Some conservative ideas are bad like raising the retirement age. It is just a way of cutting social security benefits without actually saying so. And given that the poor don’t live as long as the rich, it is an extremely regressive way of cutting social security. It would be far more fair to just cut how much money people get. But that would be admitting that it is a cut. Obviously, we need to call this sort of thing out. Delaying retirement by two years is what all the Republican candidates (except Trump) want to do. But at least it would save money.
But there is a whole other level of wrongness. I thought Chris Christie put out the proposal very well at last Thursday’s debate. After saying that we must “first” raise the retirement age because, hey, everyone’s doing it, he said, “Secondly, we would [means] test Social Security for those who are making over $200,000 dollars a year in retirement income, and have $4 to $5 million dollars in liquid assets saved.” This is what passes for hard nosed thinking in the Republican Party. It sounds good because obviously such people wouldn’t be hurt. And it seems to say, “See: I’m going after the rich!” But it really doesn’t.
Look at the numbers he’s proposed. Just making a quarter million dollars per year isn’t enough to make someone too rich to need Social Security. They must also have $4 million is liquid assets. So supposed you just bought Bill Gate’s $63 million mansion. So you are only left with three and a half million dollars in cash. And you only get about a million per year in retirement income. Then don’t worry, you are still going to get your $2,663 check every month. Because Chris Christie isn’t a monster! Clearly, Christie has put together his plan so it won’t actually apply to anyone, but it sounds like he’s coming down hard on the rich.
But the worst thing about this plan is that even if it were real, it is meaningless. Dean Baker has been writing about this for years. Unless we want to eliminate Social Security for everyone with retirement benefits of $40,000 per year and more, there really is no savings. All it would do is make the accounting more difficult (something that Republicans are supposedly against) and make people less inclined to support the program (something that Republicans are very keen for). Even if Christie set a single standard of $200,000, it would be meaningless.
There are two parts of Social Security. The “pay in” is highly regressive — mostly between the upper class (who make around $100,000) per year, and the truly rich who make many hundreds of thousands or more. But it is nonetheless true that the upper class pay a lot of money into social security. The “pay out” is far more egalitarian. So there is money to be gained by soaking the rich — but it isn’t on the “pay out” side; it is on the “pay in” side. Of course, no conservative is willing to eliminate the payroll tax cap — or even increase it. That actually would cause a little pain for the rich, so it is not even discussed.
I don’t think this is a conspiracy. For one thing, I don’t think that Chris Christie is smart enough to say to his people, “I want to propose increasing the retirement age, which is a regressive benefit cut; what can I come up with that makes it looks like I’m hurting the rich too, but which doesn’t actually hurt the rich?” But I do think that people like Christie have advisers who know that anything at all is okay as long as it doesn’t hurt the rich. So if Christie ever got it into his head to raise the payroll tax cap, there would be someone close by to explain that he can’t do that. The problem is more systemic: the Republicans are in the can for the rich. And that’s the only reason they exist.