Saturday, January 25, 2014

Universality won't protect entitlements

By Frank Moraes

There is more out of the American Prospect/Democratic Strategist forum on entitlements. The last time I brought this up, it was to say, Democrats Work to Sell Out Liberalism. But today, I am here to agree in large part (although I still don't think the whole self-negotiation is a good idea). Ed Kilgore wrote, The Case for Greater Means-Testing of Retirement Programs. This, unlike the last article, seems to have gotten my fellow liberals a bit upset.

The big liberal argument against this is that if you make Social Security and Medicare just another welfare program rather than an entitlement, it will be open to cuts just the way welfare programs always are. But I don't think that's a reasonable assumption. Let's start with the fact that it wasn't a Republican who ended "welfare as we know it." What's more, even as entitlements, conservatives still attack the program. In fact, the very word "entitlements" have been successfully redefined by the right wing from "things we all pay into so things we are all entitled to" to "programs for those 'entitled' moochers." I don't see how universality helps to protect these programs.

What does protect these programs is the fact that they go to a lot of old people. Regardless of how hardy an 80-year-old man may be, all of us but the sociopaths (A growing demographic!) think that we ought to be taking care of him. But I will admit, a conservative may come along who gives retirees that "Welfare Queen" treatment. But that's going to work regardless of whether the program is universal or not.

A couple of commenters point out that if you just got rid of the payroll tax cap, pretty much all of our problems would be solved. I totally agree with this and I've been arguing for that for years. But that effectively does the same thing that means testing does. The program may still be universal, but now it is just an old-fashioned tax. The cap prevents it from being one, even though no one I know ever reaches it. But politicians can't be ignorant of how special the program is in this regard.

Let me be clear: I don't think means testing is a good idea. The biggest problem is that it really doesn't save any money unless you start defining "rich" as people who make $40,000 per year. The inequality in Social Security and Medicare is in the amount paid into it, not the benefits people get out of it. But the argument that we can't talk about means testing because universality makes the programs untouchable is just wrong.

(Cross-posted at Frankly Curious.)

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