‘The American People Overwhelmingly Oppose Cuts to Social Security’

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Nancy Altman

Janine Jackson interviewed Nancy Altman about Social Security and the election for the October 26, 2018, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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John L. Hess
John L. Hess

Janine Jackson: An article in FAIR’s magazine Extra! about mainstream media distortions on Social Security cites a New York Times article that describes the federal budget deficit as

overwhelmingly a consequence of American military outlay and entitlement programs such as Social Security…together with the nation’s unwillingness to pay the taxes needed to finance the expenditures.

A Times editorial argues, “It hardly seems fair to ask more sacrifice from the working poor to maintain the living standards of the retired rich.” And on a Sunday chat show, a pundit calls a politician’s defense of Social Security “pandering to the elderly,” without contradiction.

Here’s the thing: That article, by veteran New York Times reporter and friend of FAIR John Hess, was written in January 1988.

Corporate media get a number of things wrong when they talk about Social Security, but perhaps the most significant is to present it as a contentious issue in this year’s budget battles when, really, the fight over Social Security is an ideological one—with many on side and few on the other—that’s been going on since the program began, 83 years ago.

Here now to give us some context on current headlines is Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works and author of, most recently, The Truth About Social Security: The Founders’ Words Refute Revisionist History, Zombie Lies and Common Misunderstandings, out this year from Strong Arm Press. She joins us now by phone from Maryland. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Nancy Altman.

Nancy Altman: Thank you so much for having me.

JJ: Let’s start with what Mitch McConnell just said when the Senate Republican leader was talking to Bloomberg on October 16. He called Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid “the real drivers of the debt,” and lamented both parties’ unwillingness to “address” or “adjust” them. Some people must have thought, did he accidentally say the quiet part loud and the loud part quiet? Social Security is famously so popular that it’s described as “the third rail of US politics.” And here he’s saying, “Shame if anything were to happen to it,” right before an election. But if it was maybe brazen, McConnell’s claims are in a long tradition, aren’t they?

NA: Yes. And I think you really captured it perfectly in your introduction: This is an ideological fight. This is about values. But the side that is opposed to Social Security…. President Dwight Eisenhower, in a private letter to his brother, described opponents of Social Security as “negligible” in number, a “tiny splinter group.”

Unfortunately, that tiny splinter group now holds reign over the Republican Party. But they understand the politics well enough to not say, “We think Social Security is socialism. We don’t think government should be doing this.” They say, “Oh, we love it but it’s driving the deficit.”

The reality is that Social Security does not add a penny to the deficit; it’s totally self-financed. It is an earned benefit that we all contribute to. It’s got to have a balanced budget, and it always has. And no other but conservative President Ronald Reagan—you can go on YouTube, and we’ve got a great clip of him saying exactly that, “Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit.”

But this is a line that Mitch McConnell is using. And I think he’s feeling defensive, because, of course, their tax cut to millionaires and billionaires and big corporations blew a hole in the federal budget—$1.5 trillion. And now they’re trying to look around and explain, “No no no, it wasn’t us that did it.” And so they’re going after their favorite targets, which they oppose on ideological grounds.

JJ: And they have something to work with, because media, I think, have not done a terrific job of making so concretely clear the realities of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, that when you hear these Republican claims, you can say, “Oh wait, I know that’s wrong,” you know? I think, in fact, media have some active untelling to do, having spent decades enabling this storyline. You unpack and address the storyline in your book, The Truth About Social Security, and I would really like to just walk through—you’ve started to already—but walk through some of the myths that seem just so difficult to dispel.

Pete Peterson (cc photo: Lingjing Bao/Talk Radio News Service)
Pete Peterson (cc photo: Lingjing Bao/

NA: No, you’re exactly right. And let me, before we get to myths, talk about the role of the mainstream media. Because, as I mentioned, Dwight Eisenhower called the opponents a “tiny splinter group,” which is true, but they have oversized influence. Because they are literal billionaires. I mean, the obvious are the Koch brothers. But there’s another who died recently, Pete Peterson, who spent, before his death, a billion dollars of his own wealth spreading the lies about Social Security. He was dedicated to this and set up a lot of organizations. So you’ll talk to various organizations, Committee for Responsible Federal Budget, and all of these sound very independent and objective, but they’ve all been funded by the same group, and they have the same message.

So the media and, I must say, mainstream politicians, too—the elites in Washington, they go to the same cocktail parties, they bought into this. Fortunately, the Democratic Party has emerged and returned to its roots and seen the light, and they now are calling for expanding Social Security, while the Republicans are still saying, “We’ve got to save Social Security”; you know, it’s, “We love it but we can’t afford it,” and other nonsense like that, which are some of the myths that I think we’ll be getting into.

JJ: Absolutely. I was just going back through FAIR’s archives on this, and there’s just no shortage. Here we have NPR‘s Scott Simon, this is 2004:

No one would deny that Social Security is headed for a major crisis. The crash, in a sense, has already begun, because, thanks to the Baby Boom, there are fewer Americans paying into the system.

So that’s what sets up this idea of what is ultimately, of course, a goal of privatization, being packaged as rescuing a system that’s in crisis.

NA: Exactly. It’s all the the same rhetoric. And this billionaire-funded campaign has been unsuccessful in actually cutting our cash benefits. But is has been successful in a couple of ways. One is that part of what Social Security is supposed to provide, in addition to wage replacement, is a sense of peace of mind: security. It’s in its name. The idea that if the unimaginable happens, and you become disabled and can no longer work; if you die prematurely, leaving young children; or if you’re fortunate and live to old age, you’re secure in the knowledge that you have a benefit you’ve earned, that will provide for you and your family. And that’s something we’ve all contributed to and paid for.

So we’ve lost that. And the way that we’ve lost it is that, you ask most Americans, especially younger Americans, if they think Social Security will be there for them, and they say, “No.” And that’s just wrong. The projections by the Social Security Administration, even if Congress were to do nothing over the next 75 years, the end of the 21st century, there would still be enough revenue coming in to pay 75 cents on the dollar.

Now, that’s not enough. We want to have 100 percent on the dollar. But the idea that the program won’t be there would take an act of Congress.

JJ: And I think media often omit that idea of government choice. There is a sense of, “Well, nothing’s going to be done, and it’s like a rock rolling down a hill.” When, of course, government makes adjustments to policies all the time, and could certainly do so with Social Security.

NA: And on that point—and this is why this election coming up is so important—as you’ve mentioned, Mitch McConnell and Marco Rubio, they’ve all said they’re going after Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid; they want to cut these programs. And if they’re saying this before the election, they are just going to be emboldened, they’ll think they have a mandate, after the election.

The flip of that is that if the Democrats take the House, the person who will chair the Social Security Subcommittee is Rep. John Larson of Connecticut, who has introduced an expansion bill, called the Social Security 2100 Act, which not only expands benefits across the board, has a more accurate cost of living adjustment, increases the special minimum, but fully pays for all of it through the end of this century, which is why he calls it the 2100 Act. And he has said that if he gets the gavel, he will hold hearings and start to push this legislation in the new Congress. So we will see action.

I think the reason Congress has not acted is that they’ve tried to do something the American people don’t want. The American people overwhelmingly oppose cuts to Social Security, and that’s what Republicans who have control in Congress want to do, which is why there’s been no action.

JJ: I think it’s such an important point to say that the opposite side to this right-wing push to gut these programs is not, “Oh please, can we please hold onto them?” It’s actually to expand them, and that that would actually be more in keeping with the founders’ vision of what Social Security was meant to do.

Nancy Altman of Social Security Works
Nancy Altman: “The question of whether to expand or cut Social Security is a matter of values…. If we want to expand benefits, we can do so responsibly.”

NA: Absolutely. The wonderful part of Social Security, there are a number of things. One is that what makes this such a good issue for those who are on the right side of it, is that the winning politics is also profoundly wise policy. We as a nation are facing a looming retirement income crisis, with the collapse of the defined benefit plans, stagnating wages, loss of home equity and so forth. The one part of our retirement income system that continues to work extremely well is Social Security. What we need to do is build on what works, expand Social Security.

And to be very clear, this myth of, “Oh, it’s going bankrupt, it’s unaffordable”: The question of whether to expand or cut Social Security is a matter of values. We are the wealthiest nation in the world. We’re at the wealthiest moment of our history. And this legislation that’s been introduced, there are about a dozen bills, the various ways of expanding Social Security and paying for it, they show unequivocally that if we want to expand benefits, we can do so responsibly.

But the other side does not want to make this a question of values, because the American people overwhelmingly—whether you’re conservative or liberal, Republican, Democrat, all genders, all races, everyone—we all overwhelmingly agree that Social Security works. We don’t want to see it cut; we’d like to see it expanded.

JJ: Folks may remember Paul Ryan saying that he’s been dreaming about cutting Medicaid since he was standing around the keg in college, you know. It sort of sounds like supervillain talk. But you’ve been in the room with these people. What is the social vision that they have, that backs eliminating Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid? What view of the world makes that make sense?

NA: I think there’s both an ideological view and a matter of their donors. You know how much money flows to Wall Street from Social Security? None. But if you cut Social Security back, more money would go to Wall Street, more money would go in fees. And that’s, of course, what their donors want.

So there’s only a small splinter group that oppose this program, but they tend to be extremely wealthy with, as I say, oversized influence.

So that’s one, but there is an ideological opposition. This is the Koch brothers and people like that. And that is anti-government; they want government to do nothing, you know, maybe a military, if that. They sort of have this idea that, “We don’t want to pay taxes. We’ve got our own gated community.” All of that.

And starting in 1936, Alf Landon, the Republican nominee for president, ran vociferously against Social Security. He lost in a landslide. There were opponents in the 1950s, they lost; the 1960s, the 1970s.

Then something shifted. Now everyone loves Social Security, but it’s “unaffordable,” it’s “unfair to children,” it’s, you know, “people are cheating,” it’s whatever it is. I call it a solution in search of a problem, because the solution is always to cut Social Security; the problems vary.

But today’s Republicans do not have the courage of their convictions. They won’t stand up and say, “We don’t like Social Security. We think it’s socialism. We’d like to cut it back.” They say, “We love Social Security. We need a bipartisan solution. But we’re against taxes, so we’ve got to cut it.”

JJ: I want to ask you a final question about media, because although you’re outlining distinctions between Democrats and Republicans right now, I see increasingly critics calling out media for sometimes hiding reality in that partisan frame. Paul Krugman and Michael Hiltzik at the LA Times, both kind of side-eyed reporting that was saying, “Democrats claim” the GOP wants to make cuts to Social Security, or “Democrats say” actually there’s not a relationship between Social Security and the deficit. And they make these things that are just true, they put them in the mouths of Democrats, and it makes it seems as though the facts of the matter are partisan.

NA: Exactly. And, you know, I have some sympathy for the media; they want to seem nonpartisan. But if one side is saying, “the Earth is flat,” and the other side is saying, “the Earth is round,” I don’t think it’s appropriate to say, “Well, these people say the Earth is flat and these people say the Earth is round.” There is an objective reality. And in this case, there’s no question that the Democrats, in their 2016 platform—which did not get covered very much—called for expanding Social Security, not cutting it.

And it is a fact that it has been costed out by the nonpartisan actuaries of the Social Security Administration that the John Larson 2100 Act is projected to both expand benefits and pay them fully through the 21st century. So you might get clicks with “the old against the young,” or “the Democrats against the Republicans.” But I think it’s a disservice for a program like Social Security that, as I say, is supposed to provide peace of mind, when you start saying, “Well, these people say it’s going bankrupt”—to just report it—because it really does a disservice to all of us.

JJ: I want to just push you for one final question, because it’s suffused throughout the reporting, is just the language, “entitlement program.” And I think you just, you think something when you hear that. It’s an example of a word that’s been turned against its literal meaning. There’s a sense that somehow it’s unearned. I know you’ve covered this ground, but what’s your reaction when you hear Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid described as “entitlements”?

NA: Well it’s outrageous. And it really is back to what we were just talking about, about those who oppose these programs, won’t come out and say so. So they use this pejorative label that sounds like a government handout.

The Truth About Social Security
Strong Arm Press, 2018

You know, we’ve done focus groups on this. We find that people, if you say, “What’s an entitlement?” they don’t think it’s Social Security. When you tell them, “Well, that’s what people in Washington think,” they get angry. Because they see that they contribute to Social Security with every paycheck. It’s insurance. It’s an earned benefit. And I think the real proof is that a synonym for “entitlement” is “mandatory spending.” You never hear them talk about it as mandatory spending.

I had a colleague who worked on a commission in the 1990s to work on so-called entitlements. And he joked that it turned a boring, budgetary 11-letter word, “entitlements,” into the proverbial four-letter word.

This is part of the billionaire’s campaign. In fact, Pete Peterson, the billionaire I was talking about, helped to organize that commission, and was on it. This is part of the strategy, to make it sound like it’s a government handout, to make it sound like it’s full of fraud, all of the things that it’s not. And it’s a really dishonest debate.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works. They’re online at SocialSecurityWorks.org. The book, The Truth About Social Security, is out now from Strong Arm Press, and her article, “The Future of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid Is on the Ballot This November,” can also be found on Common Dreams. Thank you very much, Nancy Altman, for joining us on CounterSpin.

NA: Thank you so much for having me, and for having this very important segment, so people know what is at stake.

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