I don’t think we should cut Social Security benefits. But if we are going to cut Social Security benefits, I think it doesn’t make sense to do what the Obama administration has done and make “No current beneficiaries should see their basic benefits reduced” one of the bargaining points.
After all, this isn’t how any other kind of benefit cuts work. When Obama proposes cutting oil and gas subsidies, they propose cutting them right away. When Obama proposes a nominal freeze in federal pay, he’s proposing a real cut right away. When LIHEAP gets the ax, it gets the ax right away. When Arizona cuts Medicaid, people can’t get organ transplants right away.
And on the politics, it’s a mess. Right now we have conservatives simultaneously calling for huge spending cuts and also getting the line’s share of old people’s votes even while the vast majority of non-security spending is on old people. In essence, by first separating the domestic budget into “discretionary” and “entitlement” portions and then dividing the entitlement programs up into “what today’s old people get” versus “what tomorrow’s old people will get” the political class has created a large and vociferously right-wing class of people who are completely immune from the impact of their own calls for fiscal austerity. In my view, that reality is the biggest driver of our current political dysfunction. There’s some need for spending to be lower over the long term than it’s currently projected to go and I think it’s politically and morally vital that the adjustments be made in a balanced way. You frequently hear of the need to exempt everyone over the age of 55 from any possible cuts. That’s nice for them and encourages them to go right on complaining about out of control spending. But the average 55 year-old will still be alive and collecting benefits in 2035 so the long-term budgetary implications of this “let the geezers keep their full benefits while they whine about how Democrats are bankrupting the country” are actually pretty significant.
If I were the president, my line would be closer to the reverse: I don’t want to cut Social Security benefits for anyone, but if the Republicans want to tempt me into a compromise they’re going to need to make sure that their own core constituency—people born before 1955 or so—pay a fair share of the price. Progressives don’t need to indulge the premises of this “welfare state for me but not for thee” brand of conservatism that’s taken over the country.