Chris Christie's dangerous Social Security demagoguery: Cloaking the plutocrats' agenda in populist rhetoric

Chris Christie says he'll save Social Security by going after the wealthy. It's ... not that simple

Published April 16, 2015 9:59AM (EDT)

Chris Christie                                             (AP/Julio Cortez)
Chris Christie (AP/Julio Cortez)

Chris Christie unveiled his plan to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits yesterday afternoon in New Hampshire, and he's defending himself against attacks from the left in predictable fashion. Here's how he responded on Laura Ingraham's radio show Wednesday:

"It's good to see that the left are defending the rich, Laura. And that's a very interesting turn of events," Christie said. "When you actually try to talk common sense to people, the left automatically goes to defending people who have more than $200,000 a year in retirement income. I mean the fact is this, I want Social Security to be there for the people who really need it. I don't want the elderly in this country to live out their later years in poverty."

This isn't the first time Republicans have floated this back-door approach to eroding Social Security, but it is still clever, dangerously so. It's just as interesting a "turn of events" that the right would be ostensibly going after the rich. So let's explain to the governor why the left is concerned about a plan that ostensibly goes after the rich.

First, Christie's only referencing one part of his Social Security plan -- means-testing for wealthier seniors. He's eliding the other part of his plan, which is to raise both the retirement age and early retirement age by two years. That means that everyone is going to receive two fewer years of Social Security benefits than they would under the status quo. That is a significant benefit cut, for everyone, and it's not what people in an economy that's largely abandoned defined-benefit pensions in favor of 401(k)s really need as they look ahead to retirement, if that concept's not already a thing of the past. Christie's plan also supports linking Social Security cost-of-living increases to the chained CPI, which records a slower rate of inflation. That would also be a significant benefit cut, for everyone.

Then there's the means-testing portion. Christie's plan would cut benefits for seniors earning between $80,000 and $200,000 per year, and eliminate completely benefits for those making over $200,000. The concern on "the left" -- which should mean anyone who cares about the future of Social Security as we know it -- is not that wealthy seniors will be thrown on the street begging for moldy potatoes if this particular income stream is cut off. It's that taking away the universality of Social Security, which is what Chris Christie's plan explicitly does, will erode broad political support for the program and thereby hasten its demise. In the long term, cutting off Social Security benefits for wealthier seniors will do serious damage to non-wealthy seniors.

The plan would be fine if Americans were more supportive of the concept of welfare. Welfare is great, in my opinion, and there should be more of it. But a lot of people disagree with me on this. If you make it so that seniors who earn $200,000 or more will no longer receive the Social Security benefits that they paid for their whole working lives, they're going to be mad, and fairly enough. Same with those who earn $80,000 or more and aren't receiving their promised share either. Since means-testing at the top doesn't bring in a whole lot of money, either, these thresholds would probably need to go further down.  Taking away the universality of Social Security is bad for the politics of Social Security. It means the rich, and even the upper middle class, will fully mobilize into war against Social Security. And in our system, that ain't good.

Seniors obviously wouldn't support a direct proposal that took away everyone's benefits, so Christie is trying to slip that in by saying, don't worry, we're only cutting benefits for the wealthy. But nobody, especially liberals, should be fooled into assenting to any plan that chips away at the universality of social insurance programs.

Republicans tried the same thing with unemployment benefits, too, pushing a proposal to prevent millionaires from collecting them. This bill passed the Senate in 2014 at the behest of Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, who skillfully trapped Democrats into supporting it but has admitted that the real goal is in eroding support for the program.

That's a long-game victory for Coburn. "This is not an accidental loophole in the law," the retiring senator wrote in 2011.

"To the contrary, this reverse Robin Hood style of wealth redistribution is an intentional effort to get all Americans bought into a system where everyone appears to benefit," Coburn said.

"The deal," as the Washington Examiner wrote at the time, "gives Republicans a precedent they can use in further negotiations with Democrats over means-testing Social Security and other entitlement programs, something Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has opposed." Republicans have indeed taken that precedent. The House and Senate have just agreed to a permanent "doc fix" bill that ratchets up mean-testing for Medicare. And now Chris Christie is proposing to take it to Social Security. It's crucial that liberals remain clearheaded about what's going on when the Christies and Coburns of the world cynically wield liberal rhetoric against them to achieve very illiberal ends.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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