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Social Security: The Anti-Populist Empire Strikes Back

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Reprinted from Campaign For America's Future


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The long knives have been coming out over Social Security lately. The latest wave of attacks was triggered by an amendment from Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) which would have expanded Social Security benefits, and which won the support of most Democrats in the Senate. That signaled a potential shift in the political tide -- toward Social Security in particular and economic populism in general.

It also meant that it was time to suit up conservatism's frayed old straw men and send them into dubious battle once again.

The attackers this time around include a "libertarian" finance writer, an editor for the National Review, and -- inevitably -- the editorial board of the Washington Post. But the battle against economic populism isn't just being waged by the right. There are factions within the Democratic Party that want to re-empower its "centrist" wing, and they've been pushing back on the party's new populism -- which the movement to expand Social Security both reflects and reinforces -- this week as well.

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(These issues will be discussed next week at the Populism 2015 conference, cosponsored by the Campaign for America's Future.)

War on Warren ... and the Elderly

The first volley came from Megan McArdle, a conservative economics writer who once blogged as "Jane Galt" (as in "John Galt," the hero of Ayn Rand's government-hating, poor-despising, fraud-celebrating, and occasionally sadomasochistic novel "Atlas Shrugged.") There were several reasons why McArdle was likely to attack the Warren amendment. One is her longstanding hostility to Warren herself. That hostility is evidenced in blog posts like this one, in which McArdle characterizes Warren's academic work as "actively, aggressively wrong" and "terrible advocacy masquerading of (sic) social science." Journalists who cover Warren's work, McArdle wrote, were "wearing duncecaps."

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Unfortunately, McArdle's weak grasp of the facts and carelessness with methodology seriously undercut her Warren critiques. (Mike Konczal points out some of McArdle's early mistakes here, while I addressed some of her other errors here.)

In addition, McArdle has long demonstrated a truly Randian antipathy toward retired people. Case in point: When columnist Allison Schrager wrote that "I don't know if it's ever going to be realistic that everyone saves enough to spend the last third of their life on vacation" about retirees, McArdle gushed that Schrager's comment was "my favorite line in my newest column ..."

The "vacation" comment, addressed toward the aged and infirm from young and healthy commentators, was insensitive to the point of brutality. So, perhaps predictably, McArdle doubled down on it. McArdle writes: "It was nice that a combination of rising life expectancy and broader pension coverage allowed a large segment of American workers to take what amounted to a multi-decade vacation" -- (see what she did there?) -- "... but this was never going to be sustainable."

That statement isn't just fiscally incorrect. It also smears retired Americans with work-battered bodies -- a cohort which includes 75-year old retired warehouse workers, 80-year-old former coal miners, and 90-year-old ex-waitresses -- as lazy and undeserving "vacationers."

Ayn Rand would be proud.

The right gets it wrong about the left getting it wrong about ... well, you know.

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This combination of traits -- a hostility toward older Americans and working people, conjoined with an inability or unwillingness to grasp the basic financial mechanisms of social insurance -- is characteristic of Social Security's diehard opponents. So it must have galled them to see Social Security expansion become the expressed goal of most Senate Democrats with the Warren amendment vote.

McArdle beat the rest of her cohort out of the gate, responding with a piece in Bloomberg View entitled "The Left Gets It Wrong About Social Security." While McArdle doesn't mention Warren by name, her amendment is the cause of her ire, and her editors illustrate the piece with a color photograph of the Massachusetts senator gesticulating from a podium.

McArdle's piece is a rehash of repeatedly discredited tropes and talking points, beginning with its first (slightly Yoda-ish) sentence: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that Americans are under-prepared for retirement."

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Host of 'The Breakdown,' Writer, and Senior Fellow, Campaign for America's Future

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