Josh writes below about Sebastian Mallabyâs column in the Washington Post today. Josh mostly addresses Mallabyâs political argument, that the Democrats are hurting themselves by opposing privatization. I thought Iâd touch on the other half of Mallabyâs 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. Thatâs why itâs so disappointing that his column today simply recycles a Republican talking point that has become ensconced as mindless conventional wisdom. Iâm 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 itâs worth dissecting.
The first thing to say here is that Bush does not have a plan to save Social Security from insolvency. Iâm actually going to develop this point in the next post. (Let the anticipation build!)
Meanwhile, on to point number two. Mallaby insists that âthe Democrats have no proposal of their own. They sound negative and irresponsible.â In fact, the Democrats have a proposal thatâs every bit as substantive as Bushâs: 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. Itâs 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 itâs downright weird that he blames the Democrats here.
Third, he conflates Social Securityâs 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 Bushâs tax cuts is three times the size of Social Securityâs projected deficit. But, he writes, âthe coming baby-bust budget crisis is bigger than $11 trillion.â 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. âDemocrats who say that any personal accounts are a first step to dismantling the system,â he writes, âshould recall their own fury at equivalent Republican claims -- that Hillarycare, for example, promised âsocialized medicine.ââ 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. Theyâve admitted that privatization is the closest they could come to total abolition, and theyâve admitted that private accounts are intended to grow over time. Sure, out of political expedience, theyâve changed their tune. But the very fact that conservatives rule out a fix that doesnât involve âcarve-out accountsâ â the device that is intended to phase out the system â shows that phase-out, rather than solvency, is their goal.
Finally, Mallaby repeats the dogma that âa party whose senators unanimously refuse to contemplate carve-out accounts is a party that's closed its collective mind.â Here again is this strangely common belief that itâs wrong to rule out a really bad idea. Doesnât 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 wonât go on any more, but my last L.A. Times column dealt with what I called âmilitant open-mindedness.â
I understand the power that group thinking has â its ability to make sensible people believe absurd things. I find it depressing that somebody as astute as Mallaby would fall prey to that.