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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Why The Right Hates Social Security (And How They Plan to Destroy It)

The right has had a decades-long strategy of trying to undermine Social Security while pretending to support it. In this conversation, Alex Lawson of Social Security Works exposes their propaganda and lies.

Alex Lawson is the Executive Director of Social Security Works and the convening member of the Strengthen Social Security Coalition. He has spent his career working to try to save Social Security from Republican (and sometimes Democratic) attempts to “reform” (i.e., cut) it. He recently joined Current Affairs editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson on the Current Affairs podcast to discuss why Social Security is a huge social democratic achievement, the fight it took to get it in the first place, why the right has always hated Social Security, the history of their attempts to undermine it, and the lies and propaganda that are used to convince people that Social Security is in a crisis and urgently needs reforms that will cut people’s benefits. 

The interview transcript has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.


People do not talk enough about Social Security. Republicans want to kill Social Security but don’t like to talk about Social Security, partly because they know the conversation is a losing one for them. But that does not change the fact that every minute of every day, slowly, behind the scenes, they are working to destroy the program.

You, Alex Lawson, are trying to prevent that from happening. I want to start by going back in time to think about the achievement that Social Security represents. Could tell us about the fight to get it? We didn’t always live in an era where we had this important benefit.


That’s a great question and a great part of the story. We do have to actually look further back, before Social Security was created. Everyone more or less knows the story that Social Security was created in the Great Depression. At that time, the country was facing catastrophe. One in two seniors were living in poverty—50 percent. Poor houses are in every state in the country (except for one, New Mexico—I don’t know why). Poor houses are a concept that we don’t even have in our minds anymore. They were debtors’ prisons; it’s where you went if you ran out of money and didn’t have family to support you, and importantly, the doors were locked at night—this was not a place that you could leave. And, in fact, the poor house was the bogeyman that people used to push their children: “You better study in school—”


“—or you will end up in a warehouse where we put poor people!”


Exactly. And importantly, there is a great one that I love, which is on the original Monopoly board, across from the jail on the other corner, was the poor house. So you could either go to jail, or end up in the poor house.

The Poor House, from when Monopoly was “The Landlord’s Game”

Now, you get Social Security, and the poor house is eliminated as a concept. It doesn’t exist anymore because Social Security is there to protect people in the retirement if they run out of wages—because in a capitalist society based on wages, if you don’t have wages, you have to figure out something to do. That something used to be the poor house, and then it was Social Security.

There’s more, but I will just say what I love is: Do you know what that space on the Monopoly board is now? It’s free parking! From the poor house to free parking.


We’ve marked human progress through the progress of the Monopoly board.


But you do have to ask where those ideas come from. Obviously, it was during the crisis of the Great Depression that Frances Perkins and the New Dealers, working with FDR, saw the opportunity to implement these things. But these ideas come from before. You can read Eugene Debs and see a lot of these ideas that are in the New Deal were rejected previously, as he loses [his bid for presidency]. John Nichols has a great bit where he says, “What is losing when your ideas are winning?”

There was the capitalist billionaire class running the country, and periodic upheavals where every ten years the whole system blows up and everyone gets poor except for the billionaires. A countermovement said if we all work together, we can actually lessen the risk to all of us, and those ideas become Social Security. In the Social Security Act, there was also supposed to be national health care, because everyone saw that you can’t actually have security if you can go bankrupt by getting sick or injured. So, the original intent of Social Security was a big and expanding system of economic security for everyone in this country, and that is an important thing to remember when we’re talking about Social Security. It’s not just the system that eliminates or reduces your poverty to the same levels as the general population—which is too high, but it’s still not one in two. Also, Social Security didn’t do it alone for seniors, because we don’t really see the reduction to average numbers until we also get Medicare some decades later. It really is true that you can’t have economic security without that health component.


Social Security is an achievement that was the culmination of a decades-long struggle. At the turn of the century, the situation is really desperate for people who can’t earn a living through labor; for the old and sick, there’s nothing there for them, and so there’s a fight. And it is also the case that, going back to those times, the right has always despised the idea of having the government care for people who cannot earn a living through their labor (or who deserve to not have to labor because they worked for many decades). Can you talk about the early history of the right’s attempt to thwart these social insurance ideas?


Absolutely. It is important to always remember, and I think your audience understands, that it’s a dynamic system. The fight didn’t happen when we won it. It required decades of fighting, and the reactionary forces hated everything about the ideas that Frances Perkins and the other New Dealers were pushing. They hated them, because in their hearts, they knew that it worked to do this, but they don’t want it. These are the plutocrats and the robber barons, the ones who are having the parties where they have jewelry in sand and dig out diamonds during the dinner party.

The only way that works is if you have a mass of people to exploit. And so they don’t want people to have economic security. The rich were winning, and then the Great Depression happens. The whole idea of capitalism was, for the first time really, held up as not going to work. [Fascism and communism were growing in Europe.] The idea of the New Deal was actually aimed at creating a form of capitalism that could work—a democratic socialism or something of that nature—but a very uniquely American idea on that as well. That’s where the New Deal comes in, as a saving force that people have been demanding.

It was a compromise. There was a much larger push for a much greater redistributive policy that was incredibly popular at the time called the Townsend Plan being pushed by grassroots groups. But importantly, the Republican, plutocrat, and reactionary forces hated it all the way through, and fought it tooth and nail into passage. Then, the first presidential candidate after it passed, Alf Landon, ran his entire campaign against Social Security. That was his whole platform. He’s most famous, for people who remember his name, as the dude who lost nearly every single state.

They have always been against these programs and systems that work, and has always been a deeply unpopular position to be in, but they’ve gotten sneakier at hiding.


Social Security became so popular, so quickly, after it was put into place and people could see the benefits. By the 1950s, Eisenhower was saying that anyone who ran against Social Security would never win an election in the United States. But that doesn’t mean that the fight to end or gut Social Security ended. Just because it is extremely popular, does not mean that the fight to end it has stopped. You testified to the Senate Budget Committee, and in your testimony, you cited extraordinary quotes from conservatives in the Reagan era, laying out what they call a “Leninist plan to end Social Security”—the revolutionaries working behind the scenes.


Yes, and that is where it moved to. This throws people off. In my testimony, I said as well, that Reagan actually was one of the last of the Republicans who wasn’t totally hell-bent on destroying Social Security. He actually was, but he got grilled for it so hard that he gave us some of our best quotes when he says, “Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit. It’s fully funded by the payroll tax.” It’s a great clip that I use to great effect still, because it’s Reagan.

But the truth is, it was big money that figured out how to take over or break our political system at the time. His win was a really shocking thing, but the money people and bag men behind him at the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation were plotting: “Now we’ve got our guy in there, how are we going to destroy Social Security?” They didn’t actually get it done. They thought they were going to do it in 1983 when some legislative action had to happen, and they thought Reagan was going to be able to destroy it. But they run into the buzz saw of public opinion and end up not.

But he does put in a grand bargain. There were benefit cuts in that package, with our retirement age raised to 67. Many people still think it’s 65, but Reagan raised it two years, which is just a 7 percent benefit cut for each year that’s raised. It’s just a mathematical calculation—you don’t actually have to retire on your retirement age, it’s just when you get your full benefits.

So, it had a big benefit cut in it, and some tax side stuff and many other things as well. But it’s right after that they really hit the gas on this Leninist strategy of knowingly lying about what they’re trying to do in order to pit different parts of the population against each other. Pitting the old against the young by telling the old they’re definitely not going to cut benefits and not to worry, and instead, they’re only going to cut the young people’s benefits; and telling the young Social Security is going to run out of money, they’re never going to get anything, and so they need to cut old people’s benefits—really stoking that intergenerational warfare with a divide and conquer strategy. But the main purpose of that Leninist strategy document is to say: lie to the people about what it is that we’re trying to do, because we have to destroy and gut Social Security, and the only way to do it is to lie. That has been their mantra and MO up to now.


It’s understandable why they feel hell-bent on destroying Social Security. As you point out, it’s not just to make exploitation easier—that’s part of it. But also, the success of Social Security disproves so many conservative talking points. It’s the government providing welfare or universal benefits to people, and it works. It makes people’s lives better and reduces poverty. One of the core conservative talking points is nothing government does can be done right. Everything it does to try and fix a social problem will inevitably backfire and cause disaster, misery, and bureaucracy. Social Security really undermines their case.


It totally undermines their case. The other one is efficiency. Social Security is the most efficient thing you can imagine. It does everything it’s meant to. It provides benefits for people who retire in old age; for people who face a life changing illness or accident, become disabled, and can no longer work; and for their surviving children in the loss of a breadwinner, oftentimes in a disaster or mass casualty event, like 9/11 or something like that. The first touch grieving families have from the federal government is a Social Security survivor’s benefit to minor children and military families. The list goes on and on about how massive this system is. For example, because of the survivors benefits, by magnitude of dollars, Social Security is the largest children’s program in the United States.

It’s a universal program of huge magnitude— there’s nothing really else like it, and it does all of that for less than 1 percent in administrative costs. Less than one penny of every dollar that you pay into the system is used to pay for the whole thing. And look at Wall Street—that’s why they hate it. They like people scrambling and not being able to have enough time and comfort to think about, “Why do these guys have all the money?” That’s true, but they’re also just straight up greedy. They look at it and think, “We should be the only ones who offer products like that, and tack on a 35 percent fee.” 


It’s a pool of wealth that could be siphoned. 


That’s it. They hate that they can’t get their greedy little hands on it. It really does disprove, backwards and forwards, the entire small “c” conservative, reactionary mindset. Yes, just like what the private health insurance industry operates on, “How can we get sick people to give us a portion of their wealth?”—which they successfully do. And that’s why they hate Medicare For All so much. They’re terrified of the people finding out about anything that guarantees healthcare, does a better job, works more efficiently than private insurance. They really don’t want people to find out that the VA [Veterans Affairs], which is fully socialized healthcare—different from Medicare For All, which is just one single payer—is consistently ranked higher than private insurance in terms of outcomes, quality, and what people feel about it.

So again, they really hate things that work. They have to lie and create this whole story that the private sector does everything better. “You want to wait to get a doctor’s appointment?” Have you tried to get a doctor’s appointment? You wait, right now! “You want to bring in bureaucracy?” Have you literally ever called a corporation? It’s the most nauseating bureaucracy you’ll ever deal with, and then they hang up on you. So that’s the system that they want.

I will end on this: those systems do work well, for the wealthy. That’s the key, they are never going to face the pain on those private systems. American health care actually works really well if you’re super rich. It’s a really well functioning rich person system. But for everyone else, it’s a disaster, a wealth extraction system, and not a healthcare system.


We have to go into more depth about some of these lies and myths that have been pushed. It’s really important to help train people to see through this stuff, because as you’ve indicated, there is a strategy to talk publicly in positive terms about Social Security, with George W. Bush, Donald Trump, and the like, saying Social Security is very important. “We, Republicans, respect Social Security,” and then sneakily propose things that are designed to sound like they’re not commitments to undermine or destroy Social Security, but are.

Could you show us some of the ways in which Republican rhetoric about how they’re not going to touch Social Security conceals the true agenda?


We have a videographer and tracker on the Hill who’s asking Republicans, “What are you talking about when you say Social Security? What are you accomplishing with Social Security by holding the debt ceiling hostage?” And Republican Rick Allen, says, “People call me and say they want to work longer. So, I want to raise the retirement age to 75.” This dude is worth $52 million, and he’s fine with everyone else working until they die.

And I alluded to this before—Matt Breunig actually has a great piece on the math of this—but retirement age has nothing to do with the age at which you retire. It’s really annoying, it instead should be called “full benefits age” or something like that. But it’s a mathematical formula age is actually used to calculate, because you can retire “early or later.” If you retire before your full benefit age, your benefit is reduced 7 percent for every year that you retire early, and you can actually retire months early. It’s not done by the year, but by each month, and you can increase your benefit by retiring later. And in the exact same way that happens, the same magnitude 7 percent per year, any increase in the full benefit age, or the so-called retirement age, is just a 7 percent across the board benefit cut to Social Security. Moving it up to age 75, or from 67 to 70 (which you also hear a lot), is a 21 percent benefit cut. No one supports that. If you force Lindsey Graham, who pushes the 70-year-old [full benefit] often—I tried to do it when I was testifying on budget—you’ll see him dance around. If you ask anyone in this country who doesn’t work for Wall Street if they support a 21 percent benefit cut to Social Security, they will reject you.

Why what is often called “raising the retirement age” is more accurately conceived of as “cutting Social Security benefits” (Matt Bruenig, Jacobin)

I go around this country and talk to many different types of people—it does not matter if it’s camo NRA hats in the audience or a bunch of electric vehicles in the parking lot—everyone loves Social Security. That’s why Republicans lie about it. And they say everyone’s working longer—that one is rejected, because even if people don’t understand the benefit cut side or the mathematical part, they don’t want to work longer. No, people do not want to work longer!

There are ones that are even more wonky and annoying. They go after the COLA [Cost-of-Living Adjustment], which is the automatic payment increase that happens to make sure that your benefits keep pace with inflation. For the last decade, it really hasn’t seemed that important, but now, people understand the beauty of this part of the benefit. It’s not a gift, it’s part of the benefit: an inflation protected social insurance annuity. It does not erode over time. So, they say, “Let’s use a different formula to calculate that. It’s more accurate.” All of it is BS. You can always call out by asking them if it “saves money.” And if it does “save money,” that means benefits are cut.


Because the money only goes to one place.


Exactly. All of their proposals are savers in D.C. parlance, and that means they’re all benefit cuts.


So when you hear the phrase “save money,” respond: “Save money on what? On paying old people?”


You’re saving my money directly into your pocket. There’s one, the PPI [progressive price index], that they love, because it has the word “progressive” in it, so then it really confuses people. I feel like they’re going to trot that one out this time around. But, we are dealing with a faction of Republicans in the House that are less sophisticated than the Tea Party, it seems to me. The Tea Party were the ones who pushed the chain CPI—the COLA adjustment. I’m not sure that Kevin McCarthy’s proposals aren’t going to be full-bore, “let’s decimate the program.”

The last one I’ll say is their favorite: “We don’t even know what we want.” That’s the tell right there. They know what they want, but they’re just scared of saying it. They say, “Let’s create a commission and give it the force of law through an up or down vote.” So, whatever the commission comes up with, then is guaranteed a vote. That’s Mitt Romney’s push, and the most dangerous one in my eyes.


I think it’s also worth mentioning that there are some Democrats who cannot be trusted to fight for Social Security in the way that we need, because this whole “let’s put together a commission” thing depends on having some people who are on the center of it, in the other party, to willing to rubber stamp this. Bernie Sanders had to take on Barack Obama about this, I seem to remember.


Yes, I was there. It was a lonely fight at the time. I will say it’s totally different now. We’ve got way more allies. We didn’t have our own ability to tell our story about what’s actually going on, with the corporate media totally part and parcel of this assault on Social Security. And so we are in a different place.

A commission will rely on Democrats doing the wrong thing. I don’t accept any commission, but I will say that the Blue Ribbon Commission is actually less dangerous—my understanding is that is it does not have the force of law. So there’s a commission that puts together and releases a report, and then you could do nothing with it. But what they’ve always done are fast track commissions: written into the legislation that sets up the commission, it says, “Whatever findings the commission comes to, if it can pass out of the commission, it’s guaranteed an up or down vote.” Those are the ones that are super dangerous, because that’s taking it right into the smoky back room and negotiated without any of us, not in regular order or committee. Whatever comes out, they get a vote on it—super dangerous. It’s also like catnip to politicians: Democrats, including the media, rewards pablum about bipartisanship. The media would say, “This bipartisan plan to punch everyone in the face is so brave. It’s so brave for both parties to be doing the wrong thing.”


Right. “This is Washington functioning at last! This is what we want.”


“At last, everyone will get punched in the face because Washington gotten its act together!” If a house is on fire, and one side is saying to use water to put it out, and the other side is saying use jet fuel, the right answer is not “half water, half jet fuel.” The media has such an annoying tendency—it’s written into their corporate identities. “This is big money.” But that’s the story they love telling, like somehow taking half bad and half good is better than just good. Ideas and policies have to be rated on whether they work for the people or not, not on some sort of weird, bipartisan fetish that exists in this town.

If a house is on fire, and one side is saying to use water to put it out, and the other side is saying use jet fuel, the right answer is not “half water, half jet fuel.”


You mentioned the idea of negotiating through a commission in private, away from the public eye—I recall this bit of your testimony where you say Joni Ernst would have done George Orwell proud because she said we were going to have “an open and honest conversation” about Social Security, while advocating a closed-door commission that then produces binding recommendations that will inevitably reduce people’s benefits.


And that’s part of that Leninist strategy: just lie to the people about what you’re trying to accomplish. This is why truth tellers like you and your show are so important, to remind people that the story is not about the “how,” because they’ll always come up with the how. It’s not even about the Democrats, who might do the wrong thing. The most important fact is that the Republicans have one thing they do, and they wait decades for the opportunity to do it: destroy Social Security. It’s like they carve it into their heart.

Think about what they’re doing. I know you know this, but just to state it: the last time the held the debt ceiling hostage the US sovereign debt was downgraded by S&P, not because of the inability for the United States to pay its bills, but because of the political fact that a minority party can force the hand of the government and not pay the bills. They use that threat not to make people’s lives better or do any of the things that they run on—even the terrible things that they run on, like building a border wall or any of their other dumb ideas.

It’s important to remember that in the constellation of their dumb ideas, getting rid of Social Security is their North Star. It’s what they always return to. And we have to remember that the villain here is the Republican ideology that says this system works and does not benefit our billionaire benefactors, and therefore, we must destroy it. As soon as that is understood, then it’s easy. Any of their ideas are either a better or worse version of destroying the system. You don’t have to give it the benefit of the doubt. You don’t have to take a knee and ask, “Tell me, Republican, what’s your idea to destroy the system?” You only have to defeat it. And the way we defeat it is by letting people know what’s going on. The Republicans are coming to destroy our Social Security, and we have to defeat them.


Right, and there are many ways they’re going to sneakily try and push things that seem unrelated to destroying Social Security, but are actually about destroying it. For example, I think you cited this idea, “We want all federal laws to expire unless they’re reauthorized,” or something like that. Which is another way that they can hopefully find a way to make sure that Social Security is held hostage, and they have the power to cut it as much as they like.


Because they leave out in that when they say, “We want to do it.” Ron Johnson, who is the dumbest person in Congress—and I know full well George Santos is a member and everything, an achievement of some sort—wants to redo it. He said they want to bring up all the programs every year, and then Rick Scott said every five years. Both of them left off the fact that every five years or every year, they would be on the side saying, “Don’t fund it.” They leave out that really important fact that they want it to be debated and voted on every year, and every time it’s voted on, the Republicans would vote to end it or cut it. The Republicans would do what they’ve been doing for 40 years, which is lying to the face of the American people as they surreptitiously move their plans to destroy Social Security.


It’s pretty much all of them, too. The Republicans are pretty unified on this. The Democrats are, as you said, getting a little better than they were during the Obama years, but Republicans are all on board to destroy all federal benefits.


It’s true. And I always do wonder, do they get a manila envelope delivered to them? There are a lot of backbencher Republicans whose names no one knows, they all look the same—the hardest part of tracking them on the Hill is actually knowing who they are. You can probably name ten of them in the House, or something like that, but there’s a lot more than that. They are all like a machine, and actually very good at it. How did they put such discipline in this? What kind of manila envelope is delivered on day one? “Here’s what you must do: hurt people.”

This is absolutely true: outside of Washington, D.C., the bipartisan consensus on Social Security is massively in favor of expanding benefits and against cutting them. More people in this country, according to public polling, believe in the Loch Ness Monster than want to cut Social Security benefits, by a significant amount. It’s hard to get across how deeply people in America feel about Social Security, and that they love it. And then you look in on D.C., and there’s a story being told that there’s a bipartisan consensus on the grand bargain or something.

And again, I think we are in a materially different place than in 2011. Much stronger, including President Biden, right now in stating, again and again, “I will not negotiate on Social Security and Medicare.” I know you remember the State of the Union that Obama did this [time of year], just like Biden did on February 7, when he pivoted and began a full-bore campaign on austerity after the shellacking in the midterms. Biden is not there at all. So, we have a president, and allies in the Senate and House, who are saying they’re not giving a millimeter to this. And 25 percent of the Republican majority is George Santos in the House, so they are not in as strong a position as the Tea Party.

So, if the American people are waking up fast enough to the threat to Social Security, there are 18 Republicans in the House who are in districts that Biden won, and another about 18 who are in Trump districts by about 0.1 percent—we only need four, five, or six of them, depending on who’s healthy and alive in the House caucus. The majority actually changes based on who’s able to come vote, so right now, it’s four, but I think it’s actually five. We spent a lot of time on spreadsheets here in D.C., but it’s all about finding five or six of these Republicans who will vote with the Democrats and cut Kevin McCarthy’s plan off at the pass. And I think we can.


Yes, and a big part of that is exposing what the actual agenda is, because it’s so hideously unpopular. We’ve got to have that Leninist party discipline like they do.


They’re definitely not going to do it because it’s the right thing. It’s only because we scare them onto the fact they will lose their jobs if they do this.


If you had any ethics or morality, you wouldn’t be a member of the United States Republican Party. So I want to get to, before we close, the big lie that Social Security is going to be bankrupt unless we do something now. There is polling suggesting Millennials and Generation Z are worried that they’re not going to get Social Security, because all they hear over and over is a very effective talking point: “it’s going away, it’s going away, it’s going away,” repeated ad nauseam. Talk about the big lie about Social Security going bankrupt unless we take some step that is going to reduce benefits in some way.


It’s a very sophisticated attack, but at the same time, really basic. As soon as you know this is what they always do, you can become inoculated to it. But it’s an old tactic of union busting, as well. The goal is to convince people that they’re going to get nothing. “If you do X, or don’t do X, you’re going to get nothing”, and then they’re willing to accept less than they’re owed. You think you’re going to get nothing, and then I say, “But if you work with me, I might be able to get you 70 cents on the dollar.” That sounds better than zero cents on the dollar.

It’s part of the Leninist the strategy, and a very sophisticated, coordinated propaganda attack against Social Security—that it’s “going bankrupt” or run out of money. It’s hard to fight back, because it is a big lie. It’s so wrong and big that you wonder, “Could the Defense Department run out of money? Is that possible that running out of money or bankruptcy happens?” And the answer is: no. Unless the entire United States government fails, that would be when Social Security couldn’t pay its benefits. But we’re talking Mad Max scenarios at that point.

So, the big lie is that Social Security doesn’t have money. In fact, if the Defense Department could go bankrupt, it’s a much more likely candidate, because it doesn’t have its own funding. But Social Security is self-funded. It doesn’t even pull any money from the general fund. That’s what makes it even more annoying. We pay for our Social Security benefits. It’s our money, we see it go in out of our paychecks. So, when they’re saying that it has no money, it’s patently false. And also, it’s insulting to the fact that it’s our money. They’re saying, “We can’t pay you anymore.” And you respond, “We don’t need you to pay us, Washington D.C. politicians. It’s already self funded through the payroll tax.”

The goal is the important thing to keep in mind. Now it is true, inequality has gotten greater and greater—and I think we’ve just crossed or are right about at the worst inequality that this country has ever seen. The last time was around when Social Security was created—but more and more income slips around the payroll cap. And this gets to the crux of it—most people don’t know that not everyone pays into Social Security on all of their income. Only the first $147,000 is taxed, and after that people pay in zero. The majority of people in this country pay in on 100 percent of their income. But the super wealthy stopped paying in on second number one, January 1 every year.


Yes, pretty regressive. As regressive as a thing can get.


The most regressive funding, and we could do a whole show on this. But the amazing thing is that the benefit structure is so progressive, that it overpowers the regressivity of the funding, and actually becomes one of the most redistributive programs. But magnitude wise, nothing touches Social Security. Imagine what we could do if we made the funding structure progressive as well. All we’d have to do is make millionaires and billionaires pay in to Social Security at the same rate, just like the rest of us on all our incomes. Then we can not only fund Social Security for the next centuries as we can right now, but we can expand benefits for everyone in this country. And that is the only problem with Social Security right now: benefits are too low for millions of people.

…We can not only fund Social Security for the next centuries as we can right now, but we can expand benefits for everyone in this country.


Yes, we’ve been on the defensive for most of this conversation. Instead of fighting to protect what we’ve got, let’s talk about lowering the retirement age, not just maintaining it, and making sure that in the wealthiest country in the world, people have the maximum amount of time to enjoy their old age.

We could conclude with a reiteration of why this program is so valuable and incredible, what it has managed and can do for people, and what the vision of a good retirement that every American deserves is.


It’s incredibly important to remember the moral compass aspect of this. What was it that Frances Perkins and the New Dealers were trying to do? They looked around and saw that everyday people were at the whims of not only the billionaire class, but also that the billionaire class didn’t control everything. They just sucked up all the money, and things could spin out of control in terms of the Great Depression. The New Dealers saw that there could be systemic responses, that not only mitigated the immediate effects of the Great Depression, but put in place systems that actually ameliorated all of those negative effects going forward.

That’s what Social Security is. It not only took care of this desperate need in the Great Depression era, but it eliminated the poor houses going forward. The philosophical bent of Social Security is an ever-expanding system that delivers greater and greater economic security for more and more people. When FDR signed it into law, he said, “With this law, I laid the cornerstone that future generations can build upon.” And that’s what we have to recognize. For example, Medicare For All or a guaranteed national health system, is the most obvious one—you cannot pretend that you can have retirement or economic security if you can go bankrupt by getting sick or having an illness, especially now in the midst of the pandemic. And what we’ve seen, it’s more obvious than ever.

You also, though, can’t have a secure retirement if you’ve been working your whole life for poverty wages. Poverty wages will follow you into poverty in retirement. So we need to increase wages. Instead of the Republican’s North Star of destroying things that work and hurting people, if you use as your North Star Frances Perkins’ vision for an America where if you played by the rules, did the things that most people want to do, and worked hard, the system would be there for you—including if it’s something that no one wants to think about, but happens to far more people than they think, like becoming disabled, ill or injured and can no longer work. Francis Perkins didn’t have that in the bill that was signed by FDR. We added disability later because we saw you can’t have economic or retirement security if you lose your wages because you become disabled.

We have to always look at the system and ask how can we make it better for people and expand economic security in this country, and the added benefit of decreasing wealth inequality. It’s a check against the upward redistribution of wealth that the billionaire class have perpetrated on us for decades.

Hear the full conversation on the Current Affairs podcast.

Transcript edited by Patrick Farnsworth

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Announcing Our Newest Issue


Celebrating our Ninth Year of publication! Lots to stimulate your brain with in this issue: how to address the crisis of pedestrian deaths (hint: stop blaming cars!), the meaning of modern art, is political poetry any good?, and the colonial adventures of Tinin. Plus Karl Marx and the new Gorilla Diet!

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