By L. Randall Wray
It’s official. Obama has decided to become a one term president. He caved in to the Republicans, agreeing to gut Social Security in order to get them to agree to raise the debt limit. This was never a real trade-off, as it made sense only within the Washington beltway. Obama has adopted the Jimmy Carter approach: promising pain and more pain, presenting a dreary (and false) message of no hope, just mindless human sacrifice to please the gods on Wall Street.
In the days of Carter, it was all about stagflation, running out of oil, and national malaise; today it is all about jobless “recovery” as far as the eye can see and unfunded infinite horizon entitlements for the undeserving. I do not know which is worse, but I am positive that voters will reject Obama’s perverted vision of our future, just as they rebelled against Carter’s. American voters are an optimistic lot and they know our best days are ahead of us. We do not face the futures envisioned then by Carter or today by Obama. Voters do have the audacity of hope, even though Obama does not and probably never did. I do not know who will be the next president, but Obama’s actions indicate he has decided he does not want the job. Voters are looking for the next Reagan who shares their optimism.
It was clear all along that this was the real agenda of the fake debate. It never had anything to do with debts and deficits and tens of trillions of dollars of unfunded “entitlements”. The goal all along has been to find a Democratic president willing to kill Social Security. Washington finally has one. Al Gore probably would have done it—but his “lockbox” proposal was too silly to sell with a straight face, so he never got the chance. Obama became the willing sacrificial lamb.
Wall Street wants blood for its vampire squids, and Obama is willing to deliver it by the truckload. To be clear, he is no martyr. Martyrs have to be unwilling, at least up to a point. It appears that President Obama wanted this outcome from day one.
But that is not the story I want to pursue here. What is interesting is how Social Security’s enemies enlisted progressives to fight their battle for them, lining them up to pinch-hit for Pete Peterson.
In the old days, the enemies were simply too obvious to be successful—using Cold War rhetoric and labeling the program a communist plot, they never gained traction.
As they became more sophisticated, they moved on to railing against future costs of taking care of babyboomers. They enlisted Alan Greenspan, who chaired a commission that unnecessarily jacked up payroll taxes to run surpluses to be “saved” for future use—something that was impossible for a sovereign government to do since Trust Fund assets were simply government IOUs (something later admitted by Greenspan). But the high taxes helped to build hostility to the program.
Then the enemies created the Concorde Coalition—that included some Democrat wolves in sheep clothing—to fan across the country beating the drums and scaring college students about rotten “money’s worth” calculations that showed they’d be much better off “investing” in stocks rather than paying high FICA taxes. The dot-com crash did not help that cause—which was always a hard sell because the Concorde Coalition’s members were so darned intellectually dishonest—people like Bob Rubin, Paul Tsongas, Charles Robb, Sam Nunn, Warren Rudman, and Bob Kerry. I debated them on college campuses and I can definitely attest to the greasy propaganda that they thought would capture the imagination of students. It did not. Bad haircuts, bad breath, leisure suits, and stupid arguments were all they had to offer. It was a big zip. Nada. Zero.
So, finally, hedge fund billionaire Pete Peterson helped push the notion of trillions of dollars of unfunded entitlements that would bankrupt our nation. Unfortunately, he was getting nowhere, even with the help of Reaganites like Pete du Pont, and Larry Kotlikoff.
Until Obama got elected, that is.
A peculiar alignment of the stars pushed the Peterson agenda forward. First of course there was the financial collapse, which brought on the worst recession since the Great Depression (a downturn that is not over and that still might morph into the first depression of this century). That crashed tax revenue and generated a huge budget deficit—fueling the fires of deficit hysterians.
Second, Obama’s campaign platform had featured deficit reduction as a major goal. Those of us with some audacity had hoped he was not serious about this. He was. And he brought into his administration a number of Clinton people, all of whom had sworn allegiance to Wall Street and the Clinton spin that deregulation of finance plus budget surpluses had created Goldilocks. In return for tens or hundreds of millions of dollars of rewards, they had agreed to act as Wall Street’s fifth column. For all practical purposes, Peterson was selected to head Obama’s deficit-cutting team.
Which leads to point 3: many Democrats had learned the wrong lesson from the Clinton boom. They convinced themselves (against all reason) that the Clinton budget surplus caused the boom. In reality, it killed the Goldilocks economy and brought on the Bush recession. But, no matter. Wall Street was very generous with its billions, and it had decided that the Obama wave was something it wanted to surf right into Washington. Whatever finance wanted, finance got. What finance wanted was tens of trillions of dollars of bailouts, Obamacare (more financialization of health insurance), and elimination of Social Security (financiers hate the competition).
Point 4. Finally, Beltway progressives decided to join the deficit hysteria bandwagon. The endgame was a foregone conclusion. With no opposition from the left, the Austerians would get whatever they wanted. And what they wanted was to eliminate Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
But why would Washington’s progressive think tanks decide to join forces with hedge fund manager Pete Peterson to undermine the Rooseveltian New Deal? Here the plot thickens.
Some had actually joined up during the “W” years—using the rising budget deficits under Bush (actually due to the recession he inherited from Clinton) as an argument that he was mismanaging the budget with taxcuts for the rich. If only Bush would balance the budget, Goldilocks would rise from the dead. It was an embarrassing display of stupid politics, as progressives sold their souls to Peterson to beat down Bush as a big deficit spender.
Some Beltway progressives—including organized labor—had actually signed up even earlier, during the Gore campaign, manufacturing a fake financial crisis for Social Security in order to offer lock boxes as a better alternative than Bush’s plan to privatize the program. Joining the bandwagon by arguing that Social Security was unsustainable, they offered critical assistance to Peterson. And, of course, they lost the election. (Oh, I know, they continue to claim “but Gore really won”. Come on, if a candidate cannot beat a “W” by double digits, he does not deserve office.)
Still others signed on to the Peterson agenda after the financial crisis hit, in order to argue against payroll tax relief on the bizarre argument that Social Security already faces an uncertain financial future, hence, if we give payroll tax relief to workers now we won’t be able to afford the program in 2050. (We have dealt with that issue here at NEP and also over at New Deal 2.0.) They desperately wanted to hang the fortunes of Social Security on a supposed American love affair with payroll tax hikes.
Again, too stupid for school. No one likes the payroll tax. It is regressive. It taxes work. It makes American workers uncompetitive. And by tying Social Security benefits to payroll tax revenue, it ensures program accounting insolvency—as the Peterson crowd argues. Indeed, it is only because of the payroll tax that we can calculate bad “money’s worth” and project the exact date at which Social Security becomes insolvent. Eliminate the tax and it becomes impossible to calculate solvency or insolvency. But our progressives instead chose certain death for the program on the argument that the albatross of payroll taxes makes the program too popular to kill. (Hint: they were wrong. Evidence? Obama.)
And, finally, there was the debt limit. In the past, we got political posturing, but the limits were routinely raised. This time around, it was clear that Republicans had much more incentive to draw blood—they would require the Democrats give up some popular program before the limit would be raised, and this would cost them in the next election. Yet, success was far from certain as the Dems could have just called the bluff. But the stars were aligned, because by this time there were no longer any dissenting voices within the beltway on the need to cut deficits.
Progressives had a choice—they could take the high road, which meant isolation from the beltway and its funding spigots; or they could join the deficit cutting party and drink the Kool-Aid. That is, they could swing the progressive bat or pinch-hit for Peterson. They chose to pinch-hit.
So how did the remaining progressives get co-opted? Peterson had the brilliant idea of hiring Beltway progressive organizations to join his team. Why not pay progressives to come up with deficit and debt cutting plans? If you can’t defeat them, pay them off. It is like choosing from among the prisoners which ones get to do the whipping and hanging of the recalcitrants.
So progressives lined up at the Peterson Pig Trough. I’ll have more to say about Peterson’s funding of Beltway progressives in Part 2.
With no Beltway progressives left to fight Peterson’s deficit hysteria, Republicans knew they had a winning hand—so they demanded the so-called third rail: Social Security. Democrats in Congress had nowhere to turn for support. Progressives had abandoned the debate, and Obama had been hand-selected by Wall Street to offer up Social Security. Just as only a Republican President could go to China, only a Democrat could finally kill the last remaining remnants of the New Deal. President Clinton had destroyed all the financial regulations, eliminated welfare, and undercut consumer protection. Now it is up to Obama to eliminate Social Security and Medicare.
Obamacare will hand over the nation’s healthcare system to Wall Street, with elimination of Medicare removing the last remaining obstacle to complete financialization of medical care. Similarly, getting rid of Social Security will put Wall Street in complete control of our nation’s retirement system. Wall Street hates competition.
And so does Peterson. It is unfortunate that Beltway progressives voluntarily muzzled themselves, to eliminate any alternative to Peterson’s propaganda.
In Part 2, I will look at a specific case of self-muzzling by the premiere Beltway progressive research institute. Stay tuned.