March 08, 2020
Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s fact-checker, has a tough job. He tries to sort of what is true and what is false in the various claims made by public figures. I don’t always agree with his calls, but I know he tries to be fair in his approach.
Recognizing this fact, I think he made the wrong call in criticizing a Bernie Sanders campaign ad that went after Joe Biden for repeated efforts to cut Social Security. The gist of Kessler’s criticism is that Biden was never singling out Social Security for cuts, he was including the program in proposals that involved across the board cuts. He takes Sanders to task for not pointing this out.
This is an unfair call. First, on the basic point, the fact that you want to cut Social Security along with everything else does not mean that you are not proposing to cut Social Security. So, Sanders is 100 percent right on this point. Also, it is reasonable to assume that any Democrat is not going to single out Social Security as a program they want to cut, so the fact that Sanders did not give the full context hardly seems a major failing in a political ad.
Perhaps more importantly, there is a point as to whether Social Security would be singled out as a program to be protected, even when other programs are on the table. In this respect, it is important to note that Social Security is not actually part of the official budget. This is because it has a designated tax and revenue stream. It was designed to be separate from the official budget. In this respect, it is worth noting that, under the law, if the designated revenue stream is insufficient to pay full benefits, then they will not be paid.
There is also a powerful moral point here. Workers are effectively paying for their benefits through the Social Security tax. And, as many of us have pointed out, it is a very regressive tax. This tax can be justified in the context of a program with a very progressive payback structure, but no one would ever seriously propose financing the general budget with a regressive payroll tax.
In this context, reducing promised benefits can be seen as taking away something for which people have already worked. It would be comparable to telling a worker that we’re going to 10 percent out of their paycheck at the end of the pay period because we need that money for other things. This is especially pernicious when we are referring to cutting benefits for people who already retired since they will have little ability to work more to make up for lost benefits.
For these reasons, many Democrats have insisted that Social Security not be on the table in any effort to reduce budget deficits. Sanders has consistently been among this group. Biden has not been. That is an important distinction and it is totally appropriate for Sanders to be making it as part of his campaign.