Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Francesca Rheannon interviewed Washington Post columnist Helaine Olen in January 2020 about her piece, "Sanders is right.Biden is Vulnerable to Trump and Social Security." The conversation covers Biden’s record on the issue, as well as the current plans of Sanders,  Warren and Biden to protect and expand Social Security. We also talk about why Social Security is a feminist and racial justice issue. 

The interview aired on the podcast and broadcast of Writer's Voice with Francesca Rheannon.

Francesca Rheannon  0:05 
Helaine Olen, welcome back to Writer's Voice.

Helaine Olen  0:08 
Thank you for having me on.

Francesca Rheannon  0:10 
You've actually written two pieces on the issue of Social Security and the 2020 presidential campaign, but the most recent one is, "Sanders is right. Biden is vulnerable to Trump and Social Security."

Now, of course, this came about because now Biden has, I think as of today, or yesterday refused to answer questions about this, but before that, he claimed that a video from his appearance in 2018 and the Brookings Brookings Institution was doctored. But you actually said on Twitter that the Biden campaign is still vulnerable. And I don't think you think that that video was doctored. Tell us what your take on this flap is before we get into the issue more deeply.

Helaine Olen  0:56 
Sure. The most recent flap is Bernie Sanders realized quite correctly that Joe Biden is extremely vulnerable on Social Security. He has a long track record of advocating for what are essentially cuts to the program.

And the reason I say "essentially cuts to the program" is because nobody comes out and says, "I'm going to cut your Social Security check." It doesn't quite work that way. What happens is, is that people -- and I would consider Biden among them -- talk about or hint at things like raising the retirement age, not giving the cost of living increase, which is an annual thing, and so on, which are essentially cuts because it means people are either going to get money later than they otherwise would, or they will receive less money or both. And those are what we call cuts. So I just have to put that out there for a minute.

So in any case, what the most recent flap was, is that Bernie Sanders knows quite well that former Vice President Biden has this 30 plus year track record and finally called him out on it. It was one of those things that, frankly, I was sitting around sort of waiting for somebody to do that to happen for the longest time. It struck me as something that was bound to come up sooner or later because seniors do vote, they are a huge part of the Iowa population. And Social Security is a huge issue to them.

So what essentially happened was, is that the Sanders campaign last week started putting out a lot of videos of Biden speaking about Social Security over the years, and including one that was from an appearance in 2018 at the Brookings Institution in Washington. That turns out to be a bit controversial, because it's not clear if Biden was being sarcastic or not, when he was talking about how Social Security could be cut. And different people have different interpretations of this video. Sanders' campaign thinks he was not being sarcastic. A lot of progressive commentators don't think he was being sarcastic. Online fact checkers seem to agree that he was being sarcastic. I have watched the video and all I will say is I think the old Scot's verdict "not proven" is probably the best description for it. And so anyway, Biden claimed that this video was doctored by the Sanders campaign, which was absolutely not true. And this just sort of set off a round of the latest round of hostilities.

Francesca Rheannon  3:23 
Well, of course, Biden, as you pointed out, has a very long record of this of talking about cutting Social Security. I think Ryan Grim was the one that says often it's couched in terms of adjustments. Do you agree with Grim that "adjustment" is another word for cuts?

Helaine Olin  3:39 
Absolutely. "Adjustment", you know, there's always these code words, because as I said, nobody says "I want to cut your Social Security check." And "adjustments" has been one of the traditional code words that is used over the years, and that definitely turned up in the Brookings Institution talk and it turned up a moment or two after the supposedly sarcastic quote by Biden.
So this is just beyond contentious. My point is fairly basic. And this was the point I made in my piece last week, which is that this is going to be a he said/she said, but on one basic level, it's absolutely irrelevant, because the fact is that Biden does have this long track record. He also headed up President Obama's budget negotiating with the senate where Social Security was certainly on the table. He does have this track record: there are videos galore of this, of him saying, you know, "this is tough talk, and we need to talk tough on Social Security."

Tough talk on Social Security is a very good way to sound very serious in Washington as Paul Ryan would, and these things will be used by one Donald Trump who's currently in the White House. There's no question in my mind about that. Donald Trump, one of the reasons I've always been convinced he was the nominee for president in 2016 when all the other candidates on the Republican side went by the wayside, is that he very early on said "I am not cutting Social Security and Medicare." Whereas the rest of them were basically competing to see who can throw Grandma under the bus first. And no surprise, this made him stand out. And it was probably one of the reasons for the initial interest in him by voters.

And I think political analysts often miss this because we tend to skew younger. We're not Social Security age, and it tends to be something that's not quite on our radar quite as much, frankly. So anyway, my position is that basically this will come up. Donald Trump is a practiced con man. He has in fact cut Social Security since; he has made moves to cut disability insurance, which is part of Social Security. But regardless, his ability to push through contradictions like that is pretty legendary at this point. And there's really nothing stopping him from running this stuff or having some dark buddy run this stuff and a nonstop Facebook loop targeted at people, say, over 55 or 60. Micro targeting is a big thing and it was one of the things that, as we all know, helped him become president in 2016.

Francesca Rheannon  6:24 
I think that's a really important point. Because Donald Trump himself, of course, as you just pointed out, is quite vulnerable on the issue of cutting Social Security since he already has and he has proposed it and he has proposed cutting Medicare, as well as Medicaid, which by the way, Joe Biden has also proposed to cut--or at least a freeze, I think is what he called for in the past. So what you're saying is that the ability to use this kind of micro targeting to voters who may be fairly low information, who aren't following things, is really the way that Joe Biden is now vulnerable to Trump doing those kinds of targeted ads.

Helaine Olen  7:08 
Exactly. He's extremely vulnerable to it. People don't quite realize what Trump has been up to. I recently wrote about this through the prism of Medicare as well, where he is definitively trying to make changes that would essentially increase privatization within the program, which over time would make it less effective for many older Americans. But he's presenting himself as a champion of Medicare. And you really need to get into the weeds to understand what's going on there. And it just strikes me as competing with one hand tied behind your back if the Democrats are going to nominate a candidate who is extremely vulnerable on these issues.

Francesca Rheannon  7:52 
Now let's talk a little bit about how important Social Security is. I think Joe Biden made the point in one of the things I saw quoted with him is that most of the people he knows don't depend on their Social Security. But a whole lot of other people do. Who does depend on Social Security?

Helaine Olen  8:14 
Most older Americans is the basic answer. I mean, people calculate it in slightly different ways, but we essentially know that, minus Social Security, 50% of older Americans today would be living in poverty or near poverty. It is a huge chunk of their incomes. For women, you know, roughly 20% are dependent on Social Security for the vast majority of their income. For African Americans, that's 50%. And I should say that women as a rule are more dependent on it and they receive less from it.

At all points the majority of recipients for Social Security are female. By the time people are 85 to 90, it's over two thirds because women outlast men, as a rule, and they live longer. And at the same time they receive less money from the program because women earn less because women tend to be in and out of the workforce, because women are responsible for caretaking and so on down the line.

So, you know, there's huge vulnerabilities among the population should Social Security be cut back. And a few years ago, one of the advocacy groups calculated that if there was a change in the cost of living formula to make it less generous, that it would ultimately, by the time a woman is in her late 80s to early 90s, would cost her about a week's worth of food, which you don't think about. And again, it's mostly a female problem at that point. I've often said that one of the great misunderstood issues out there is that Social Security is actually a feminist issue and that attacks on it should be understood through the prism of the war on women in the same way abortion is understood in that way.

Francesca Rheannon  10:09 
A feminist issue and also an intersectional one, because as you pointed out, black seniors also rely on Social Security, half of them, for their primary means of support. So talk about that double whammy that is faced by older women of color.

Helaine Olen  10:28 
Yeah, they are extremely dependent on the program. And these are groups of people as a rule, who do not have a lot saved for retirement. And that is a situation that's likely to get worse, not better, because of a combination of two things. One is the overall population. As we all know, there's been a shift away from defined benefit plans. More and more people are now forced to save for their own retirement. They have less and less money because most people do not save effectively for their own retirements. And that is true of both sexes and all races.

But another place where this creeps in is that African Americans never have had anywhere near the wealth of other Americans, and have suffered massively in the past 10 years and have seen very little -- as opposed to white Americans, who have actually come back to some extent from the Great Recession, most African Americans have not. And a lot of this is because for most Americans, we have this idea that the stock market is everything. In fact, for most Americans, the majority of their net worth is tied up in their home, and no group than African Americans suffered more from the real estate crisis.

Francesca Rheannon  11:42 
Now, Helene Olin in your article for The Washington Post "Sanders is right. Biden is vulnerable to Trump on Social Security", you do mention Sanders' plan as well, as also in the earlier piece that you wrote in February that actually was about Sanders' plan. I think you say "Bernie Sanders wants to talk about Social Security." So tell us about Sanders' plan. And do you feel that his plan is up to the job of dealing with the issues that we face on Social Security, first of all, the fact that it is vulnerable -- something has to be done to deal with funding it better -- and also the fact that there really hasn't been a Social Security raise in a long time, other than just a small cost of living,

Helaine Olen  12:33 
Right, because of changes that took place in the 1990s, Social Security now replaces less income. [Because of] changes in how the cost of living formula was calculated, Social Security actually replaces a smaller percentage of working income than it used to. But essentially, what Sanders would like to do is address the issue of the Trust Fund, which, as is rather famously known, is going to run out of money at some point in the mid 2030s. This is translated to people as "Social Security is going bankrupt."

For the record, this is completely, utterly untrue. Social Security can be funded out of general revenues. And even if it's not, it would not mean that Social Security is going away. Your worst case scenario would be a reduction in benefits. I'm just putting that out there because people are utterly convinced that this means Social Security is a goner by the mid 2030s. Utterly untrue.

But anyway, there's lots of ways you could address this. And one of the easiest ways to address this that is never said by the people who advocate getting tough on Social Security is fixing the payroll tax cap on income right now. People do not pay taxes on income in excess of a little bit more than $130,000 a year. They also do not pay any Social Security taxes on capital gains and investment income. Sanders would like to fix that and would change that to make  the cap $250,000. And he would include dividends and capital gains in that number. He would also change the cost of living formula to compensate seniors for what are their higher expenses. If anything, seniors experienced a higher rate of inflation than I would right now because they are disproportionately hit by medical and by housing costs. And finally, he would increase benefits for lower income Americans. And he sent his plan over to the Social Security's Office of Chief Actuary and they said it would stabilize the program's finances for the next half century, which would eliminate a major argument for talking tough and cutting Social Security benefits.

And I should say, Biden also has a plan to strengthen Social Security. He would like to increase the minimum benefit so that everybody receives [at least] 125% above poverty line, you know, and people who've lost a spouse and a few other things, and he would fund it also, in part by basically more or less eliminating the payroll tax cap. And Elizabeth Warren also has a really great plan, I should say, as well. But the issue with Biden, of course, is Do you trust this? Because again, he's got this long track record of advocating for the exact opposite. And of course, he's saying he would like to make a deal with Republicans. He's still convinced that there are rational Republicans out there who somehow, once Trump is out of office, are going to somehow see the light and start working with Democrats again, which is something I've referred to in the past as fantasy thinking for moderate Democrats.

Francesca Rheannon  16:04 
So who do you trust the most to push hard for Social Security reform in a way that increases benefits and the stability of the system?

Helaine Olen  16:13 
I should say I do trust all of them at this point. But I particularly like both Sanders' plan and Elizabeth Warren's plan. And I think they're both really great. And I think both have a very long track record of arguing for this.

Elizabeth Warren, in fact, probably deserves the most credit for the fact that we are discussing these sorts of things because she threw her support behind a proposal to raise benefits in 2015 and really brought this simmering issue to public attention. And when she did that, it really shifted the narrative away from the 20 to 30 plus years of "we need to get social security "under control". And of course, Bernie Sanders as well has advocated for that position for decades. You know, too, I should say he's long been a long been a supporter of buttressing the plan.

Francesca Rheannon  17:13 
You know, I've always been puzzled about this cap. Before we go, how did that come about? It seems like it makes Social Security highly regressive, because the more money you make, the less percentage of your income you're spending actually on Social Security, and people who are very wealthy tend to get the highest level of benefits.

Helaine Olen  17:34 
I think the idea behind it in part was because we're not going to give you a Social Security check on par with a billion dollar income. But one of the things that has happened is that it's actually become a bigger issue over time, because of the increase in income and wealth and equality. So that in previous decades, the cap actually shielded less money from less people from collection. Because one of the things about income and wealth inequality that we don't think about is when we say income and wealth inequality, we generally think "oh, people have less money." But in fact, more people are actually also towards the top of the pile than in the past. And more people are at the bottom. It's the middle that has been squeezed out. And over time that has actually cost Social Security significant money.

Francesca Rheannon  18:27 
And those people at the top have shielded far greater amounts of income as a result of the tax cap being so low.

Helaine Olen  18:36 
Right, and as a result, less money is going into the Trust Fund.

Francesca Rheannon  18:42 
Well, Helene Olen, this has been really great to talk with you about this really important issue. I have to say, not just important for seniors, but important for their families because you know, whatever Seniors don't have the burden then falls on the families and for future seniors. as you point out, Generation X is going to be in worse shape, even than the current generation of seniors.

Helaine Olen  19:06 
Yes. And I want to thank you for pointing both of those things out. One of the arguments I frequently make with Social Security, because none of us really want to see ourselves as getting older, is that if your parents don't have Social Security, that falls on you, most likely. One of the things I often point out to people is I think we have this idea that in the past, everybody saved and everybody took care of their family. But actually, that's not true. And one of the reasons we have Social Security is because in the past, older people had this distressing tendency to end up in like things called workhouses back in the 19th century, because their families wouldn't take care of them.

So this is a really important point I like to make, but in other times it would really strain the family to have to take care of an older family member who was no longer working. So this is a really important part of our history. And it's often one we don't think that much about. And of course, the other thing that you've mentioned that I do need to say, is that Gen X is not 20 years old any longer and sitting around coffee shops listening to Kurt Cobain, who as I pointed out recently to somebody, would be in his 50s if he was still alive. So, you know, this generation is rapidly approaching the years where Social Security isn't just going to be an issue for their parents, but it's going to be an issue for them as well.

Francesca Rheannon  20:32 
And an issue in the presidential election, at least we hope it will be. Thank you so much, Helaine Olen, it's just been great to talk with you here.

Helaine Olen  20:41 
Thank you for having me on.


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