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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

A quick look at some polling data gives a clear idea of why the Fainthearted Faction keeps shrinking and the Conscience Caucus keeps getting bigger.

Start with the most recent Gallup poll just out on Wednesday and go to the most basic question: Private accounts good idea or bad idea?

55% say bad idea; 40% say good idea. They asked the same question a month ago and the numbers were identical. 17% of the public believes that there is a Social Security 'crisis'. (55% say 'major problems' and 23% 'minor problems'.)

When asked about other steps that might be taken to shore up the system, benefit cuts for people under 55 -- which is part of the Bush plan -- are 29% for, 67% against. Raising, or actually doing away with the cap on payroll taxes, gets 67% for, 30% against, something the White House appears to have ruled out.

(Note: The White House has categorically ruled out 'raising payroll taxes'. But there has been at least a bit of ambiguity about whether they would consider raising the cap 'raising taxes' or if that only applies to rates.)

Down the line the numbers are not good for the president or the supporters of phasing out Social Security. Not terrible, mind you, but in the negative on almost every count.

What makes those numbers more telling is that, as near as I can tell, the Gallup questionnaire did not include the one follow-up question that consistently sends support for privatization plummeting -- namely, transition costs and trillions of dollars of borrowing.

For example, in the Washington Post/ABC poll from December 22nd, the initial query on private accounts yielded a respectable 53% level of support. But when they followed up and asked people whether they would support it if the transition costs might reach as high as $2 trillion, support dropped to about 25%, with 69% against.

To say that the bottom dropped out of support for private accounts would, I think, be a fair characterization of that shift.

This dynamic is underscored by a new article of poll analysis out Thursday from the Post. It's an important article painting a complex picture of public attitudes, with potential avenues of advantage for both sides. But one point that comes through clearly is that supporters of the president's plan tend to drop their support in the face of objections much more readily than the president's opponents are swayed by his arguments.

The key passage from the article reads ...

That [transition] cost estimate proved to be the most effective of four arguments against Bush's proposal tested in the polls. While 56 percent said they support a plan for individual investment accounts, more than half of those said they would be less likely to do so after hearing the estimate. More than four in 10 supporters wavered when they heard that personal accounts would not, by themselves, reduce the financial problems facing Social Security.

Those opposed to Bush's plan were consistently more resistant to changing their view -- about one in four did -- when confronted with four arguments supporting his proposal.


In other words, support drops dramatically when supporters are pressed with even the most elemntary and indisputable problems with the president's approach. I say 'indisputable' because White House itself has conceded that private accounts won't assure the solvency of Social Security. One might have made that question far sharper by noting that private accounts will actually accelerate the onset of the programs financial problems. On the other hand, people who are opposed tend to remain opposed or, in the not altogether flattering wording of the article, show themselves "consistently more resistant to changing their view."

One might say this is a pretty fair characterization of the disunity and wavering today among congressional Republicans and the unity of the Democrats.

Following up on our earlier posts about the president's apparent desire to default on the US Treasury notes held by the Social Security Administration, two points ...

First, most of President Bush's personal wealth appears to be tied up in bonds. Do his get honored? Or is he out of luck too?

Second, what the president said today almost certainly violates his oath of office in which he swears to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."

That would be the Constitution which reads (Am.XIV, Section 4): "The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned."

Let's ask Alan.

We and many others had predicted that the president's angle here was to default on the Treasury bonds sitting in the Social Security Trust Fund. And now we can be pretty confident that he plans to do just that since today he said that the Trust Fund doesn't even exist.

Now, here's the thing.

Alan Greenspan headed up the 'Greenspan Commission' (aka the National Commission on Social Security Reform). The Greenspan Commission didn't create the Trust Fund -- it dates back to 1939. But it was the reform package devised by the Greenspan Commission and issued in their January 1983 report that led to the intentional building up of a large surplus in the Trust Fund which would provide excess revenue to help pay for the retirement of the babyboomers in the early decades of the 21st century.

Setting aside all the actuarial and financial gobbledegook, the basic idea was that the boomers and others would start paying not only their own taxes but also advance paying to cover the costs of their own retirement. The Social Security Adminsitration used the monies in the Trust Fund to purchase bonds -- debt that otherwise would have had to have been purchased by private individuals, pensions, foreigners, all the parties that buy US Treasury bonds. (The majority of the US government's debt is in the hands of those folks; and you can be sure they're going to get paid back.)

So if you've paid Social Security taxes in any of the years from 1983 until today, you've been advance paying. And now President Bush just said that that money is gone. So, you thought you were advance paying to cover part of the future expenses of your generation's retirement. But it seems you were just a sucker since President Bush is now saying the money ain't gonna be paid back. You're just fresh outta luck, you could say.

So here's our question: Does Alan Greenspan think there's a Trust Fund? Does he believe those bonds are backed up by the full faith and credit of the United States government? Does he think they will and should be paid back? If he doesn't, he's got a hell of a lot of explaining to do since it was under his guidance that we came up with this whole idea.

Or how about Sen. Bob Dole? He was on the Commission too. What does he think? Does he agree? Or the recently-retired House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer (R). He was on it too.

Let's ask all of them ...

President Bush lays the groundwork for defaulting on almost two trillion dollars worth of <$NoAd$> US Treasury bonds, from today at the Commerce Department ...

Some in our country think that Social Security is a trust fund -- in other words, there's a pile of money being accumulated. That's just simply not true. The money -- payroll taxes going into the Social Security are spent. They're spent on benefits and they're spent on government programs. There is no trust. We're on the ultimate pay-as-you-go system -- what goes in comes out. And so, starting in 2018, what's going in -- what's coming out is greater than what's going in. It says we've got a problem. And we'd better start dealing with it now. The longer we wait, the harder it is to fix the problem.


It's what they're after. Just watch.

Finally, finally, finally, FINALLY!

Finally, a major publication -- on its newspages -- has taken up one of the key dishonesties (I was going to say the biggest, but there are so many ...) in President Bush's argument for phasing out Social Security.

As we've discussed here many times, President Bush's gloomy predictions about the demise of Social Security are premised on a 21st century of anemic economic growth while his claims for private accounts are based on a 21st century of robust economic growth.

As Jonathan Weisman and Ben White put it today on E1 in the Post: "To conclude that Social Security is careening toward a crisis in 2042, President Bush is relying on projections that an aging society will drag down economic growth. Yet his proposal to establish personal accounts is counting on strong investment gains in financial markets that would be coping with the same demographic head wind."

Rep. Slaughter (D) of New York calls on the president to explain why a phony 'reporter' from 'Talon News' got accredited at the White House for the apparent purpose of teeing up softball questions for McClellan and the president.

Meanwhile, an eagle-eyed poster at Dailykos asks why this fellow also seems to have been leaked a CIA memo about Valerie Plame.

She references this passage from a December 26th, 23 piece in the Washington Post: "On Oct. 28, Talon News, a news company tied to a group called GOP USA,posted on the Internet an interview with Wilson in which the Talon News questioner asks: 'An internal government memo prepared by U.S. intelligence personnel details a meeting in early 2002 where your wife, a member of the agency for clandestine service working on Iraqi weapons issues, suggested that you could be sent to investigate the reports. Do you dispute that?'"

Conscience Caucus member Rep. McCrery (R) of Louisiana chooses shoulder socket over Social Security!

From CQ Today ...

The White House's lobbying effort on behalf of its Social Security overhaul has already yielded results: A key House subcommittee chairman said Wednesday he has been persuaded to push for Bush's plan.

Jim McCrery, R-La., the chairman of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, said the director of the White House National Economic Council, Allan B. Hubbard, sold him on the president's approach in a private meeting on Tuesday.

...

"I'm convinced the president's approach is worth pursuing in the legislative process," McCrery said. "Frankly, I had not thought of the policy rationale they described yesterday."


It's awfully encouraging that the Chairman of the Social Security Subcommittee hadn't realized what the rationale was for the president's <$NoAd$> policy.

Chairman Thomas, you gotta be next, buddy ...

Reuters discusses AARP's plan to strengthen Social Security by raising the payroll tax cap to $140,000, which they say would reduce the long-term shortfall by 43%. They also support having the SSA invest part of the Trust Fund in what I take to be an index fund, which they say would handle another 15%.

This is the plan Conscience Caucus member Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R) of Florida is excited about.

(ed.note: As we discussed on Saturday, while phase-out supporters will seek to confuse the issue, having the Trust Fund invest some money in private securities is entirely different from phase-out with private accounts. Whether it's a good idea or not is a complicated question, but it is entirely different from private accounts. For more, see the post.)

We get letters like this about Senator Chafee (R) of Rhode Island almost every day ...

Josh,

I have been trying to get a straight answer out of Lincoln Chafee's office for months on where he stands on Social Security. I have gotten nothing from them. I have written two letters. No response. I called his office and was promised a callback, but heard nothing from them. As far as I am concerned, Chafee refuses to give an answer on where he stands on Social Security. I have corresponded with Senator Chafee many times in the past. I have always received a quick and relatively straightforward response, so I can only assume that his refusal to answer is intentional.

Would I vote for Senator Chafee's re-election? No. I would not vote for anyone who will not unequivocally stand up for Social Security. Combine that with his vote to confirm Alberto Gonzales, which to my mind is a vote in favor of torture, and I simply cannot support him. I will be strongly supporting Matt Brown's (likely) run for Senate.


We also get letters like this one ...

Dear Josh-

Thank you for everything you are doing to shatter and dispel the falsehoods coming out of the administration about Social Security. I'm a 53 year old who began working at age 16. My mom, widowed at age 36 with 3 young kids, brought us up to believe that in America, you could strive toward your dreams and carve out your own future. She returned to work, of course, but could not have kept our family together without the benefits she received from Social Security and my Dad's veteran's benefits - he was a U.S. Marine who fought on the beaches of Iwo Jima.

I chose a path that allowed me independence in my life. I've been an independent contractor in my profession throughout my career, as has my husband. We pay our own health insurance premiums (currently $967 / month Oxford Health Plans, dig that!) make yearly contributions to our own IRA's, own our house, pay our taxes, and willingly pay our SSA contributions.

Mr. Bush wants to denigrate the service and the sacrifices of my father and my mother by saying their children don't deserve to have the social contract America made with us honored. I know deeply and personally how life can change in an instant, and if anyone wants to talk to me about it, I'll be glad to give them my two cents.

We are facing a galvanizing moment in America as we decide if we are to be a country that understands and lives the humanistic concept of being one's brother's keeper, or if we decide instead to adopt a ruthless, me first, sink or swim approach to dealing with our citizenry.

I pray with all my heart we choose the former.


Me <$NoAd$> too.

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