In using deficit fears to target entitlement programs, Republicans are enacting a time-honored political tradition.
Donald Trump won’t say it, but Republicans in the Senate will: Social Security and Medicare would be on the chopping block in a second Trump term. Pointing to rising deficits, Republican senators have all but promised to gut entitlements if Trump gets four more years.
Sen. John Thune (R-SD), the second-ranking Senate Republican, expressed hope to the New York Times that Trump would be “interested” in reforming Social Security and Medicare. Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) was even more optimistic. “We’ve brought it up with President Trump, who has talked about it being a second-term project,” Barrasso said. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has made no secret of wanting to cut Social Security.
In using deficit fears to target entitlement programs, many Republicans are hoping to use Trump’s second term to cut Medicare and Social Security. First, expand deficits through tax cuts, then declare that spending must be slashed. The chief target of these proposed cuts is Social Security, which historians have noted the mainstream Republican party has long sought to diminish, privatize, or both.
“Starve the beast”Today In: Money
Senate Republicans’ talk of entitlement cuts come in the context of new estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, which predicts the deficit will climb to $1 trillion in 2020. By 2029, the deficit relative to GDP is slated to reach the highest levels since World War II—an unprecedented deficit level for an economic expansion, when deficits tend to shrink.
Since past behavior is a good predictor of future behavior, and many Republicans are signaling they want to, Republicans will likely argue for cuts to Social Security and Medicare when a recession inevitably hits. This can be seen as a reprise of the tactic known as “starve the beast.”
“Starve the beast” is a political two-step that
- first generates deficits through tax cuts and,
- second, points to the alarmingly high deficits to attack government spending and reduce entitlements.
Credited to an unnamed Reagan administration official in 1985 and long associated with Reagan economic guru David Stockman, the notion of “starve the beast” emerged from around the time of Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts, which were not paired with simultaneous spending reductions.
Reagan held that higher deficits would naturally lead to budget reductions: “We can lecture our children about extravagance until we run out of voice and breath. Or we can cure their extravagance by simply reducing their allowance.”
Today, you can see the “starve the beast” tactic clearly in the 2017 tax cuts—the main cause of the projected record deficits—to future spending cuts. Trump’s top economic adviser Larry Kudlow, a veteran of the Reagan administration, has made this argument himself. He explicitly invoked “starve the beast” in a 1996 Wall Street Journal op ed:
“Tax cuts impose a restraint on the size of government. Tax cuts will starve the beast… Specifically, tax cuts provide a policy incentive to search for market solutions to the problems of Social Security, health care, education and the environment.”
It would be no surprise to learn that Kudlow, who now heads Trump’s National Economic Council, is pursuing the same course today.
The quest to privatize Social Security
In his 2016 campaign, Donald Trump said bluntly, “I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican.” Despite reports from fellow Republicans like Thune and Barrasso that Trump may, indeed, be just like every Republican in a second term, some on the right think it’s best that he keep that promise.
Among those urging caution is longtime Republican strategist Grover Norquist, famous for his libertarian credo, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” After the 2017 tax bill passed, Norquist cautioned Trump that Social Security and Medicare should be “off the table” in future spending reductions.
But to follow Norquist’s advice would go against the momentum of a conservative movement that has been gaining steam since the 1980s in their quest to cut or privatize Social Security.
Republican opposition to Social Security goes back to the program’s earliest days. In the 1935 vote to create Social Security, just 4% of Democrats voted against the bill, compared to 16% of Republicans. The contemporary Social Security privatization movement originates in the conservative Cato Institute, which in 1980 sponsored a book that advocated for privatization. The book’s author, Peter Ferrarra, went on to serve in the Reagan administration.
Advocates for dismantling Social Security knew they faced an uphill climb. In the 1980s, Cato and the Heritage Foundation published a paper, “Achieving a ‘Leninist’ Strategy,” which promoted “guerrilla warfare against both the current Social Security system and the coalition that supports it” by creating “a focused political coalition” against Social Security advocates.
Cato’s Social Security privatization efforts have long been supported by Cato affiliate José Piñera, a former official under Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and the architect of Chile’s pension privatization. Forty years after that policy experiment, massive protests erupted in Chile demanding a better retirement system.
Influenced by Cato and other groups, Republican presidents have repeatedly attempted to cut or privatize Social Security. Reagan’s efforts stalled in the face of public opinion. George W. Bush vowed in his second term to expend political capital on the initiative, aiming to cut benefits by partially privatizing Social Security through the introduction of “voluntary personal retirement accounts.” Although it was his top domestic priority, Bush too fell short.
But this history of failures hasn’t stopped today’s Republicans from pushing Trump to go after Social Security, the linchpin of the U.S. retirement system.
Saving Social Security
Cutting Social Security benefits in the face of severe shortfalls in retirement income would hurt most Americans. As my colleague Tony Webb recently pointedout in an episode of my podcast Reset Retirement, one-third of retirees are dependent on Social Security for 90% or more of their income, and over 60% depend on the program for more than half of their income.
As Social Security expert Nancy Altman recently testified, Social Security is essential to the American retirement system. It is the base on which we all secure our retirement incomes. As Altman pointed out, “Social Security made independent retirement a reality. Prior to its enactment, the verb ‘retire’ did not mean what it means today.”
Preserving and expanding Social Security isn’t just an economic issue—it’s a civil rights issue, as Maya Rockeymoore Cummings and Meizhu Lui have argued. Due to the racial wealth gap, as well as the fact that minority workers have worse jobs and relatively lower employer pension coverage, non-white workers have a unique reliance on their Social Security benefits in retirement.
Given the dimming outlook for many American retirees, we must expand Social Security, not cut or privatize it—no matter what the deficit is. The greatest irony in Republican’s “starve the beast” mentality is that Social Security does not even affect the deficit. So perhaps it’s not really about the deficit after all.
What Ivanka Trump doesn’t know about social mobility.
.. Back to the “potential for upward mobility”: Where do people from poor or modest backgrounds have the best chance of getting ahead? The answer is that Scandinavia leads the rankings, although Canada also does well. And here’s the thing: The Nordic countries don’t just have low inequality, they also have much bigger governments, much more extensive social safety nets, than we do. In other words, they have what Republicans denounce as “socialism” (it really isn’t, but never mind).
And the association between “socialism” and social mobility isn’t an accident. On the contrary, it’s exactly what you would expect.
To see why, put it in a U.S. context, and ask what would happen to social mobility if either the right wing of the G.O.P. or progressive Democrats got to implement their policy agendas in full.
If Tea Party types got their way, we’d see drastic cuts in Medicaid, food stamps and other programs that aid Americans with low income — which would in many cases leave low-income children with inadequate medical care and nutrition. We’d also see cuts in funding for public education. And on the other end of the scale, we’d see tax cuts that raise the incomes of the wealthy, and the elimination of the estate tax, allowing them to pass all of that money on to their heirs.
By contrast, progressive Democrats are calling for universal health care, increased aid to the poor, and programs offering free or at least subsidized college tuition. They’re calling for aid that helps middle- and lower-income parents afford quality child care. And they propose paying for these benefits with increased taxes on high incomes and large fortunes.
So, which of these agendas would tend to lock our class system in place, making it easy for children of the rich to stay rich and hard for children of the poor to escape poverty? Which would bring us closer to the American dream, creating a society in which ambitious young people who are willing to work hard have a good chance of transcending their background?
Look, Ms. Trump is surely right in asserting that most of us want a country in which there is the potential for upward mobility. But the things we need to do to ensure that we are that kind of country — the policies that are associated with high levels of upward mobility around the world — are exactly the things Republicans denounce as socialism.
Democrats shouldn’t put themselves in a fiscal straitjacket.On Thursday, the best House speaker of modern times reclaimed her gavel, replacing one of the worst. It has taken the news media a very long time to appreciate the greatness of Nancy Pelosi, who saved Social Security from privatization, then was instrumental in gaining health insurance for 20 million Americans. And the media are still having a hard time facing up to the phoniness of their darling Paul Ryan, who, by the way, left office with a 12 percent favorable rating.
There’s every reason to expect that Pelosi will once again be highly effective. But some progressive Democrats object to one of her initial moves — and on the economics, and probably the politics, the critics are right.
.. The issue in question is “paygo,” a rule requiring that increases in spending be matched by offsetting tax increases or cuts elsewhere.
You can argue that as a practical matter, the rule won’t matter much if at all. On one side, paygo is the law, whether Democrats put it in their internal rules or not. On the other side, the law can fairly easily be waived, as happened after the G.O.P.’s huge 2017 tax cut was enacted.
But adopting the rule was a signal of Democratic priorities — a statement that the party is deeply concerned about budget deficits and willing to cramp its other goals to address that concern. Is that a signal the party should really be sending?
.. Furthermore, there are things the government should be spending money on even when jobs are plentiful — things like fixing our deteriorating infrastructure and helping children get education, health care and adequate nutrition. Such spending has big long-run payoffs, even in purely monetary terms.
Meanwhile, the federal government can borrow money very cheaply — the interest rate on inflation-protected 10-year bonds is only about 1 percent. These low borrowing costs, in turn, reflect what seems to be a persistent savings glut — that is, the private sector wants to save more than it’s willing to invest, even with very low interest rates.
Or consider what happened after Democrats enacted the Affordable Care Act, going to great lengths to pay for the additional benefits with tax increases and spending cuts. A majority of voters still believed that it increased the deficit. Reality doesn’t seem to matter.
.. Anyway, the truth is that while voters may claim to care about the deficit, hardly any of them really do. For example, does anyone still believe that the Tea Party uprising was a protest against deficits? From the beginning, it was basically about race — about the government spending money to help Those People. And that’s true of a lot of what pretends to be fiscal conservatism.
.. In fact, even the deficit scolds who played such a big role in Beltway discourse during the Obama years seem oddly selective in their concerns about red ink. After all those proclamations that fiscal doom was coming any day now unless we cut spending on Social Security and Medicare, it’s remarkable how muted their response has been to a huge, budget-busting tax cut. It’s almost as if their real goal was shrinking social programs, not limiting national debt.
.. So am I saying that Democrats should completely ignore budget deficits? No; if and when they’re ready to move on things like some form of Medicare for All, the sums will be so large that asking how they’ll be paid for will be crucial.
Skeptical reporting has still been too favorable.
The 2017 tax cut has received pretty bad press, and rightly so. Its proponents made big promises about soaring investment and wages, and also assured everyone that it would pay for itself; none of that has happened.
Yet coverage actually hasn’t been negative enough. The story you mostly read runs something like this: The tax cut has caused corporations to bring some money home, but they’ve used it for stock buybacks rather than to raise wages, and the boost to growth has been modest. That doesn’t sound great, but it’s still better than the reality: No money has, in fact, been brought home, and the tax cut has probably reduced national income. Indeed, at least 90 percent of Americans will end up poorer thanks to that cut.
.. But these transactions are simply rearrangements of companies’ books for tax purposes; they don’t necessarily correspond to anything real. Suppose that Multinational Megacorp USA decides to have its subsidiary, Multinational Mega Ireland, transfer some assets to the home company. This will produce the kind of simultaneous and opposite movement in dividends and direct investment you see in Figure 1. But the company’s overall balance sheet – which always included the assets of MM Ireland – hasn’t changed at all. No real resources have been transferred; MM USA has neither gained nor lost the ability to invest here.
.. So the tax cut induced some accounting maneuvers, but did nothing to promote capital flows to America.
The tax cut did, however, have one important international effect: We’re now paying more money to foreigners.
Bear in mind that the one clear, overwhelming result of the tax cut is a big break for corporations: Federal tax receipts on corporate income have plunged (Figure 3).
.. The key point to realize is that in today’s globalized corporate system, a lot of any country’s corporate sector, our own very much included, is actually owned by foreigners, either directly because corporations here are foreign subsidiaries, or indirectly because foreigners own American stocks. Indeed, roughly a third of U.S. corporate profits basically flow to foreign nationals – which means that a third of the tax cut flowed abroad, rather than staying at home.
This probably outweighs any positive effect on GDP growth. So the tax cut probably made America poorer, not richer.
And it certainly made most Americans poorer. While 2/3 of the corporate tax cut may have gone to U.S. residents, 84 percent of stocks are held by the wealthiest 10 percent of the population. Everyone else will see hardly any benefit.
.. Meanwhile, since the tax cut isn’t paying for itself, it will eventually have to be paid for some other way – either by raising other taxes, or by cutting spending on programs people value. The cost of these hikes or cuts will be much less concentrated on the top 10 percent than the benefit of the original tax cut. So it’s a near-certainty that the vast majority of Americans will be worse off thanks to Trump’s only major legislative success.