As the Bob Dylan song says: "Things should start to get interesting right about now." You may think they're already interesting -- what with government closings, threats of a debt default, and extremist rhetoric under the Capitol Dome -- but chances are we ain't seen nothin' yet.
In 12 weeks or so our new system of government-by-crisis will resume its regularly scheduled programming: more threats, more confrontations, and even more extreme rhetoric.
There are only a few ways this could play out, and most of them involve cuts to Medicare and Social Security. The ones which don't probably involve either A) catastrophic gridlock or B) a mobilized citizenry.
Your personal level of optimism probably correlates closely to whether you think A or B is more likely.
Any scenario which leads to Social Security or Medicare cuts would be bad for seniors. It would also be bad for any politician who supported it.
A recent poll by Lake Research shows that 82 percent of all Americans oppose cuts to Social Security, including 83 percent of Democrats, 78 percent of independents, 82 percent of Republicans -- and, in one of the most startling findings of all, fully three-fourths of all self-described Tea Party members (74 percent). (Social Security Works has a video and a petition on this subject.)
Democrats hold the advantage on this issue right now, which means it's theirs to lose. There's a historical precedent: in 2010, after two years of presidential rhetoric about trimming entitlements, Democrats experienced a 20-point plunge on the question "which party do you most trust to handle Social Security?" Republicans responded with a thoroughly predictable, utterly insincere -- and very effective -- "Seniors' Bill Of Rights."
2010 is the year Democrats lost control of the House.
This weekend we saw Sen. Dick Durbin proclaim that "entitlement cuts" were acceptable in return for tax increases. In doing so, he repeated a couple of the right-wing misconceptions that have put this fundamentally sound program in political jeopardy. "Social Security is gonna run out of money in 20 years," Durbin was quoted as saying. "The Baby Boom generation is gonna blow away our future. We don't wanna see that happen."
It's true that Social Security's massive surplus -- currently in the $2 trillion range -- will be gone by the 2030s, according to projections. But the program will still have a massive revenue stream and will be able to pay three-quarters of its scheduled benefits. And the Boomer generation's large size also means that it has made large payments into the Social Security system throughout its working life. (That's where today's enormous surplus comes from.)
Dick Durbin has been a champion for many good causes. It's sad that he's on the wrong side of this one -- sad, but not surprising. A number of prominent Democrats are there with him, although many others continue to fight the good fight. The Republican Party, on the other hand, has been on the wrong side of Social Security and Medicare for a long time. There are no good guys on that side of the fence.
But this kind of inflammatory and inaccurate rhetoric is wrong. It fuels the flames of intergenerational war in a nation that has always thrived on mutual cooperation, and betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of economic and actuarial reality. Statements like these aren't just false. They come dangerously close to demagoguery.
What really happened
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