Monday, February 23, 2009

Today's "fiscal responsibility" summit

Billionaire Peter Peterson: on jihad to slash Social Security

The so-called fiscal responsibility summit which Obama is scheduled to attend today has shaped up to be something of a mystery. It seems they scheduled the thing months ago, thinking that the major anti-recession measures would have been enacted and they could turn to focusing on budget balancing, still not having let go of the balanced-budget dogma to which most Republicans kissed goodbye about three decades ago.

Joe Conason warns the Obama team to basically treat the proposals and schemes of the anti-Social-Security zealot and billionaire McCain supporter Peter Peterson with the care one should reserve for handling pit vipers (Reform healthcare -- and leave Social Security alone Salon 02/23/09):

So when the White House raises the issue of "entitlement programs" or "entitlement reform" -- without differentiating between Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security -- that reinforces the message of the center-right coalition that now sees an opportunity to cut Social Security benefits and undermine public confidence in the program. That coalition includes several outfits, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Democratic Leadership Council, whose analysts once pushed privatization (although they are unlikely to mention any such forlorn enthusiasm now). Joining them are the Concord Coalition and other fronts funded by billionaire and former Nixon Commerce Secretary Pete Peterson, who has vowed to spend most of his fortune to promote his vision of fiscal rectitude.

Peterson's vision is by no means identical with Obama's -- at least not if the president meant what he's said on several occasions about Social Security and Medicare -- most recently at the Washington Post last month. What he told the paper's editorial board summarizes not only his approach to the nation's broad fiscal issues but also the deeper purpose behind the White House summit. "Social Security, we can solve," he said. "The big problem is Medicare, which is unsustainable [in its current form]." He added: "We can't solve Medicare in isolation from the broader problems of the healthcare system."

In other words, neither the summit nor any other serious discussion of fiscal problems can be confined to entitlement programs -- because the underlying issue is healthcare costs. So the real agenda of the fiscal responsibility summit, as White House sources have explained on background, is to introduce healthcare reform. This is the same holistic and progressive outlook that informed the stimulus program, which includes spending on information technology that will help make universal coverage affordable and successful. [my emphasis]
That "entitlement reform" phrase is one the Democratic office-holders should retire from their vocabularies. It's become a scam slogan for cutting Social Security.

Joe hits on one of most key points to keep in mind about the "entitlement reform" scam: health care costs are the main fiscal problem facing both Medicare and Medicaid. We have to get a better handle on health care costs, and universal health-insurance coverage is a vital part of that.

Dean Baker also has a good brief piece on the issue, Stop Baby Boomer Bashing: Protect Social Security and Medicare 02/16/09. The anti-Social-Security crowd is currently using "generational equity" as a slogan. But, Baker points out, "the agenda of Peter Peterson and his ilk never had anything to do with generational equity. The point was always to gut Social Security and Medicare." (my emphasis)

I have reservations about a couple of points in both articles. I think Baker is overstating the extent to which the current economic crisis will cause a shift of relative wealth from older people to younger. But his basic point is very solid. The biggest losses of wealth in this recession so far have mainly been incurred by retired people or those nearing retirement. Which makes the idea of cutting Social Security even crazier than it was in 2005.

Joe Conason also gives an optimistic take on the "Diamond-Orszag" plan for long-term Social Security finances, though he does explain why he takes that view. For a less generous view, see Social Security: The Diamond-Orszag Plan is Not the Liberal Alternative by Ian Welsh, FireDogLake 02/2009.

Joe also thinks that the administration had intended to use the "fiscal responsibility" summit as a way to build support for his plan for expanded health insurance. And that sounds plausible up to a point. But why the administration should do anything that would give added publicity, credibility or respectability to that reactionary Peter Peterson and his anti-Social-Security jihad isn't at all clear to me. Maybe it was part of the bipartisan outreach that Congressional Republicans have not made clear was hopeless from the start. We'll see how Obama and other administration representatives approach their presentations today.

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