Is Obama Opting to the Lose the Election?

by DEAN BAKER

There are few issues that matter more to the public than Social Security. It is a hugely popular and hugely successful program.

Social Security was set up to provide retirees and disabled workers with a core income either in retirement or in the event a disability made them unable to work. This is exactly what the program does. In its seven decades of existence it has lifted tens of millions of retirees out of poverty and allowed millions of disabled workers to maintain a modest standard of living.

It accomplishes these goals with a minimal amount of fraud and in a highly efficient manner. Its administrative costs are less one-tenth as a high as those of private sector insurers.

This is the reason that the program enjoys enormous popularity across the political and ideological spectrum. Not only Democrats, but the overwhelming majority of independent and Republicans consistently tell pollsters that they support Social Security and do not want to see benefits cut. Conservatives and even self-identified supporters of the Tea Party also oppose cuts to the program.

This is why it is striking that Governor Romney has explicitly called for large cuts to the program. It is perhaps even more striking that President Obama indicated in his first debate that he agrees with these cuts.

Romney has outlined a proposal on his website that calls for further increases in the retirement age to 69 or 70. It also calls for cuts in benefits for middle-income retirees. Under the Romney proposal, middle-income workers just entering the labor force can expect to see benefits that will be reduced by more than 40 percent compared with currently scheduled levels.

This might be reasonable policy if we had some cause to believe that workers in the future will be better prepared for retirement than current retirees; however there is no evidence to support this view. The median wealth for those near retirement (ages 55-64), is just $170,000.

This calculation includes everything they own, the equity in their home, their retirement accounts, even the value of their car. To give a basis of comparison, the median house price is $180,000. This means that if the typical person in this age group used all their wealth, they would have almost enough money to pay off their mortgage. They would then be entirely dependent on Social Security in their retirement.

If we look at the group 10 years younger, ages 45-54, median wealth is just over $70,000. And remember, half of households will have less.

The basic story is that our systems of retirement savings outside of Social Security have collapsed. Traditional defined benefit pensions are quickly disappearing outside of the public sector. The 401(k)s that have replaced them have been a bonanza for the financial industry, but have done little to help most workers accumulate enough for a secure retirement.

The amount put into these accounts is generally far too small to provide for a decent retirement. Furthermore, the fees charged by the financial industry can easily eat up one-third of the earnings on these accounts, sharply reducing accumulations over time.

The result is the situation we now see. For most middle-income workers their home equity is by far their greatest source of wealth. Money held in a retirement account is a distant second.

Given this reality, it would be sound policy for President Obama to insist, in contrast to Governor Romney, that Social Security cuts are off the table until we have fixed the larger retirement savings system. If anything, it would be reasonable to suggest increasing Social Security benefits, especially for low and moderate income workers.

While this would be good policy, the polls indicate it would be great politics. In a close election it could easily make up the margin of victory, especially in a state like Florida with a large elderly population. Yet President Obama told the country that there is not much difference between his position on Social Security and Romney’s position.

There is a simple explanation for Obama’s refusal to defend Social Security. In elite Washington circles the willingness to cut Social Security is taken as evidence of courage. These people do not depend on Social Security. In fact, as Governor Romney demonstrated at his famous fundraiser speech, they actually have contempt for the people who do depend on Social Security.

If Obama were to take a strong stand defending Social Security he could expect to be attacked harshly by these elites. In news stories and editorial columns, outlets like the Washington Post and National Public Radio would denounce President Obama in harsh terms. Needless to say, his wealthy funders might also have second thoughts.

This fear is likely the reason that President Obama will not defend Social Security. If he loses the election, this fear of the wrath of the elite will clearly be the villain.

Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy and False Profits: Recoverying From the Bubble Economy.

This essay originally appeared in Yahoo Finance.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
September 01, 2015
Mike Whitney
Return to Crisis: Things Keep Getting Worse
Michael Schwalbe
The Moral Hazards of Capitalism
Eric Mann
Inside the Civil Rights Movement: a Conversation With Julian Bond
Pam Martens
How Wall Street Parasites Have Devoured Their Hosts, Your Retirement Plan and the U.S. Economy
Jonathan Latham
Growing Doubt: a Scientist’s Experience of GMOs
Fran Shor
Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders Campaign: a Case of Historical Amnesia?
Joe Paff
The Big Trees: Cockburn, Marx and Shostakovich
Randy Blazak
University Administrators Allow Fraternities to Turn Colleges Into Rape Factories
Robert Hunziker
The IPCC Caught in a Pressure Cooker
George Wuerthner
Myths of the Anthropocene Boosters: Truthout’s Misguided Attack on Wilderness and National Park Ideals
Robert Koehler
Sending Your Children Off to Safe Spaces in College
Jesse Jackson
Season of the Insurgents: From Trump to Sanders
August 31, 2015
Michael Hudson
Whitewashing the IMF’s Destructive Role in Greece
Conn Hallinan
Europe’s New Barbarians
Lawrence Ware
George Bush (Still) Doesn’t Care About Black People
Joseph Natoli
Plutocracy, Gentrification and Racial Violence
Franklin Spinney
One Presidential Debate You Won’t Hear: Why It is Time to Adopt a Sensible Grand Strategy
Dave Lindorff
What’s Wrong with Police in America
Louis Proyect
Jacobin and “The War on Syria”
Lawrence Wittner
Militarism Run Amok: How Russians and Americans are Preparing Their Children for War
Binoy Kampmark
Tales of Darkness: Europe’s Refugee Woes
Ralph Nader
Lo, the Poor Enlightened Billionaire!
Peter Koenig
Greece: a New Beginning? A New Hope?
Dean Baker
America Needs an “Idiot-Proof” Retirement System
Vijay Prashad
Why the Iran Deal is Essential
Tom Clifford
The Marco Polo Bridge Incident: a History That Continues to Resonate
Peter Belmont
The Salaita Affair: a Scandal That Never Should Have Happened
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Mike Whitney
Looting Made Easy: the $2 Trillion Buyback Binge
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?
Rob Urie
Wall Street and the Cycle of Crises
Andrew Levine
Viva Trump?
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
Behind the Congressional Disagreements Over the Iran Nuclear Deal
Lawrence Ware – Marcus T. McCullough
I Won’t Say Amen: Three Black Christian Clichés That Must Go
Evan Jones
Zionism in Britain: a Neglected Chronicle
John Wight
Learning About the Migration Crisis From Ancient Rome
Andre Vltchek
Lebanon – What if it Fell?
Charles Pierson
How the US and the WTO Crushed India’s Subsidies for Solar Energy
Robert Fantina
Hillary Clinton, Palestine and the Long View
Ben Burgis
Gore Vidal Was Right: What Best of Enemies Leaves Out
Suzanne Gordon
How Vets May Suffer From McCain’s Latest Captivity
Robert Sandels - Nelson P. Valdés
The Cuban Adjustment Act: the Other Immigration Mess
Uri Avnery
The Molten Three: Israel’s Aborted Strike on Iran
John Stanton
Israel’s JINSA Earns Return on Investment: 190 Americans Admirals and Generals Oppose Iran Deal