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Josh writes below about

Josh writes below about Sebastian Mallaby’s column in the Washington Post today. Josh mostly addresses Mallaby’s political argument, that the Democrats are hurting themselves by opposing privatization. I thought I’d touch on the other half of Mallaby’s argument, which is that Democrats are making a substantive mistake opposing privatization. Mallaby is a truly interesting writer who researches his columns thoroughly and argues them in innovative ways. That’s why it’s so disappointing that his column today simply recycles a Republican talking point that has become ensconced as mindless conventional wisdom. I’m sorry this site is devoting so much space to beating up on a normally astute writer. But his view is so influential, at least among elite circles, that it’s worth dissecting.

The first thing to say here is that Bush does not have a plan to save Social Security from insolvency. I’m actually going to develop this point in the next post. (Let the anticipation build!)

Meanwhile, on to point number two. Mallaby insists that “the Democrats have no proposal of their own. They sound negative and irresponsible.” In fact, the Democrats have a proposal that’s every bit as substantive as Bush’s: put aside privatization, and come to the bargaining table to hash out a 1983-style fix mixing benefit cuts and tax hikes. Senate Democrats actually called a press conference to announce this position. It’s Republicans who are inveighing against this kind of non-ideological solution. (See this editorial in the Weekly Standard.)

Now, it would be one thing if Mallaby, like most conservatives, fervently wanted to privatize Social Security and saw closing its deficit as a secondary goal. But he explicitly argues the opposite. So it’s downright weird that he blames the Democrats here.

Third, he conflates Social Security’s projected deficit with other entitlement deficits. This is a standard trick employed by Bush and his allies: if you have to make the Social Security deficit look big, lump it together with other entitlement deficits. Mallaby concedes that the revenue lost from Bush’s tax cuts is three times the size of Social Security’s projected deficit. But, he writes, “the coming baby-bust budget crisis is bigger than $11 trillion.” By that he means that Medicare and Medicaid face a huge crisis, which is true. But why is this an argument to address Social Security first? Given that other problems are much larger, why should we devote scarce revenue and political capital to solving a relatively minor Social Security crisis?

As for the argument that privatization is an opening wedge designed to phase out Social Security as we know it, Mallaby flicks it away. “Democrats who say that any personal accounts are a first step to dismantling the system,” he writes, “should recall their own fury at equivalent Republican claims -- that Hillarycare, for example, promised ‘socialized medicine.’” But what Democrats are saying is true. Conservatives themselves have long argued that private accounts are a way to transform Social Security into something fundamentally different. They’ve admitted that privatization is the closest they could come to total abolition, and they’ve admitted that private accounts are intended to grow over time. Sure, out of political expedience, they’ve changed their tune. But the very fact that conservatives rule out a fix that doesn’t involve “carve-out accounts” – the device that is intended to phase out the system – shows that phase-out, rather than solvency, is their goal.

Finally, Mallaby repeats the dogma that “a party whose senators unanimously refuse to contemplate carve-out accounts is a party that's closed its collective mind.” Here again is this strangely common belief that it’s wrong to rule out a really bad idea. Doesn’t the substance matter at all? Would Mallaby rule out a plan for fighting terrorism that involves invading and annexing France? Or would he wait to hear the details? I won’t go on any more, but my last L.A. Times column dealt with what I called “militant open-mindedness.”

I understand the power that group thinking has – its ability to make sensible people believe absurd things. I find it depressing that somebody as astute as Mallaby would fall prey to that.

Jonathan Chait here filling

Jonathan Chait here, filling in while Josh and the future Mrs. Talking Points Memo prepare for their upcoming nuptials. A brief introduction is in order. I’m a senior editor (which actually means staff writer) for the New Republic. I also write an op-ed column for the Los Angeles Times which appears every Friday.

Josh previously expressed his hope that my TNR cover story on the need to defeat privatization could be made free to non-subscribers. Well, here’s a free link. I hope those of you who don’t read TNR will consider doing so. Electronic subscriptions cost a mere $29.95 a year, print subscriptions a bit more.

My one previous blogging experience came in late 2003/early 2004, when I spent a few months writing an anti-Howard Dean blog (Diary of a Dean-o-phobe) for the TNR website. Perhaps some who hold this view were among those who wrote in urging that the blog – or, in some cases, I personally -- meet an untimely demise.

I should let you know upfront that some of you may consider me one of those annoying pseudo-liberal sellouts. I did passionately argue in favor of the Iraq War. It seemed like a stronger case at the time, before we knew that Saddam Hussein was enduring international isolation, crippling sanctions, and ultimately full-out invasion by the strongest military power in world history all for the purpose of concealing non-existent weapons programs. (Come to think of it, my jihad against Howard Dean also seemed stronger before I knew that the alternative would be John Kerry. I still say Dean would have been worse.)

Anyway, it so happens that I’m also obsessed with Social Security privatization. So those of you who feel you haven’t gotten enough of that topic from this site, there will be more. Much more! If I get intoxicated with power, or hard up for material, I may even splinter the Fainthearted Faction and the Conscience Caucus into new sub-factions of my own creation. Hopefully it won’t come to that.

Alright Im off. As

Alright, I'm off. As I said, I'll pop in now and again over the next week. If you need to contact me, do so through the regular comments email. To contact Jon Chait, who'll be holding down the fort over the next couple days, use the email above.

(Note: For those of you who've kindly asked, no, I won't be posting from my honeymoon. We're taking that later this spring.)

One of the Democrats

One of the Democrats' greatest problems -- far more insidious than many realize -- is their desire to gain the approval and approbation of establishment Washington and its A-list pundits. The habit or inclination is rooted in a political world that ceased to exist 20 or 30 years ago, and even then was wrong-headed. Republicans, on the other hand, have long seen the relationship as fundamentally antagonistic (if not necessarily unfriendly) and have acted accordingly. On balance, that's led to better press treatment because, though they are loathe to admit it, the mix of editors and pundits and talk show hosts respect the treatment.

Democrats, from top to bottom, would do themselves no end of good if they simply acted on the assumption that the Washington establishment is not a constituency they are trying to appeal to or cultivate.

That doesn't mean they should ignore the Washington press. Far from it. They should state their views and demand they be fairly covered. But they should not act on the ingrained assumption that these people are basically like-minded people of shared assumptions and beliefs who can be appealed to on that basis.

All of that is another way of saying they should act like Republicans.

Now, let's take an example: Sebastian Mallaby's column this morning in the Washington Post. As you might expect, it's another entrant in 'Dems will do badly not putting forth their own plan' contest.

Mallaby says Democrats will find themselves in a similar spot to that which they did over Iraq. And though Mallaby puts himself down as a supporter of add-on accounts he says nevertheless that a party that refuses even "to contemplate carve-out accounts is a party that's closed its collective mind."

An implicit thread that runs through Mallaby's article becomes explicit when he says that "progressive Democrats should also admit the truth about Republican proposals: They're a heck of a lot better than leaving Social Security's deficit to get worse."

It does not seem to occur to Mallaby that the people who he is arguing against certainly do not believe this is so and furthermore that they have very strong and principled reasons for believing that -- many of which up-coming guest-blogger Jon Chait will no doubt discuss.

On balance I would class Mallaby's piece (along with a recent column by Matt Miller, for whom I have great respect) as another in a rash of recent examples of what we might call convulsive neoliberalism (a topic to be discussed later). But let's take a moment to think through Mallaby's point on the substance.

Democrats believe that private accounts destroy Social Security. That isn't rhetoric. It's the basis of their entire opposition. A private accounts system removes the guarantees and sharing of risk that are at the heart of social insurance. Agree with that or disagree with that. That's what Democrats believe. And yet to Mallaby ruling out private accounts makes them unserious, negative and irresponsible.

In the old days, keeping an open mind about voting for laws which you believe to be fundamentally wrong or misguiding was called cynicism. But I guess times change.

Mallaby presumably also buys into what is now the consensus assumption that private accounts at a minimum do nothing to improve solvency. On top of that, private accounts intentionally push the financing of Social Security as a defined-benefit program toward dissolution -- though not everyone yet admits this. (One might even add to the equation that in the most similarly-situated country where this change has been attempted, it has been judged so spectacularly unsuccessful more or less across the political spectrum that they are now attempting to go back to a system like ours. Mallaby may have heard of the place: Britain.) But again, opposing private accounts means you're not being serious.

Now, on the politics. The president has yet to introduce any plan. He only says he wants private accounts. That's his one bottom line. He won't come forward with a plan, even though he clearly has one, because he wants to make it more difficult for his opponents to attack him. The president has just been reelected. He has majorities in both houses of congress. He has, on this issue, especially, a favorable media. And in the three months he has been pushing this plan, public support for it has gone from luke-warm to flat cold. This is apparently a bad situation for the Democrats.

Even the premise of Mallaby's logic is flawed. Democrats have a plan for solvency. And everyone has a fairly clear idea what it would be. It'd be something along the lines of Bob Ball's or the Orszag/Diamond plan, a mix of tax increases and benefit cuts to bring the numbers into line -- something that would not require particularly drastic moves on either side.

What the Democrats haven't done is to formally get behind a concrete proposal, which is to say that they haven't done exactly what the president hasn't done.

And why should they? Every pol with a brain knows there is no point putting up a detailed plan which makes for a ready target when your opponents are in the midst of getting mauled over their idea. That may not go over well in civics class or at the Post editorial board. But it is straight politics as it is always played and for which no apologies are necessary. But in Mallaby's view, despite the extremely disadvantaged position Democrats find themselves in in Washington today, having a hand on not one lever of power: they should nonetheless sacrifice what they believe in order to be entirely indifferent to which political strategy will be advance their principles.

What that advice makes clear comes out in other parts of his piece --his relative indifference to the issues under consideration. You'll note that in various parts of his piece he lauds President Bush and congressional Republicans for selflessly putting themselves out there to raise the cry about the coming disasters to face Security Security. The president, he says, is "out there touring the country, trying to open people's minds to the necessity of reform; meanwhile, Republican members of Congress are sticking their necks out with detailed overhaul proposals."

Though he says he supports add-on accounts, it is also clear that he buys into most if not all of the essential premises of the privatization argument, even down to a few of the bogus statistics. To him, having private accounts inside or outside Social Security is basically an organizational matter on the order of deciding whether one might raise the retirement age one year or shave a bit off indexing of benefits to improve the program's solvency. In other words, an important question but hardly a matter of transcendent consequence of principle.

At the end of the day, the fundamental issue, at least as the Democrats see it (and as we're learning, much of the public) is simply invisible to Mallaby. He can't get his head around the notion that people really see private accounts as that big a deal. And that shapes his view of the entire matter. Because of that he can't see that the debate we're having isn't about solvency but about whether the country will make the historic decision to get rid of the Social Security system and replace it with something very different. In that debate, Democrats have a position that is straightforward, on the table, and emphatically clear. It's Social Security. Period. Democrats want to keep the current system. That's very clear.

Mallaby is living in a mental world of premises and assumptions (both political and in policy terms) which no Democrat should even remotely be a part of.

Any Democrat who would be rattled by Mallaby's reasoning would have to be one who is petrified of the idea of suffering some political setback somewhere, somehow, for some reason, even though all available evidence points in the opposite direction.

Mallaby's political advice strikes me as silly. But if it could be shown to me that defending Social Security was a risky proposition politically, it wouldn't affect my thinking at all. Some things are so important they're worth losing over. And when political parties realize that is generally when they start winning. A political party that is scared to run risks over matters of grand importance even when the public volubly says it has their backs is a party that scarcely deserves to exist.

Wow Roll Call says

Wow! Roll Call says Kweisi Mfume is going to run for retiring-Senator Paul Sarbanes senate seat in Maryland in 2006.

Yep the Dems have

Yep, the Dems have a problem on their hands. According to the just-released ABC/WaPo poll, President Bush's approval rating on Social Security has fallen to 35%, the lowest of his presidency. And 58% say that the more they learn about his plan, the less they like it. On the other hand, no Republican has yet moved to impeach the president over private accounts nor does there appear to be significant support among House Republicans for tarring and feathering him. So the Democrats may have overreached.

Im going to be

I'm going to be stepping away from the site this week; but I'll be leaving it in the hands of an eclectic trio of guest bloggers that I think you'll really enjoy. I'll pop in here and there with a post. But I am taking a week away from the site to ... well, it sounds so matter-of-fact and prosaic to just say it, but to get married. If all goes according to plan I'll be back fulltime next Monday or Tuesday.

Starting Monday, Jon Chait of The New Republic will take over for a couple days. He has a new article out this week on the Dems and just why they should do everything in their power to stop Bush in his tracks on phasing out Social Security. (I'm hoping the TNR Internet gods will choose to make his piece available to non-subscribers, given its inherent newsworthiness and the fact that I imagine he'll be referring to it with some frequency. No need on the companion piece by Gregory Mankiw, for reasons noted here.)

Signing on for the last couple days of the week will be Harry Shearer, actor, political wit, voice on The Simpsons, Derek Smalls of Spinal Tap, creator of Le Show and so much more. Notwithstanding the fact that I'll be in my last couple days of bachelorhood I'll definitely be stopping by a lot to see what on earth Harry chooses to write about.

Then over the weekend and through Monday, Ed Kilgore of NewDonkey.com and the Democratic Leadership Council will return for more excellent posting and probably a bit more of what will hopefully be fruitful antagonism with parts of our readership. (Among other benign qualities, blogs can, I think, be a wonderful venue for group or perhaps couples therapy for squabbling national political parties.)

So, my deep thanks to each of them for minding the fort while I'm away.

I'll be around till early afternoon today.

Weve fielded a bunch

We've fielded a bunch of questions of late about just who's paying the expenses for the Bamboozlepalooza Tour. And the question is raised again now by the fact that the administration has set up a Bamboozlepalooza website. (I kid you not.) In case you didn't know, it's strengtheningsocialsecurity.gov. Take a look. After all, you paid for it.

Now, about that question of who pays for this stuff ...

Certainly, as the government has expanded onto the Internet, it is taken as a given (and rightly so, I think) that office-holders in different branches of government will use their government websites to advocate their views. The folks on the Hill on the both sides of the aisle do it. The White House website certainly presses the White House's case. At the same time, there are strict rules about those sites not being used in political -- or more specifically, electoral -- campaigns.

It seems to me that there is some question about whether the White House can or should be able to set up a site for its own propaganda using a .gov extension. But that doesn't seem to me to be the issue most worthy of discussion.

What about the Bamboozlepalooza Tour itself? Who pays? Yes, no doubt, presidents can go on tours of the country pressing their legislative agenda. You can go back to the ill-fated example of Woodrow Wilson to find precedents for that.

It is also true that presidents and cabinet secretaries make all sorts of appearances before private organizations where the public is not allowed or appearances where attendance is restricted on various bases. It is even true that tickets for presidential events are often doled out (under both parties) as a sort of minor patronage for local political supporters and bigwigs. And no one would deny that a White House can take practical steps to manage attendence at presidential events.

But it has become quite clear in this case -- almost old-hat, you might say -- that all the events the president is holding on Bamboozlepalooza are restricted to people who support his agenda. Sometimes disagree-ers (or should we call them dissidents?) slip through. But the White House takes affirmative and fairly successful steps to exclude those who are not supporters.

We got used to this during the campaign. But that's different: Campaigns are private organizations. They have their own money. They can do pretty much what they want in this regard and are only limited by the constraints of public ridicule.

Taken altogether, though, something seems qualitatively different to me about what's happening here -- specifically, the nexus of taxpayer funding and ideological litmus tests for inclusion. Nobody would imagine that the president would or could restrict public White House tours to political supporters. Yet here the administration has undertaken what is quite publicly a taxpayer-funded public advocacy campaign. And yet only those who pass a political test are allowed to attend.

I know we all sort of already know that. But if it doesn't violate a law (and perhaps it does), it should certainly violate public sensibilities more than it seems to be and provoke more than mere eye-rolling. Along with phony-baloney news, doctored government statistics and paid-off pundits, it is yet another sign -- if now, admittedly, only on the margins -- of the Pravdafication of civic discourse under this administration.