Well that certainly was a more interesting and exciting Repub debate than the one before. It’s even possible that the event shook up the race a bit. Minnesota’s own Michele Bachmann is getting some good reviews, which should help in her effort to remain politically relevant. Kudos to moderator Wolf Blitzer for not allowing the event to turn into a rerun of the “Rick and Mitt Show.”
In the end, though, what have we learned about how these guys would govern? Not much, says I.
To test that hypothesis, let’s return to the No. 1 bone of contention running across both debates, which has been Social Security, and what’s wrong with it and Gov. Rick Perry’s use of the “Ponzi scheme” metaphor and what he or any of the others would do to fix it.
For decades, long-term projections have shown that sometime in the 2030s or ‘40s, Social Security will have exhausted its “trust fund” (yes, I know, there’s nothing in the trust fund for government bonds, but we’ll leave that for another day) and will no longer to be pay all promised benefits.
(An aside that is not often enough noted: Social Security will not be “broke,” as is often stated, if broke means broke. Under this do-nothing scenario, the system would be able to pay future recipient between two-thirds and three-fourths of promised benefits. That’s not acceptable. But it’s far from broke.)
Perry has called this situation a “Ponzi scheme” and a “monstrous lie.” The Ponzi metaphor was ridiculous as this clever diagram makes clear. He should drop it, although he seems to think that manhood requires him to defend it. The “monstrous lie” is that Social Security has no problems and that today’s young workers can rest easy that their future benefits are guaranteed. I actually don’t know any monsters who are telling this lie.
Until last night, former Gov. Mitt Romney had criticized Perry mostly for the political unwisdom of his choice of metaphors. Calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” will scare seniors and hurt the ticket.
(A funny aside here: Seniors – unless they plan to be around in the 2050s — have the least to worry about from Social Security’s long-term financing challenges. Every single politician who speaks on the subject starts with a guarantee that those who are now at or near retirement will see no change in their benefits. But either way, the learned analysis of the implications of Perry’s metaphor choice for the Repub ticket’s chances in the key swing state of Florida — the Sunshine State where all seniors apparently live and vote — will not get us far in a search for what to substantively do about Social Security’s long-term shortfall projections.)
Last night, Romney switched – rather brilliantly, I thought – to a more substantive challenge to Perry’s much-regretted discussion in “Fed Up,” (subtitle: “I-wouldn’t-have-written-that-book-if-I-had-known-I-would-be-running-for-president”) of Social Security.
In “Fed Up” and in his explanations of it, Perry said that in creating programs like Social Security, Congress disrespected the proper constitutional division of powers between federal and state governments. The federal government has extended its reach into many areas that should have been left to the states, under the Tenth Amendment and under the original enumeration of federal powers. That’s about an inch shy of saying the Social Security Act is unconstitutional and maybe a foot shy of suggesting that it should be struck down and replaced by a patchwork of state programs.
Romney decided to put Perry on this spot, thus:
“The real question is does Governor Perry continue to believe that Social Security should not be a federal program, that it’s unconstitutional and it should be returned to the states or is he going to retreat from that view?”
As debate theater, this bordered on brilliant. And Perry should someday give a clear, straight answer. The answer he gave last night was:
PERRY: “If what you’re trying to say is that back in the ’30s and the ’40s that the federal government made all the right decision, I disagree with you. And it’s time for us to get back to the constitution and a program that’s been there 70 or 80 years, obviously we’re not going to take that program away. But for people to stand up and support what they did in the ’30s or what they’re doing in the 2010s is not appropriate for America.”
Wow. If he keeps this up, we’ll need a name for the syndrome. No one is telling the monstrous lie that Social Security has no problems, and I’m pretty sure that Mitt Romney did not come anywhere near saying that everything done in the ‘30s and ‘40s was right.
And this utterly transparent effort to blow smoke occurred about one minute after Perry had claimed to be the ultimate straight talker, thus:
PERRY: “Well, first off, the people who are on Social Security today need to understand something. Slam-dunk guaranteed, that program is going to be there in place for those. Those individuals that are moving towards being on Social Security, that program’s going to be there for them when they arrive there.
“But the idea that we have not had the courage to stand up and look Americans in the face, young mid-career professionals or kids that are my children’s age and look them in the eye and said, listen, this is a broken system. It has been called a Ponzi scheme by many people long before me. But no one’s had the courage to stand up and say, here is how we’re going to reform it.
“We’re going to transform it for those in those mid-career ages, but we’re going to fix it so that our young Americans that are going out into the workforce today will know without a doubt that there were some people who came along that didn’t lie to them, that didn’t try to go around the edges and told them the truth.”
The Perry plan
So that’s the Perry plan. Tell the truth. It’s busted. It’s broke. It’s worse than broke, it’s akin to a criminal scheme. But old people have nothing to worry about and young people can rest easy, because someone finally has the courage to say here is how we’re going to reform it. Here’s how we are going to reform it. Here’s how… Gov. Perry, how are you going to reform it?
I don’t believe he’s gotten to that yet.
There is someone who got to it. It was former President George W. Bush ,who ran in 2004 on a fairly clear statement that he favored the partial privatization of Social Security. And in 2005, he put out a pretty detailed plan to get that done. I have long thought that Bush deserves more credit than he gets for his courage in putting out a plan to do what righties have long dreamed of doing, which was to privatize Social Security, to turn it from a sort of a pension into a sort of a 401K.
That plan failed. Never came anywhere near a vote in the Congress. That was partly because of the third rail stuff, but also because when you actually try it you find that the transition costs trillions of dollars that the government does not have. Y’see, every dollar that a young worker puts into his private account is one less dollar that Social Security has to keep the benefit stream going for those famous old folks who are already at or near retirement and who have been promised that nothing will change for them.
As best as I can tell, the Repub candidates all favor the Bush idea, but won’t say so clearly and don’t have an answer to the serious challenges such a plan presents, including and perhaps especially the transition costs. Herman Cain is the clearest about favoring privatization, but hasn’t, so far as I know, put any details on the plan and especially the transition challenge.