Prominent progressive economists are warning liberals and senior citizens not to take Social Security for granted simply because Republicans are out of power, arguing that structural incentives are propelling Democratic leaders to support scaling back the cherished program.
"Social Security faced its greatest danger when Bill Clinton was in the White House," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in an e-mail. "The reason is that the Wall Street Democrats can be counted on to oppose cuts coming from Republicans for partisan purposes. When they are in power, they have no reason to oppose these cuts."
Baker, a respected economist and strong opponent of Social Security cuts, has long challenged lawmakers of both parties who advocate reductions in the program, and regularly criticizes the mainstream media for what he views as cowering to elite misinformation on the issue.
"The immediate threat to Social Security is plans to cut benefits by either changing the benefit formula and/or raising the retirement age," Baker argued last week in the Huffington Post. "This threat comes not just from the Republican Party, but from the top levels of the Democratic Party as well."
Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote this month in the New York Times that "the program is under attack, with some Democrats as well as nearly all Republicans joining the assault." He argues that Democrats, including Obama, are bowing to pressure from Washington insiders, "for whom a declared willingness to cut Social Security has long served as a badge of fiscal seriousness."
Economist Robert Kuttner, co-founder and co-editor of the liberal magazine The American Prospect, posited Sunday in the Huffington Post that "too many legislators make Delphic comments about whether Social Security should be 'on the table,'" including, he declared, "many Democratic as well as Republican congressmen, and some in the Obama administration."
Social Security, which enjoyed its 75th anniversary this month, is running a $2.5 trillion surplus, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, and its Trust Fund is not projected to deplete before 2037.
Democrats are hammering their Republican rivals in this year's midterm election campaigns for supporting major cuts to -- if not fully privatizing, as they attempted and failed to do during the Bush administration -- the popular program. But while a number of Democrats have unequivocally said they oppose any cuts to Social Security, several key Democrats have endorsed some changes of their own.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Jim Clyburn (D-SC), a leadership member, have endorsed incrementally raising the retirement age in accordance with average life span, which they say will diminish the need to cut future benefits. A DNC spokesman last week told Raw Story that Social Security needs to be "tweaked" but not "torn apart from its very foundations."
President Barack Obama's deficit commission is also considering scaling back Social Security. Its co-chair, Alan Simpson, recently ignited a firestorm when it was revealed that he privately called Social Security "a milk cow with 310 million tits." He apologized, and the White House accepted.
To liberals, the safety net for seniors created by Social Security is a crowning example of government being used to improve peoples' lives. For the same reason, it is disliked by conservatives, whose core philosophy states that government activism is implicitly harmful to society.
"Our best hope," Baker quipped, "could be to rely on right-wingers who don't want the government messing with their Social Security."