The Great Political Mystery of Social Security Reform

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Here’s a brief little bit of musing about Social Security that occurs to me once in a while. It’s a question for conservatives: what do you think will happen if we don’t agree to some kind of deal to make Social Security solvent?

Let’s game this out. Right now, the trustees say the trust fund will run dry in 2033. Let’s stipulate this for the sake of discussion. At that point, benefits will be cut 25 percent because payroll taxes alone won’t be enough to cover current benefit levels.

So imagine it’s 2033. The head of Social Security calls a press conference and announces that in July the trust fund will be depleted and benefits will be immediately cut. What happens next? The answer is pretty obvious, isn’t it? With tens of millions of seniors facing a whopping cut in their monthly checks, Congress will go into crisis mode and restore benefits. Period. There will be no cuts at all.

Does anyone seriously doubt this? I simply can’t imagine any other outcome.

Given this, conservatives have two choices. First, make a deal now that includes some benefit cuts and some tax hikes. Second, refuse to agree to any tax hikes and therefore scuttle any deal. Then, in 2033, like it or not, you’ll get a deal that includes no benefit cuts and enough tax hikes to finance Social Security just the way it is.

So why are liberals generally willing to cut a deal, even though they could just wait it out and not give up anything? And why are conservatives dead set against it, even though the lack of a deal will eventually spur tax hikes much larger than what they could agree to today? It’s sort of a mystery, isn’t it?

POSTSCRIPT: I am, of course, one of those liberals who’s in favor of a deal. Why? Because I think it’s worthwhile for young people to have faith that Social Security will be there for them when they retire. I think it’s generally good for the liberal project when the electorate believes that liberal programs are sustainable and well run. That’s why I’m willing to make a deal even though I probably don’t really have to.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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