This year, American seniors will see a 1.7 percent boost in their Social Security benefits, thanks to the program's annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). The COLA is calculated according to the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) -- a measure that critics note fails to take account of the fact that living costs rise far more quickly for seniors, who are heavy consumers of health care, than for the rest of the population. Accordingly, many advocates are pushing to peg Social Security's COLA to a measure known as the CPI-E (the E stands for "elderly"). Legislation introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Rep. John Larson, both Connecticut Democrats, would do just that, in addition to offering a tax break to lower-income recipients and establishing a new minimum benefit at least 25 percent above the poverty level. Funded by a gradual increase in the payroll tax, the Blumenthal-Larson proposal would keep Social Security solvent through the 21st century, according to the program's chief actuary.
Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who's currently seeking the Democratic nomination to succeed retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski, recently backed the proposal, and that has Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt bemoaning what he dubs a "Never-Compromise ideology" gripping the Democratic Party, just as that ethos has ruled the GOP "for years."
Enter false equivalence: Social Security edition.
To Hiatt, addressing Social Security's very real shortcomings via better benefits, supported by incremental increases in taxation, is akin to signing Grover Norquist's dogmatic pledge never, under any circumstances, to raise taxes. Eliding a serious discussion of the merits of Blumenthal-Larson, Hiatt decides that the proposal is yet another example of lawmakers showing more interest in playing politics than in reaching "actual solutions." Never mind the bit about how the legislation would ensure Social Security's solvency through Justin Bieber's 106th birthday. Hiatt has a narrative, and he's sticking to it.
To be fair, Hiatt does raise vaguely substantive objections to the proposal. Spending more on Social Security, he asserts, is tantamount to theft from younger generations. This, of course, is a tried-and-true tactic employed by skeptics of the social safety net, cynically pitting generation against generation. Given that Blumenthal-Larson is fully funded through payroll tax increases, this argument holds no water; it's not as if the legislation diverts funds from Head Start and pours them into Social Security.
Hiatt also takes issue with the fact that the legislation would boost benefits across the board, for poor and affluent alike. Shouldn't the focus be on providing benefits to those who really need them? This argument has the advantage of appearing rooted in egalitarian redistrubitionism. However, the virtue of Social Security is that it is universal social insurance. As Wilbur Cohen, one of the program's architects, put it, "A program for poor people will be a poor program.” Everyone has a stake in the success of universal programs; programs for the poor, meanwhile, are all too often shortchanged. Look no further than the difference between how we think about Medicare, the universal health care program for seniors, and Medicaid, which covers the poor. Even Republicans vociferously denounce anything that could be framed as a Medicare cut, while most GOP governors have refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, with virtually no political repercussions. Means-testing Social Security or otherwise paring back benefits for higher-income seniors may have superficial appeal, but the implications of such moves should give us serious pause.
The case for expanding Social Security is a robust one, buttressed by both hard statistics showing that its COLA is inadequate for today's seniors and by well-grounded theoretical arguments about fairness and social responsibility. Purveyors of vapid platitudes about hyperpartisanship on Both Sides, however, would rather skirt such issues.