But it’s only a sliver on a graph!–Or why liberal technocrats are wrong on Social Security.

by Jim Nichols

Something struck me as I was talking to members of my union at work (see: “Obama wants to do what!?!?!?!?!?”) and in the recent public comments from some public intellectuals and labor leaders.

As a union steward you get to know your people. Day in and day out. Through good and bad. You can see responses and reactions to political questions and challenges in a way that some some volunteer making a cold call door knock just before election day–never to be seen for four more years–or some opinion-poll questioner getting a person in the middle of screaming kids, and dinner on the stove, won’t notice or understand.


Be they Democrat or Republican, politically engaged or apathetic and disaffected to their core. Be they union member or nonmember, every single one of my coworkers thought it was a bad idea to cut Social Security.

Social Security adds nothing to the deficit even though many in the press do not know this.

As Dean Baker points out:

There is no commitment to finance Social Security out of general revenue. The projections from the Social Security trustees show the program first facing a shortfall in 2033 after which point it will only be able to pay a bit more than 75 percent of scheduled benefits. While this date is still fairly far in the future, at some point it will likely be necessary to address a shortfall.

It is reasonable to expect that the changes needed to keep the program fully funded will involve some mix of revenue increases and benefit cuts. However if the chained CPI is adopted as part of a budget deal unconnected to any larger plan for Social Security then it effectively means that there will have been a substantial cut to Social Security benefits without any quid pro quo in terms of increased revenue. This hardly seems like a good negotiating move from the standpoint of those looking to preserve and strengthen the program.

When my co-workers learned exactly what Chained CPI was, how it was a way to “save money” by eroding benefits they got mad.

Both Ezra Klein and Dean Baker have noted the underhanded nature of this approach.

Klein put it well:

The appeal of chained CPI is its complexity, which allows politicians to pretend they’re making a technical change rather than a real cut. This is a perverse approach to choosing deficit-reduction policies, and I’d like to see it stop.

Klein then goes on to note, “That said, I don’t think chained CPI is a deal killer, so long as the most vulnerable are protected.”


What a perfectly acceptable liberal Wonk position to take. Its an answer that shows you how liberal technocrats are the wrong people to ask on whether Chained CPI is “worth it”.

I have a number of friends and contacts with respectable jobs in politics and policy that I talk with all the time via phone and email. I’m often picking their brain for good ideas or catching up to speed on stuff which I don’t get to see from the cheap seats loading trucks in a warehouse.

In one recent email:

You have to focus on the entire deal, and right now we don’t know what the deal is. Even Paul Krugman was going back and forth on whether the rumored deal is good or bad (although this morning he seems more con than pro). If the tradeoff is Medicare age or SS CPI, the CPI may be the least of the two evils.

Again. Perfectly acceptable wonk answer. We do a cost benefit analysis and boom we have the lesser of two evils.

The only problem is that the wonks, politico’s, and politician’s higher up the food chain are the wrong people to ask on whether or not Chained CPI should be a “deal killer”. The wonks, politico’s, and politicians–god bless their well meaning souls–are the ones in the cheap seats when it comes to knowing the answer to that question.

Out here on the front lines of the class war American’s are drowning for leadership and honesty from their leaders.

In the labor movement its time for those labor leaders to start earning those 6 figure salaries and raise some hell on the hill until Obama caves. The likes of Trumka and Hoffa need to make it abundantly clear that labor will support primary’s of ANY politician that votes in support of a bill with Chained CPI in it.

The problem with wonky liberal cost benefit equations of “the bigger picture” are that working people don’t give a shit about that kind of thinking–because they don’t know what it means! As someone who every day as a steward, is working to build up union strength and solidarity deep in Red America, I promise you these bigger picture equations are meaningless to working people.

As someone who is about to have a degree in hand from Georgia State, having spent many a seminar in the Economics and Philosophy Departments doing these kind of complex trade-off questions, I understand why some liberals are saying Chained CPI would be bad–but swallow that pill we must.

See the problem is the people who will have to swallow that pill don’t know what the hell you folks are talking about up there in DC and in halls of academia. Many of them don’t know the first thing about how our Government or economy function–another example of a Reagan Revolution “success story” if there ever was one.

But they do know a thing or two about the question at hand. They do know they have been getting screwed over the past few decades. They do know they don’t trust politicians to fight for them. They do know the deck is rigged against them.

They know that when they say “Dont Touch Social Security” they mean it.

A vote for Chained CPI is going to further erode the confidence of every day working people in the political process.

At a time when we desperately need to be building up and strengthening our civil society, our common bonds, our collective interests; at a time when faith in democracy and the political process needs to be restored, a vote for chained CPI is nothing short of a failure of leadership.

When I say working people don’t understand what all this policy talk is about I don’t mean it pejoratively.

These are good, smart people, who work hard, and want to play by the rules.

They are fully capable of understanding these complex policy issues given a long enough time line and the right learning environment. But many, if not most of them are terribly under-educated. Engage them on abstract policy questions and you’ll spend a lot of time clearing up misnomers, absurd conspiracy theories, and lots of propaganda the 1% is churning out for their consumption. Believe me I deal with it day in and day out.

Liberal technocrats answer to this quandary is just to tell progressives–Hush, else we erode faith in our leader!–an asinine anti-democratic position if there ever was one. A position that exposes a horrendously prejudiced mentality on the part of technocrats about the capabilities and capacities of working people. A technocratic mentality that is part of the problem of how we got to many of the impasses we now face.

My coworkers are people who have been conditioned to be spectators and not participants. Its going to take decades of hard work to educate and empower workers so that the working class has enough political leverage to truly take back from the 1% what has been stolen from them.

But we don’t have decades. We have a faux crisis on our hands.

The important take away from this post is that politically we have a very clear cut issue question on the table—do you want your Social Security benefits cut?

It doesn’t matter their political leanings, it doesn’t matter their race, gender, or religion. To a person the 97 people working the pre-load at UPS in Forrest Park think it is screwed up that the 1% are going to get a tax cut and we are going to help pay for it by cutting social security benefits.

Thats it. Thats all. End story.


Do not allow liberal technocrats to sell you on the idea that its okay since “the bigger picture is worse.”

Working people don’t understand the bigger picture talk and the bad stuff that happens by taking Social Security off the table will be the fault of the GOP who wrote the faux crisis into the tax code to begin with.

Liberal technocrats want to help people, I truly believe that. But the positive gains you get by leaving Social Security cuts in a “grand bargain” harm you at the grassroots level in terms of building a movement of and for the 99%.

The message from unions and progressives needs to be very clear to the Neoliberal’s and Bluedogs within the Democratic Party who want to side with the 1% and erode Social Security benefits—take Social Security off the table or its on!

To Obama I say lets kick the crap out of the GOP in campaigns in 2014 for whatever it is they take off the table in response to you. Tell the citizens of this country that you hear them loud and clear and there will be no cuts to Social Security on your watch (just as you campaigned on–ask Joe if you forgot).

We don’t need to be done by Jan. 1. Even though the media keeps trying to sell the crisis (see: Careen Off the So-Called Fiscal Cliff” It’s Silly Season at the NYT | Beat the Press)

Its time to fight for working people and build a movement to end the war on workers. We are starting to get there (see here here here here) so saying NO to the liberal technocrats over Chained CPI is a really really important next step.

The other day Paul Krugman caused a stir by rediscovering Marx (gasp!). Via Philosopher Brian Leiter:

What took him so long? Krugman has been such a relief to those of us in the United States, because the public culture is so bereft of critical perspective, but the fact remains that he’s an apologist for the capitalist system, just not as bonkers as some of the others. I quote from his recent posting on the implications of the displacement of human labor power by robots, which means profits go to those who own capital, not those who actually work:

Better education won’t do much to reduce inequality if the big rewards simply go to those with the most assets. Creating an “opportunity society”, or whatever it is the likes of Paul Ryan etc. are selling this week, won’t do much if the most important asset you can have in life is, well, lots of assets inherited from your parents. And so on.I think our eyes have been averted from the capital/labor dimension of inequality, for several reasons. It didn’t seem crucial back in the 1990s, and not enough people (me included!) have looked up to notice that things have changed. It has echoes of old-fashioned Marxism — which shouldn’t be a reason to ignore facts, but too often is. And it has really uncomfortable implications.

The public culture of the United States is obviously an embarrassment, so I don’t want to knock Krugman too much, since he’s been the most visible voice for civilization in recent years…BUT look what he wrote: “the capital/labor dimension of inequality….didn’t seem crucial back in the 1990s.” He at least does a mea culpa, so kudos to him for that. Now that the Repugs have been trounced in the latest national elections, we need a real revival of the labor movement in this benighted country to recapture a larger portion of capital from its current heirs, and insure that it meets human needs in the decades ahead.

Leiter goes on to note in a follow up post, “now that Marx is back, it’s time for some class warfare… directed at the actual dominant class.”

Its time to start building a militant labor movement in this nation.

Its time to start telling this story to Americans…

That’s the story we need to start telling. Going back to the bigger picture of how we got into this mess–the chaos of the shattered economy workers face every single day. Going back to the story of who is to blame–on both sides of the aisle–for making it happen.

We don’t need to compromise. We need to fight.

Call the White House. Call Nancy Pelosi. Tell them no cuts to Social Security. Lets be sure the Democrats know that every single politician–no matter the political party–who votes for a bill at any point in the next two years with Chained CPI will have a primary opponent come election day.

Take action. And ask your friends and family to do the same.

Jim Nichols is a proud member of Teamster local 728, and is working on undergraduate degrees in economics and philosophy at GA State. Follow his blog here, where this post first appeared.

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