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Starting in Detroit… next stop: Social Security

Frederick Bancroft, prince of magicians: the wizard's enchantments, performing arts poster, ca. 1895Buried on the PBS website, there is a blog post that ought to strike fear into the heart of every working-age American.

“Detroit Today, Washington Tomorrow” takes dead aim at the Social Security system, using the same “inflate the numbers” messaging strategy that Kevyn Orr and Gov. Rick Snyder have been using lately in Detroit.

What’s the strategy?

  1. Just pick the biggest number that you can find, and use it to scare the bejeezus out of people.
  2. Once you’ve got folks focused on that huge number, it’s easy to convince them that “oh, we’re so sorry! But Detroit can’t afford to pay the retirement benefits we’ve been promising all these decades.”
  3. Nevermind that all those Detroit workers have been paying into the system, all these decades, and planning their futures based on the promises that were made.
  4. Just keep everyone’s eyes focused on that really huge number – and they won’t even think about questioning your claim that “oh, so sorry! We can’t afford it!”

It’s the rhetorical equivalent of old-fashioned magic tricks.  And just like those old-fashioned magic tricks, it will work so long as people don’t pay attention to what’s really going on.

In Detroit, they’re hiding a $326 million accumulated deficit under the rhetorical handkerchief of $18 billion in total outstanding debt.  They’re basically saying: “don’t look at that smaller deficit number (caused by cutbacks in state revenue-sharing) – look at this huge number over here!  Look at how much Detroit is supposed to pay bondholders back, over the next 30 years!  Look here, Detroit can’t afford to pay back $18 billion right now!  (Nevermind that it’s not supposed to be paid back, for decades yet.)  Look here, if we can’t afford to pay back $18 billion, then we should declare bankruptcy and get rid of the debt (that we owe to our public employees).  We just can’t afford to keep our promises!”

Can’t you just hear the calliope music?   (If not, here’s a YouTube to help get you into a properly gullible mood.)

Now, read that PBS post by Boston University professor (and presidential candidate) Larry Kotlikoff.

  1. All of a sudden, our federal debt isn’t just $12 trillion (the number that outrages Republicans, as long as nobody suggests increasing taxes to pay it back).  According to Professor Kotlikoff, “the true measure of our debt – the one suggested by economic theory – is the fiscal gap, which totals $222 trillion.”
  2. Now, keep looking at this number over here – it’s really, really huge.  According to Professor Kotlikoff, “Given the $222 trillion fiscal gap … current policy is clearly not sustainable. Making it sustainable requires either an immediate and permanent 64 percent increase in all federal taxes or an immediate and permanent 38 percent cut in all spending or some combination of tax increases and spending cuts.”
  3. Nevermind all those decades that workers have been paying into the Social Security system.  Again, here’s Professor Kotlikoff: “If anything, the Social Security benefits, and not the Treasury bond payments, should be recorded as official debt.”
  4. Keep folks paying attention to that really big number.  Professor Kotlikoff borrows the authoritative voice of former Secretary of State George Shultz to finish his performance: “Our country doesn’t have a lot of elder statesmen to guide us. But this tough ex-marine knows our country is broke, knows our children are threatened, and knows we’ve been hiding the truth.”

Yep, that’s where things are headed.  Detroit today, Washington tomorrow.

They’ve been trying to “reform” Social Security since Barry Goldwater ran for President.

And they’re still trying.

And they’re about to have the biggest Congress-created crisis yet.

  • Read about January’s Fiscal Cliff crisis here and here.
  • Read about the March Sequestration crisis here and here.

There is another “perfect storm” of crises coming up in the next two months: the current federal budget will expire at about the same time that the Treasury runs out of debt limit “headroom” (again, thank our federal and postal service employees, whose retirement contributions provide this reprieve!).

What sorts of magic tricks do you think they’re going to try, then?

Detroit today, Washington tomorrow.

My recommendation?  Remember Professor Kotlikoff’s patter, and keep your eyes on the magicians’ hands.

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Read the LTE in response to this post.

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About Liz Iacobucci

Liz Iacobucci is the former Public Information Officer for the State Employees’ Association of New Hampshire, SEIU Local 1984. Over the past three decades, she has served in government at the federal, state and municipal levels; and she has worked for both Democratic and Republican politicians.
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