So you may have noticed a pie fight has started up again. Joe shikspack wrote a diary arguing that President Obama wants to cut social security. Troubadour then proceeded to write a response diary arguing that joe shikspack’s diary is inaccurate. Needless to say there isn’t very much reasoned debate going on in either diary. My no-qualifications self has attempted to find out which person (if any) is right. Hence, this diary.
I will state my biases up front: I tend to be on joe shikspack’s side with regards to the “Obama supporters vs. Obama critics” debate. However, I have attempted to be as objective as possible. If I have failed, please say so in the comments and I will update this diary accordingly.
Warning: This diary is, by necessity, quite long. If you want the tl;dr version, here’s my conclusion: joe shikspack’s diary is so hyperbolic it ends up being misleading, but Troubadour’s argument against it is a complete strawman.
The title and introductory paragraphs of joe shikspack’s diary make his basic argument clear: President Obama is helping conservatives destroy social security. To quote:
Practically since the modern social safety net was created wealthy, powerful right-wingers and organizations have been trying to kill it. . . . President Obama has come very close to helping right-wingers realize their long-desired goal.Let’s see if he successfully argues for this claim.
First he argues that Reagan and Greenspan raised the rates of (regressive) payroll taxes, then used the proceeds to cut taxes for rich people and corporations. He then asserts that the best way to deal with Social Security’s finance problem is to raise the cap on taxable income. One may quibble with some details here, but since there’s no reference to Obama this isn’t the material Troubadour took issue with, and so I won’t discuss it further.
He then says that the right wing has been attacking social security for decades in an effort to change public perception of it. This seems right, but again there’s no reference to Obama so for the purposes of this diary I won’t discuss this point further.
Now we get to the meat of the diary—evidence for the President helping to destroy Social Security—so I will go into more detail.
First he asserts that Bill Clinton and Robert Rubin had wanted to cut social security but their negotiations with Gingrich fell through when the Lewinsky scandal broke. This isn’t about Obama but it is about a Democratic President so it’s perhaps wise to spend a bit of time on this claim. The source is a book by Robert Kuttner, who seems to be in the “Obama critic” camp (although he also aims a lot of ire at the Republicans). However, it also appears that Clinton himself said he wanted to cut social security but was stopped by Congress so, while I can’t account for the details, the general claim appears sound.
Now then. Joe shikspack moves on to describe how Obama created the “catfood commission,” which was partly financed by outside private interests. This is of course true, though there are a number of ways to interpret Obama’s motives for this so it’s not conclusive. He then describes the failures of a long string of people—the commission and various Congressional members—to come to a deal including cuts to Social Security, but the next interesting claim is the following:
That was followed by the failure of the President himself to be able to arrange a Grand Bargain to cut Social Security in exchange for some extremely modest tax hikes.That link goes to an article by Arianna Huffington, which takes as its ultimate source this Washington Post article. Of course, the Washington Post writers doesn't actually bother to tell us where they get their information from. In any event, the “money quotes” for our purposes are these:
But the major elements of a bargain seemed to be falling into place: $1.2 trillion in agency cuts, smaller cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients, nearly $250 billion in Medicare savings achieved in part by raising the eligibility age. And $800 billion in new taxes.
That night, Obama prepared his party’s congressional leaders. He warned Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that he might return to the position under discussion the previous Sunday — that is, cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in exchange for just $800 billion in tax increases.If this article is accurate, then President Obama was willing to make “cuts” or “cost-of-living increases” (were these supposed to refer to the same thing?), as well as various other spending cuts, in exchange for new taxes. Of course, that’s if the article is accurate. There are some articles on Media Matters that criticize two of the authors, Peter Wallsten and Lori Montgomery, and of course their anonymous sources could have any number of motives. Still, especially given how rampant giving sources anonymity is these days, it probably isn’t a good idea to dismiss an article just because it has unnamed sources. I suppose this might be a matter that reasonable people could dispute.
Moving on. Joe shikspack proceeds to argue that Obama agreeing to a cut in payroll taxes resulted in the undermining of Social Security. This article in the New York Times has some serious issues, but it seems to lay out the case well enough at least:
Mindful of some Republicans’ goal of privatizing Social Security, the Democrats suggested that tinkering with the payroll tax “may be used as the first step in a larger battle to fundamentally dismantle Social Security.”The argument is generally that by cutting payroll taxes, Social Security becomes less of an “insurance”-type program and more of a “welfare”-type program, which would make it much more likely for benefits to get cut and/or privatized. This is essentially a slippery-slope argument, and whether or not you are convinced depends on how likely you think it is that (a) the payroll cuts will be permanent, (b) Social Security will then seem more like welfare, and (c) this will make the public less inclined to support it. I respect people’s attention to this matter and I think concern is warranted, but the evidence at least for (b) and (c) seems somewhat scant. That is just my opinion however and I am happy to be corrected.
Now then. The next, and final, substantial claim in joe shikspack’s diary is that Nancy Pelosi is also saying she’d support the Simpson-Bowles plan. Of course this also does not necessarily have anything to do with Obama, but I feel this is important enough to discuss in some detail. Joe shikspack based this claim on this Huffington Post article by Ryan Grim. If you look at the video though, you’ll see the situation is a bit more complicated. She does say she would’ve voted for the Simpson-Bowles plan, yes. But she says that in the context of saying “The plan that was brought to the floor of the House was not Simpson-Bowles so that’s why I voted against it.” She also hedges a bit at some points, saying she is opposed to the Social Security elements in the plan and only praised it as a good “framework.” Still, she does say she would’ve voted for the plan if she could’ve, and even if that was just politicking she’ll have a hard time dodging those statements if the actual plan comes to Congress.
To summarize, joe shikspack’s argument goes roughly as follows:
1. The Deficit Commission set up by President Obama was partially funded by right-wing private organizations who want to privatize Social Security (among other things). The facts are indubitable; the interpretations of them of course can vary.
2. President Obama was very close to agreeing to cut Social Security in a Grand Bargain, but couldn’t quite close the deal. This is fairly damning evidence if true, but you may doubt the accuracy of the Washington Post article that reported this.
3. Social Security has been undermined by the payroll tax cut Obama signed into law. This argument is a bit weak; IMO it might add to the force of other arguments, but doesn’t stand by itself.
4. Nancy Pelosi has voiced support for the Simpson-Bowles plan. As I said before this is simplistic, but at the very least Pelosi has painted herself into a corner over this issue should the plan come up for a vote.
Therefore, on the basis of 1-4, joe shikspack concludes that Social Security could very well be on the chopping block during the debt ceiling negotiations at the end of the year.
So how does this argument fare, all told? (I'll get to whether or not it supports joe shikspack's original claim, that Obama is helping conservatives destroy Social Security, later.) In my opinion, it succeeds or fails on the basis of premise #2. If you believe the Washington Post article, the President was about to agree to Social Security cuts once before, so it’s reasonable to assume that he would again. On the other hand, if you don’t believe the Washington Post article, then you can bring other interpretations of the facts to bear—for example, perhaps Obama was just playing with Boehner et al in order to show the American public that the Republicans are acting in bad faith.
Ultimately, whether or not you agree with premise #2 probably depends on how much you trust the President with these issues in the first place. As I said before, I tend to fall on the “Obama critics” side of the debate so it seems plausible to me that Obama might agree to Social Security cuts this year in exchange for tax increases, for the sake of a Grand Bargain. I think the chief alternate explanation, that he never intended to cut Social Security and was playing a game with the Republicans, is much less parsimonious. But I can see how others might disagree. So his argument isn’t conclusive.
Now then, to the main event: even if joe shikspack’s argument is sound, does that show that Obama is helping conservatives to destroy social security? Well, no. More accurate would be to say that Obama is willing to agree to Social Security cuts (among other spending cuts) in exchange for tax increases as part of a Grand Bargain with Republicans. It would be technically accurate to say that President Obama is helping conservatives cut Social Security, which could then lead to Social Security’s destruction. But things like "President Obama has come very close to helping right-wingers realize their long-desired goal [to kill Social Security]" are not actually supported by joe shikspack’s diary.
In conclusion: joe shikspack’s title and introduction are, at the least, hyperbolic and not actually supported by the rest of his diary. His argument itself is plausible, though not convincing because it relies on a possibly-dubious Washington Post article. If joe shikspack had toned down his title and introduction, the diary would’ve been much better. As it is, I feel the title and introduction weigh the diary down enough that it ultimately fails.
Now let’s move on to Troubadour’s diary.
Troubadour’s diary has a lot of invective which I will skip over. He then provides the following summary of joe shikspack’s diary:
1. The co-chairs of the deficit commission met with rich, pro-austerity conservatives in 2010.As my above analysis shows, this is a misleading summary of joe shikspack’s diary. First of all, all of the above basically encompasses my premise #1; it leaves out the other three pieces of evidence joe shikspack uses, including the strongest one: that the President was very close to agreeing to cut Social Security in exchange for tax increases. Of course you can argue with all four, but you need to at least provide the argument.
2. The commission participated in events funded in part by a pro-austerity organization, but also by such wingnut front organizations as the MacArthur and Kellogg Foundations.
3. Liberal luminaries attended these events, but received less media coverage. And since Barack Obama dictates media coverage, QED.
4. The President refuses to declare plans before hearing from his advisory bodies.
Presidentcommission rejected the pro-austerity plan created by the commission co-chairs, but that doesn't mean anything because...well, just because the diarist says so.
Second of all, some of the above five things Troubadour attributes to joe shikspack are not actually in the diary. I cannot find anything resembling numbers 3 or 4, though perhaps I missed them. The first part of #5 is indeed in the diary, but the second part is a gross mischaracterization of joe shikspack’s argument. The fact that the plan failed was not actually used as a means to criticize Obama; rather, he says that because the Simpson-Bowles plan keeps being brought up by the media and politicians, the plan is still important even though the commission rejected it.
Troubadour then provides the following summary:
One drop of conservative funding going to an event, even if the vast majority comes from legitimate sources, means the event must be avoided like the plague and any liberal leaders who attend are Fifth Columnists involved in a diabolical plots to destroy America.I think I’ve proven my point enough, but again, this completely misrepresents joe shikspack’s diary. The fact that the Deficit Commission was partly funded by conservatives is only one of the four pieces of evidence joe shikspack uses, and he never even implies that anyone who attends wants to destroy America (even giving allowances that Troubadour is engaging in obvious hyperbole).
Finally, I will end by briefly considering Troubadour’s “saner interpretation”:
Obama engaged with conservatives and created the "Catfood Commission" so that he could reject their recommendations and make a public showing of defending Social Security. The fact that the commission did reject their recommendations kind of makes this...umm...slightly more credible than the idea that he was on board with cutting the program.This is certainly a possible interpretation of events. However, it relies on a fact that has yet to be proven—that Obama indeed “reject[ed] their recommendations” and made “a public showing of defending Social Security.” I do not recall either of these things happening; to my recollection, Obama generally tried to stay as far away from explicit praise or explicit criticism of the thing as possible. I may be wrong about this, and am happy to be corrected. But I do feel it’s ironic that Troubadour accuses joe shikspack of failing to provide adequate evidence and then fails to provide evidence for the one positive claim he does make.
The rest of Troubadour’s diary is either invective or points unrelated to joe shikspack’s diary so I will end the analysis here.
In conclusion: While Troubadour could undoubtedly have mounted a good attack on joe shikspack’s diary, as I detailed above, he instead chose to grossly mischaracterize joe shikspack’s argument and then provide a positive claim without actually offering any evidence.
So with both analyses complete, what should we say about this entire saga? I don’t think either diary is a shining light of Daily Kos scholarship. Joe shikspack went way too far with his rhetoric in the title and introduction, and that spoils what was actually a somewhat plausible argument in the rest of the diary. However, Troubadour (when he wasn’t spouting invective) constructed a complete strawman of joe shikspack’s diary and then didn’t even argue against that effectively.
Ultimately, I think joe shikspack comes out in a better light than Troubadour, but then I guess I would say that wouldn’t I? But really I don’t think that matters very much. Far more important is the question: does Barack Obama want to cut Social Security?
Well, in the abstract he probably doesn’t. But would he be willing to cut Social Security if it meant securing a Grand Bargain with Republicans? In my opinion, yes. So I think it would be worthwhile to pressure him and Democratic members of Congress not to vote for any bill that cuts Social Security. However, I also think it is possible to reasonably disagree with my position. That said, I think it is uncontroversial that there are some Democratic Congressmen who are willing to cut Social Security, so pressuring at least Congress on this issue is a wise strategy no matter what. Perhaps this blog could work together to do that…but I’m not holding my breath.
Thank you for reading. I will correct this diary should any mistakes come to my attention.