The Real Social Security Problem: Income Inequality

Dean BakerI have only ever had one real complaint against Dean Baker, because he is, you know, brilliant — perhaps the best practical macroeconomist in the world. (And yes, I do know what a remarkable claim that is.) But where I differ with him is that sometimes he sticks to the economics too tight without admitting political realities. For example, he dismisses the concern about decreasing numbers of workers for each retiree. He argues that it doesn’t matter because wages should go up at a faster rate that will dwarf this effect. This is true. The problem is that middle class wages have been pretty stagnant the last 35 years as almost all productivity gains have gone to the rich. Baker’s implicit point is that this problem has nothing to do with Social Security and so shouldn’t be phrased as though it did.

In an article today, I think Baker did a much better job of explaining the whole situation, Washington Post Offers Lesson in Bad Public Opinion Polling. He explained that the problem is that we have other (non-Social-Security) policies that affect the distribution of incomes:

A tax hike of this magnitude is less than 10 percent of the projected rise in average real wages over the next two decades. In the last three decades, most workers have seen little or no real wage gains because the vast majority of wage growth has gone to those at the top of the income distribution. It will make far more difference to workers’ living standards in 2033 whether we continue the policies that have led to this upward redistribution (eg Federal Reserve Board policy that uses high interest rates to keep unemployment from falling, trade policy that uses international competition to lower the wages of most workers, and financial policy that subsidizes Wall Street) than if we raise Social Security taxes to maintain benefit levels.

Yes, yes, yes! Of course, that really is the point of the people who are now and forever wringing their hands about Social Security: they take it is a given that the rich should be taking all the gains from the economy. They take it as such a given that they never even think it is open to discussion. The way things are is the way that things must be.

It reminds me of all the upper-middle class urban journalists who just love Uber. I don’t personally have against companies like that. But these same journalists never seem to get excited about things like strong unions that would give workers more power. No, it is always some “free market” solution that ends up with workers doing worse and just so happens to provide marginal gains for upper-middle class urban journalists.

So we get the same kind of thing from the Washington Post. I know it doesn’t work this way, but it seems like there is an explicit decision making process: we must only consider solutions that the power elite will go along with. What is probably more the case is that the rich are the ones who fund think tanks and so there are reports that come out that talk about the necessity of chained-CPI (Social Security cuts). There are not nearly as many reports about raising the payroll tax cap, because that would cost the rich more money. And there is virtually no talk about the policies that have destroyed unions and which funnel money from the poor to the rich.

So the Washington Post can shed crocodile tears about raising the payroll taxes of the poor by 3 percentage points in 2033. But there is no talk of the fact that for almost four decades the poor have not participated in our economic growth and there is no reason to think this will change in the next two decades. In fact, those writing for mainstream media outlets don’t even seem to be aware of these problems. So they continue to claim fealty to the well-being of the poor, when their only concern is the continued bleeding of the poor to enrich the power elite.

“Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable”?
That’s not the modern American way!
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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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