hell of passing, given that the Democrats are in the minority, the Democrats don't get a chance to present them. Brooks then accuses the Democrats of doing nothing but opposing the Republicans, casting the issue as being between a party with a "governing mentality" and a party with an "opposition mentality". Of course, since the Republicans are governing, and the Democrats are in the opposition, it's not particularly surprising that this is the way things are. Brooks seems to have forgotten, in fact, that the current Republican majorities were created by the Republicans simply standing fast and saying no to Clinton's health care reform. No Republicans came forward with constructive ideas then, or attempted to lead: they simply opposed with all their might, and were rewarded with lasting majorities in the House and Senate. Brooks also asserts that parties with the governing mentality absorb their rivals' ideas (actually, he says good ideas, but progressive indexing is not a good idea), thus driving their rivals to the edge, and indeed, we all remember how well that worked for the Democrats in the 90's with welfare reform and a balanced budget.

So, what can we learn from this column (no, we already knew that David Brooks is a big fat liar, so that doesn't count), other than that John Tierney has no idea what he's gotten himself into in putting himself up against Brooks? Mostly, we can learn that the Republican party is desperate. They know that private accounts are a sure loser, as we can tell from Brooks not mentioning them once. They know that Democrats are standing firm against Bush's plan, which is why Brooks talks hysterically of Democrats "betraying an animating ideal." And they know that their moderates won't go along with privatization without Democratic support, which is why they are so desperately trying to attract some. Because, really, all this discussion of progressive indexing is besides the point. It's certainly an awful idea, but the centerpiece of the plan is still private accounts, and those are still phase-out by another name. Nothing has changed except that some window dressing with progressive in the title has been added in the hope of attracting Democratic support, and the fact that such support is still being withheld is driving Republicans crazy. And last but not least, we -- or at least the editorial staff of the Times -- can learn that every time they print a Brooks column, a puppy dies. Maybe that will persuade them to fire him.