Election Season and Social Security Don’t Mix

The author says that as election season gears up, politicians are ignoring the real problems with Social Security and instead making empty promises that cannot be kept in order to get elected.

It is that difficult season again for politicians, the 4 week period immediately preceding the election in which they have to dance around the issue of Social Security.  They have to get close enough to it to make voters think that they care, without getting so close that they get killed by it.

Welcome to the politics of delay. This is the campaign strategy in which the candidates tell the voter everything about what they will not do, and nothing about what they will do. It is attack the weaknesses of the opponent’s plan, while in the process carefully avoiding any hard stance of their own.  In between, what little that is said about the system is diluted in euphemisms only loosely connected their actual meaning in the English language.

This dance has been very expensive for future Americans.  Andrew Biggs reports in the Wall Street Journal that the Congressional Budget Office projects that the cost to keep Social Security solvent has quadrupled over the since 2008.  Some of the decay stems from the financial crisis, and some of it is simply the “passage of time” as politicians dance.

It isn’t just the size of the problem that should attract the attention of voters.  The pending insolvency of the Disability system should create some visibility for the issue in the current election cycle. It is nearly a mathematical certainty that these new Senators will have to approve some action over the course of their term in order to avoid drastic benefit cuts.

Instead of acknowledging the seriousness of the problem, candidates mask the problem with words designed to mislead. When a politician says tweak, he is talking about $10.6 trillion.  When a politician says gradual change, he is talking about the benefits of current retirees. When a politician says protect, he means current voters at the expense of future voters.

Time has obsolesced even the most bland cliché.  For example, Roberts in Kansas says “Let me be clear that any Social Security reform proposal considered by Congress must not impact current or near term retirees.”  The problem is that, based on the projections of the Trustees of the system, someone on average turning 66 today expects to outlive full benefits in Social Security – and that is in a good economy.  Let me be clear that Congress can’t keep the pledge for current retirees much less those near retirement without more taxes.
 (Roberts is not alone in his promise.  Cotton in AR, Ernst in IA, Rounds in SD, Warner in VA, Daines in MT, Inhofe in OK).  

On the other side of the aisle, eliminating the cap no longer solves the financing gap in Social Security. Facts do not however stop politicians from making an empty promise. The website of Mark Begich, a candidate for Senate from Alaska, says “<scrap the income cap> is a common sense plan that would extend the solvency of Social Security by about 75 years. “ Years ago maybe.  Today the Congressional Budget Office says (option 4) that his proposal generates less than half of his promise.

Instead of defining their own position, those running for election attack the opponent’s plan. The problem for strategists and ad-developers here is that generally neither of the candidates has a plan. So the attack ads most frequently must create the hobgoblin to oppose within the ad itself.

Colorado serves as a case in point. Candidate Mark Udall of Colorado has invested more effort in the imaginary position of his opponent than his own actual position. He claims “Gardner voted to gut Social Security”.  Specifically, Udall is talking about the “Cut, Cap, & Balance” legislation, which Udall claims that someone else claims would have gutted Social Security.

The problem for Udall here is that his opponent, Cory Gardner, has actually managed to get elected two times while creating virtually no lasting imprint on the issue of Social Security.  Neither AARP nor OnTheIssues can find Gardner’s position on Social Security.  Google can’t find it.  Gardner’s campaign site and his current house.gov site as the Representative for the 4th district of Colorado do not list Social Security as an issue.  Repeated requests to the spokesman for his campaigned generated nothing.

Social Security is broken.  How broken?  Social Security created $900 billion in broken promises during 2013 solely because we moved the valuation date from 2012 to 2013.  So if we had cut benefits to zero for the entire year, Social Security would have been still in a worse position than when we started the year.

We the voters are responsible for the mess that has metastasized within Social Security. We routinely elect people who tell us what we want to hear regardless of the facts.  Fool me once shame on you.  Fool me hundreds of times every two years across all fifty states, it is shame on us.

About the Author

Brenton Smith (A.K.A. Joe The Economist) writes nationally on the issue of Social Security reform with work appearing in Forbes, FedSmith.com, MarketWatch, TheHill.com, and regional media like The Denver Post.