In the Post, a pair of progressives discuss “reform!”

MONDAY, MARCH 11, 2013

The powerful seem very potent: Have the powerful never seemed so powerless?

That’s what it said, one week ago, at the top of the Washington Post Outlook section. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/8/13.) Yesterday, we thought of that rather ridiculous claim when we read an opinion piece in the new Sunday Washington Post.

The piece was written by Harry Holzer and Isabel Sawhill; they describe themselves as progressives right in their piece. (Holzer is a Georgetown professor. Sawhill is holed up at Brookings.)

We aren’t saying they aren’t progressives. We aren’t even saying they’re wrong in all their proposals. But good lord! When progressives assess the world as they do, we’d say the powerful have total control over our public discourse.

The pair start out by criticizing the senselessness of the sequester. After that, they say that “alarmists who call for immediate spending cuts and immediate reductions in our debt-to-GDP ratio” are wrong—but “at the same time,” so is Paul Krugman (though no, they don’t mention his name). In this passage, the unnamed Krugman gets criticized—and we start to see the potency of the powerful:
HOLZER AND SAWHILL (3/10/13): At the same time, those who argue that we can put off any serious discussion of debt reduction for a number of years—because of the temporarily stable debt-to-GDP ratio projected for 2015 to 2022—understate the dangers that loom just beyond this period. The aging population and the growth of health-care costs make enacting reforms to entitlements imperative. Enacting them now would help the economy by reducing uncertainty. This would also instill more confidence in government, give people time to adjust and release the pressure on the small portion of the budget that so far has absorbed virtually all of the cuts.

The reluctance of our fellow progressives to consider sensible reforms to entitlement programs is puzzling. None of us wants to impose new burdens on vulnerable seniors or those who are about to retire. But any new provisions can be phased in gradually and structured in a way that protects the oldest and most fragile members of the population in addition to those with limited incomes.
Fair enough! It may be possible to enact “reforms to entitlement programs” without harming the oldest and the most fragile. That said, we saw the complete total rule by the powerful as the pair continued.

Why do we have to cut future spending on our social insurance programs? In the highlighted passage, we get told—and in one major way, we pretty much get the bum’s rush:
HOLZER AND SAWHILL (continuing directly): With these caveats, progressives must begin to acknowledge a hard fact: Our very expensive retirement programs already crowd out public spending on virtually all other priorities—including programs for the poor and those that strengthen the nation’s future—and will do so at even higher rates in the next decade and beyond unless we reform these large programs.

Social Security and Medicare alone cost the federal government about $1.3 trillion last year, accounting for more than 37 percent of federal spending; they are slated, along with interest on the debt, to absorb virtually all currently projected federal revenue within the next several decades. In contrast, all nondefense discretionary spending—which includes outlays on education, job training, transportation, public safety, research and many other growth-enhancing programs—amounted to only 17 percent of the budget, and they will continue shrinking each year.

Given that Americans have always resisted paying high taxes—and we see little sign of that viewpoint changing—what will happen to other priorities as our spending on retirement programs soars?
Why do we have to reduce future spending? Because higher taxation is off the table! After all, “Americans have always resisted paying high taxes!” With that single laconic statement, the progressive pair move right past the possibility of higher revenues, whether from the Romney types (still only 13.9 percent!) or from the broad middle class.

When progressives reason that way, we’d say the powerful have total control of the discourse. We had the same reaction as the progressives finished their column:
HOLZER AND SAWHILL: Our preference is to restructure the delivery of health care so that it delivers the same benefits in less costly ways. Growth in health-care costs has slowed over the past few years, and the Affordable Care Act may bring further progress. But such changes are likely to be insufficient, requiring some restrictions on eligibility or expenditures. Asking affluent seniors to pay more for their benefits would be a good place to start.

If the issues are fairness and growth, not the size of government per se, then the right thing to do is to ask the affluent to pay more. Cutting programs aimed at providing a way up the ladder for the young and the poor, and doing so at a time when the economy is weak, is just plain dumb.
When it comes to health care, Americans spend two to three times as much per person as folk in other developed nations. Presumably, much of that money is being looted by the powerful, and the massive cost of health care largely explains projected deficits.

But so what? These fiery progressives skip right past that topic too! They'd like to deliver health care “in less costly ways.” But the massive size of our overspending remains a forbidden fact.

Rules are rules! It's a topic which can't be discussed!

We can’t raise future taxes—and we can’t even discuss the looting in our bloated health care spending! When progressives adopt this framework, plutocrats hold complete control of the discourse. Question:

When the nation’s progressives misdirect us like this, what’s left for conservatives to do?


  1. The reluctance of our fellow progressives to consider sensible reforms to entitlement programs is puzzling....

    [ Please, please know that I am not and will never ever be your fellow progressive. Could there ever be a more condescending essay? Brookings by the way is where such condescending stuff repeatedly comes from. ]

  2. What is increasingly bothersome is how many people describe themselves as progressive but are wild conservatives. How many progressive Senators joined Senator Rand Paul in protest against the anti-Constitutional drone policy President Obama has brought us?

    1. They just didn't want to be seen as facilitating his stunt.

    2. There are a lot -- I mean A LOT -- of people who consider themselves liberal because they support gay marriage and similar things, but when you talk to them about traditional liberalism, which is economic in nature, you quickly discover they are as conservative as Rush Limbaugh. I know people whose faces can turn purple with rage over the subject of gay marriage (and they themselves are straight!), who will then turn around and talk about how there are plenty of jobs out there, the problem is too many people are lazy and living off the system to go out and work. People "on the left" like to laugh at the Republicans and the infighting between the conservative and crazy conservative wings of their party, but the left has a bigger problem, and has had it for decades now. Simply put, what passes for leftism isn't really leftism anymore. Have certain attitudes about gay marriage, be willing to call somebody a racist, and you are a "leftist" these days. You can't build a cohesive movement like that.

    3. It doesn't help when the President you thought would be a progressive -- an economic progressive -who would change the discourse - tries to co-opt, and in the process advances, silly Republican talking points.

    4. The evidence for what Obama was and is was out there for anyone who wanted to see it, well before he was nominated. No party that has a left wing agenda nominates the most conservative candidate in the field; no party with a real agenda nominates a first year senator for president; no party with a real agenda nominates someone for whom race was very clearly going to be an impediment for the realization of its goals. The Democratic Party had an opportunity to push the discourse in a direction that would have benefited working people; it chose to make a statement about race instead. If you want to know what modern "progressivism" is about, there it is.

  3. The largest budget line is not Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid.

    It tax-expenditures. Those are the tax credits that we liberally sprinkle though out our tax code. Of course, tax expenditures like the mortgage interest deduction or the charitable giving deduction benefit the more affluent members of our society.

    We can't solve this problem until we accurately describe the problem.

    1. Actually, the two tax expenditures you mention benefit the construction industry by making new homes affordable and benefit the charities to which people donate (and their direct beneficiaries) who are not receiving much from govts these days. Why not focus on the tax credits given to businesses who are doing little to stimulate the economy, holding on to their cash and not hiring people? Instead you focus on the tax credits that benefit individual families who are struggling to make ends meet. Why? I agree that we can't solve any problem without describing it accurately.

  4. "When the nation's progressives misdirect us like this, what's left for conservatives to do?"

    Assuming these two are representative enough for their opinions to constitute the entirety of "the nation's progressives", conservatives can continue to dominate the arenas of bogus issue framing, strawman construction, and goal-post moving.

  5. Social Security is not an entitlement program, it's an earned benefit program.



    (Following Krugman's advice to repeat the same truths over and over because the zombie lies keep coming back and coming back and coming back.)

    Furthermore, those of us who have been working since 1985 PREPAID OUR RETIREMENT ( The fact that George W. Bush decided to give our retirement savings to Bill Gates and Halliburton doesn’t obviate the government’s obligation to honor its debt to us.

    Carolyn Kay

  6. Among the most valuable of your postings. Keep it up...

  7. Here are some ideas that seem to me no-brainers for reducing the deficit, but I think the politics is such that none of them will happen:

    1. Cut payments to rich farmers

    2. Switch to a somewhat lower inflation factor on Social Security. (SS used to escalate with wage levels. The basis was changed to cost of living at a time when cost of living was rising faster than average weekly wage. Ironically, shortly after that switch, cost of living began rising faster than average weekly wage.)

    3. Reform malpractice law big time. E.g., give patients the right to forego malpractice suits. Malpractice premiuns are a substantial direct cost to doctors, hospitals, drug companies, device companiee, etc. Defensive medicine supposedly has a greater cost than the premiums.

    4. Reduce end-of-life care, except for pain medicines. That is, don't spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep someone alive for a few extra days.

    #1 will be defeated by the farm lobby.
    #2 will be defeated by AARP
    #3 will be defeated by the Plaintiffs' Attorneys
    #4 will be defeated because it will be called "death panels."

    1. #1 Will reduce the federal deficit about as much as emptying the trash cans lightens an airliner.

      #2 No effect on the deficit. There is still a huge surplus in the SS fund called the Trust Fund which won't run out for quite some time.

      #3 Again, no effect on the federal deficit. And patients can already forgo malpractice suits. Nobody is forcing them to file.

      #4 Once again, no effect on the federal deficit. But yeah, let's get those pesky old people to die sooner. Until we become one.

      How about #5 Dave? You know. Stop spending as much on defense as the next 14 nations combined? Think that might make a dent?

    2. David --

      Social Security before retirement rises with rising prevailing wage levels. once you retire, growth is on a cost-of-living basis. There is no evidence that the "chained CPI" is superior in capturing true increases in cost-of-living. If it were, BLS would have adopted it as the standard. It's especially inappropriate for Social Security because BLS has done an experimental COLA for the ewlderly based on different purchasing needs, and it suggests so far that the standard COLA is too low for seniors.

      If you believe all that malpractice crap, you're a sucker for right wing propaganda. (As if we didn't already know that!)

    3. I actually know a fair amount about malpractice insurance, since I worked in the field. Bob talks about cost diferentials between the US and other countries. The differential in malpractice claims is enormous. I haven't looked in some years, but I recall a chart showing other countries with costs on the order of 2% - 5% of the US.

      urban legend -- If money were no object, I'd be happy to say the goal of SS escalation should be to capture the true increases in cost-of-living. However, the money to pay retirees comes from working people. We will need a big incease in assessments to afford continued benefits at current levels.

      Furthermore, the amount of SS recipients receive exceeds the amount they and their employer paid in. No other retirement pensions don't escalate with inflation at all (except government pensions.)

      AnonymousMarch 11, 2013 at 9:47 PM wrote

      #2 No effect on the deficit. There is still a huge surplus in the SS fund called the Trust Fund which won't run out for quite some time.

      From the POV of an actuary, this is irresponsible. What would anon do when the Trust Fund runs out? Cut benefits for all retirees by 25%? I say we should plan now for what long-term benefits are affordable and decide what we're going to do about it. If at a certain point in time, we're not going to be able to pay current benefit levels, let's reduce the benefits now, say for those under 55, so they know what their benefits are going to be. Then, they can better plan their retirement.

    4. Dave, do you really read this blog? Somerby has repeated until he is blue in the face that Social Security will always be able to pay a high percentage of PROJECTED benefits, even if nothing is done to increase revenues. Realize this is PROJECTED benefits, not a cut in TODAY'S benefits.

      And there is still easy ways to fix that. One is to bend down the curve of projected benefits through a recalcuation of COLA. Another would be increasing the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes to provide more revenue.

      And no how many times you say it, Social Security has NOTHING to do with the present federal deficits.

    5. Significant malpractice reform has taken place on a state-by-state basis. Texas has arguably the most doctor friendly malpractice laws in the country. It is also one of the top four states in billing Medicare on a per beneficiary basis. There is no evidence that malpractice reform has any significant impact on the cost of medicine. Go ahead and show us the data.

      Anyone who tries to lump the actuarial problems faced by Social Security, which can be fixed fairly easily , with the cost problems faced by Medicare is a sloppy thinker, ignorant, and/or a liar.

  8. Oh, and..

    5. Switch government employee pensions from "defined benefit" to "defined contribution", just as non-government employers are all doing.

    #5 will be defeated because it would hurt the Senators and Congressmen who would need to vote for it as well as their staff.

    1. So to sum it up, you think the national deficit is caused by farmers, old people, people who sue doctors, old people, and old people who were once federal employees.

      Brilliant, Dave.

  9. This is a perfect reminder of a political book that has resonated with me the past couple years- "Death of the Liberal Class" by Chris Hedges. The powerful in complete total control, including our public discourse, and a capitulating sell out liberal class? It's all in there.

  10. Believing these people are progressives because they identify themselves as such in the pages of the Washington Post is like believing that the national news media did a fair job of covering the 2000 presidential election because they say they did.

  11. Interesting but somewhat rambling discussion on health care. I still wish to know why our costs are significantly higher than the rest of world. I have a tough time believing it is all because of malpractice suits.

    1. Some other countries define the standard of care instead of letting patients or pharmacy companies dictate treatment. Some other countries restrict procedures based on likelihood of improving quality of life and instead offer meaningful palliative care at end-of-life instead of selling patients on the idea that medicine can produce miracles for failing elderly. Some other countries have a social safety net that keeps mentally ill, alcoholic, drug abusers, and homeless people from using emergency rooms as revolving door treatment centers for poorly controlled chronic conditions (such as diabetes, asthma, heart problems). Many other countries emphasize preventative medicine instead of treatment of end stages of preventable diseases. Many pay doctors by the hour instead of by the procedure. Many insist that prescribed medication show some proven benefit before it is regularly given to patients.

      It irritates me no end when all people can focus on with respect to reforming health care is malpractice suits.

    2. The most recent research I can find says that "limiting malpractice liability" (whatever that means), would reduce national healthcare costs by 11 billion a year -- about 1/2 of 1% of what we spend on healthcare. And that assumes that "limiting malpractice liability" (again, whatever that means) comes at no cost to the public in terms of sloppier health care. As with most conservative talking points, the idea that "tort reform" will substantially affect healthcare costs is bunk.

  12. And there is still easy ways to fix that. One is to bend down the curve of projected benefits through a recalcuation of COLA. Another would be increasing the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes to provide more revenue.

    I agree with the former, but there was little support to switch to "chained CPI" which would have been a tiny reduction. The difference was around 0.1% per year. In fact, I would agree with an even greater reduction in int COLA formula.

    The latter is probably what we're coming to. I think that eliminating the cap on assessments would cover only a small portion of the SS deficit. It would put the final nail in the idea that SS is an insurance program.

    1. David the guitar playerMarch 12, 2013 at 12:34 PM

      Even if you have valid points to be made, you are still trying to balance the budget on the elderly and the poor. Don't you think the military budget should be cut dramatically? Wouldn't that easily pay for all of the possible shortcomings of SS? Tax the rich and cut military spending. That is where the money is.

  13. Actually, many Americans will support higher taxes if it means a more secure safety net.

    It's the ones that have no need of a safety net that want lower taxes.

    If we apply Modern Monetary Theory to conservative social values, we arrive at a strange result.

    Axiom: Urban dwellers are parasites that take more of their share of resources than they create.
    (Never mind that urban dwellers pay more in federal taxes than they get back in federal expenditures. That's an inconvenient truth.)

    When the government sector runs a deficit, it means the private sector (and the foreign sector) are running surpluses.

    Axiom: The wealthiest Americans and corporations (which are people, too) earned their incomes (it's THEIR money!) by creating jobs and wealth far in excess of their number.

    Therefore it is NOT China, or multinational corporations, or the very rich holding the trillions of surplus dollars (the reciprocal of US debt).

    So who is?

    Why, the deadbeats on welfare, thats who! They are responsible for our debt!

    Well, maybe some Iraqi and Afghani officials are sitting on a few $Billion in chump change, but so what?

    Numbers don't lie!

  14. David the guitar player -- I don't know enough about the country's military needs to say whether or not the military budget can be safely cut or by how much.

    Cutting the military budget would not be enough to offset the long-term deficits in entitlement programs. Medicare, Medicaid and SCHIP currently spend around $1.5 trillion per year. From what I've read, I think they'd need around another $500 billion for long-term solvency. Also, Obamacare will have a substantial long-term deficit of unknown magnitude. Defense spending is around $700 billion. However, a large and growing share of the military budget is for pensions and other benefits to retired military. This portion can't be cut, but it doesn't help our current military needs. I doubt that we can safely cut over $100 billion without without significantly weakening our defense capability. A cut in military spending of $100 billion wouldn't make up a shortfall of over $500 billion in entitlements, not to mention the budget deficit of another $1,000 billion dollars.

    1. The military budget is maintained for economic reasons, not military ones. There is a large aerospace and military-industrial complex that depends on weapons projects and serving military needs that would be affected financially by cuts. The effect would be just as likely to increase recession as other kinds of cuts, especially in states dependent on those industries, such as California, David.

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