Expand, Not Cut, Social Security

Claims that program must cut benefits is attempt to undermine it by destroying its popular support

Steven Hill has a knack for being right about wonky important things that require real insight and original thought, instead of just repackaged conventional wisdom. For example, with Rob Richie, Hill founded Fairvote, originally known as the Center for Voting and Democracy, which has done important work on reforms to make U.S. elections better, advocating for the national popular vote, proportional representation, and ranked-choice voting (also known as “instant runoff voting.” Fairvote is probably the leading non-partisan election reform nonprofit in the United States.

Hill has since applied his knack for original thinking to other issues, and his latest book is a timely look at Social Security system. Since Reagan, the war cry of the Very Serious People is that the US must have “entitlement reform” because . . . well, because all the Very Serious People say that we must! Their silent caveat is “because we refuse to cut the Pentagon and we have no intention of giving back any of the tax-cuts we stole since the Reagan years.”

As Beacon Press (publisher of The Pentagon Papers) notes, Hill has made a habit of being ahead of the curve: Steven Hill is a Senior Fellow with the New America Foundation and a Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. He is the author of six books, including Raw Deal: How the “Uber Economy” and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers, which was selected by The Globalist as one of the Top Ten Books of 2015. His op-ed’s, articles and media interviews have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Politico, CNN, C-SPAN, BBC, Financial Times, Guardian, Bloomberg News, Fox News,National Public Radio, The Nation, Salon, Slate, Observer, Fast Company, Business Insider, HuffingtonPost, Le Monde, Die Zeit, Al Jazeera and many others. His other books include Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age and 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy. He is a co-founder of FairVote/Center for Voting and Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @StevenHill1776 and visit his website.

The US retirement system, with all its components parts including Social Security at its core, has been the yellow brick road leading to a pot of gold at the end of most workers’ careers. Social Security has demonstrated its value decade after decade, and it has been one of the most successful government programs of all time. And yet it is threatened now more than ever by leading politicians, business leaders, and media pundits who insist, despite all the facts to the contrary, that Social Security benefits are no longer affordable and must be cut. To the extent that there is another “side” of this debate over whether to cut Social Security, it comes mainly from those who are on the defensive, fighting merely to maintain Social Security as it is, or those who propose incremental reforms to preserve the status quo—even though the status quo is increasingly inadequate. Neither “side” of this debate is addressing the reality of America’s retirement crisis.

As we will see, although two of the three legs of the “retirement stool” have been sawed back to nubs, the only bipartisan proposal currently under consideration calls for cuts to the last remaining leg—Social Security. Each partisan side of the aisle has its own preferred way of doing that, but don’t be fooled: they amount to the same thing. They will make cuts in the ever-popular program that has long been one of the glues of our society, a sacred trust between generations and a testament to American family values. Even President Barack Obama at times has proposed his own type of cuts. Both sides are presenting the same basic face, which is biased toward the affluent and skewed toward private savings, rather than doubling down on the type of “wage insurance” that has been so successful—Social Security.

Naturally, the entitlement busters don’t always announce their scheming plans. Instead, they have been waging a stealth campaign, and so far, it’s working. They have plans to cut Social Security benefits, privatize our contributions, increase the retirement age, minimize the cost-of-living increase, and turn the whole thing over to Wall Street managers who will reap a fortune in charging fees and premiums to oversee this transformation. We saw how well that worked out with the hedge fund–stoked home mortgage crisis that collapsed the global economy in 2008. Not enough people sounded the alarm on that one until it was too late. This time, we have to expose the banksters and make the politicians listen. We need a “people’s plan” for fixing the retirement mess that the bipartisan consensus has dropped into our laps.

Imagine if the front page of every newspaper, or if the lead story on every media news show, blared a headline that shouted “Washington and Wall Street Conspiring to Gut America’s Retirement—and Only ‘We, the People,’ Can Stop Them.” Would Americans stand on the sidelines and let that happen? Would they tune out with their favorite TV shows and Twitter celebrities? Or like Paul Revere and the Minutemen, would they answer the call? I believe Americans would respond with pitchforks and torchlight parades, marching to dump the tea into the harbor.

But most Americans don’t realize what is happening, or what is at stake. The current crisis provides a crucial opportunity to rethink the system as a whole, and to redesign this “third rail” of politics for the challenges of the twenty-first century.

In this book, I will show not only how to expand Social Security but also how to pay for it, and why that would be good for America’s retirees, good for America’s businesses, and good for our nation’s continued standing in the world as a beacon of hope and prosperity. My proposed plan for Social Security Plus—including a doubling of the individual payout—would form the core of a new kind of deal for American workers. There hasn’t been a serious call for Social Security expansion in a couple of decades, yet recently more political leaders and media pundits have raised this possibility. In a relatively short period of time, Social Security expansion is being discussed by more and more people as a serious solution to America’s retirement crisis. The political needle has moved, and a moment may be arriving that will reset this landscape.

This book provides a blueprint for how to move forward.

Simply by making our retirement system more fair, we will vastly improve everyday Americans’ lives, including the younger generations, and preserve the power of hope in our nation’s dream.

By making it more innovative, we will design a retirement system that has the ability to preserve Main Street’s crucial place in the emerging high-tech, new economy.

And by making it more stable, we will put the national economy on a more solid footing, preserving the robust middle-class society that made the United States a great magnet for the world.

More fair, more innovative, and more stable…and better adapted to the realities of today’s new economy. Social Security Plus will contribute to a solid foundation from which to build a strong and vibrant twenty-first-century economy.