The Silence Of The Left

Ben Smith at Politico has a story called ‘Left Silent On Social Security, Medicare’:

“Strikingly, however, Obama appears to be getting unusual room to maneuver on entitlements by most of his liberal allies. On the subject of entitlement reform, in fact, Obama’s honeymoon continues — at least in the unlikely precincts of the Democratic left, a counterintuitive development that has buoyed the spirits of reformers who would like to see drastic changes in the way Social Security works. (…)

The relative silence of liberal activists who smashed Bush’s hopes of slowing entitlement spending is a mark of the deep trust Obama enjoys from the left of his party — and it’s also giving hope to those who would like to see major shifts in the way Social Security and other programs are funded and managed.”

Speaking for my personal corner of The Left: I am not silent because I am prepared to let Obama do things I would have criticized had Bush attempted them. I haven’t written about entitlement reform for two main reasons. First, Obama hasn’t yet said anything specific about what, if anything, he intends to try to do. And second, this is one of those issues where the details really matter.

For one thing, I believe, as a lot of people do, that there is no “crisis in Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare”. (See Figure 1.1 of this report (pdf)). Insofar as there is any problem with Social Security, it is not urgent, and can be fixed by minor tweaks like raising the cap on payroll taxes. We do have a problem with Medicaid and Medicare, but that is due to the fact that we have a much more general problem with rising health care costs. Spending on Medicaid and Medicare has risen less rapidly than spending on health care generally over the past decade:


“Entitlement reform” can mean any of a number of things. On Social Security, it might mean a privatization plan like Bush’s, or it might mean something like raising the cap on payroll taxes. If Obama plans to try the first, he will not get any silence or benefit of the doubt from me. I thought it was a terrible idea when Bush proposed it, and I think it’s a terrible idea today. If he wants to raise the cap on payroll taxes, on the other hand, I don’t have a problem with that.

Similarly on Medicare and Medicaid. There are a lot of good ideas out there about how to reduce spending on health care (the CBO lists 115 of them in this pdf alone.) Obama claims that he will make this a priority, and I’m all for that. But if he tries to gut Medicare or Medicaid, that would be entirely different.

Or, in short: once Obama comes out with specific proposals on entitlements, I will say something about them. Until then, my little piece of the Silence of the Left should not be taken to reflect anything more than not knowing what, exactly, he proposes. (It’s certainly not that I am “afraid to express concerns”, as Rep. Jim Cooper suggests in the Politico piece.) Some things that go by the name of “entitlement reform” are fine. Others are not. If Obama proposes the latter, there will be no “honeymoon” or “breathing room”. But until I have some idea what, exactly, Obama proposes to do, I don’t really see much point in speculating.

And if my failure to comment on this has “buoyed the spirits of reformers who would like to see drastic changes in the way Social Security works”, they have a surprise in store for them.

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