Words and Meanings

I regularly use this space to take right-wingers to task, but those on the Left deserve similar treatment when they engage in similar behaviors.

Ever since reports that Obama’s budget included a “chained CPI” for Social Security, liberals have been screaming about proposed “cuts” to Social Security. My inbox has been flooded with pleas to sign this or that petition, to call my Senators and Congressional Representatives, and generally to make it known that these “cuts” cannot be justified.

As I understand it, what the President has proposed is changing the metric currently used to calculate Social Security cost of living raises. The CPI index being used has been criticized as an inaccurate indicator, resulting in larger raises than are needed to keep up with a rising cost of living. This change in the yardstick for calculating those raises will result in lower Social Security “bumps” or increases going forward.

That is not a “cut”–at least, not in my vocabulary. It is a recalculation that will result in smaller increases in the future–lower expectations for growth.

Now, I am not an economist, and I don’t play one on TV. I have no independent ability to evaluate arguments about the relative merits of the indexes involved, although several people whose judgment and expertise I respect appear to agree that the current index is inaccurate. If they and the President are wrong, then critics have a perfect right to object to the proposed change on that basis. But advocates of the status quo do themselves no favor by mischaracterizing the proposal and mounting a hysterical assault.

When NRA supporters refuse to consider background checks because that is “really” the first step toward a registry that will then be used in an effort to confiscate all the guns, we rightly accuse them of irrational behavior. When progressives respond to a suggestion to change the way we calculate benefits by characterizing it as a hard-hearted assault on old people and the first step in dismantling the social safety net, we engage in similarly overwrought behavior–and risk being dismissed for the same reason.

Argue for or against the use of the new metric, but leave the hyperbole at home.


  1. Thank you, Sheila, the voice of reason speaks. Of course I do not like the thought of lower COLA increases in the future, not sure I agree fully but I do understand the need. People seem to have forgotten that under Bush, we who live on Social Security spent three long years with no increase at all. I would like more information about Medicare changes. When I talk to friends about Medicare approval of erectile dysfunction supplies but not for hearing tests or hearing aids, dental care or dentures and no vision exams but will supply eyeglasses if the person has had lens implants, this somehow seems a joke. I guess the words “erectile dysfunction” cause adults to giggle as children do at the word “fart”. Too many people are unthinkingly up-in-arms about so-called Social Security “cuts”. The government is not going to take away our current amount of Social Security any more than they are going to confiscate our guns if gun control laws are passed. How many of those yelling the loudest remember what President Obama was handed when he was inaugurated in 2009 or the defiant refusal of GOP to consider any of his or the Democrat’s proposed bills and appointees? Have any of the local residents who message you about SS “cuts” or gun confiscation flooded your in-box requesting you to jump on this latest City waste of $2 million in additional tax dollars going into Lucas Oil Stadium and on to the Colts, many of whom are paid in the millions? People who think logically and use common sense are fast becoming an endangered species.

  2. I have a limited experience with how the COLAs are calculated or the CPI. It is limited to listening to the panicked voices of people living in poverty and other people really dependent on Social Security, like my mother and brother. They tell me that costs for healthcare, nutritious food, gas, and other essentials are rising much faster than the CPI.
    Why not adjust benefit increases for those who are not dependent on SS payments, like the wealthy or middle class? An overall CPI that does not focus on the increases in “essentials” cannot accurately measure the regressive effects on those who scrape by, trying to live on SS. My mother — who is 89 — is still working 2 or 3 days a week to supplement SS so she can continue to live independently.

  3. Not being a supporter of President Obama, I actually agree with him on this idea. If SS is to continue, this is a small step towards making it a self sufficient program.

  4. The recent facts associated with the ‘out of control’ SS Cola increases. The four while Obama was president.

    January 2010 — 0.0%
    January 2011 — 0.0%
    January 2012 — 3.6%
    January 2013 — 1.7%

    Average of 1.325% per year. I don’t think SS Cola is a real threat to anybody but those receiving the benefit. How could anyone that shops for anything think the cost of living has only went up 1.3% per year over the last four year.

    Don’t forget this method is being proposed for veterans benefits also. It hits them much harder.

    I for one will continue to follow what Bernie Sanders has to say on the subject. He may not get much legislation passed, but he does serve as the canary in the coal mine.

  5. I will defer to the judgment of economist Paul Krugman on this issue. Maybe adjusting the CPI is appropriate, maybe it isn’t. Maybe doing so would amount to a cut in benefits, maybe it wouldn’t. I’ll see if I can find anything from Krugman’s blog that explains it for us.

  6. (For those unfamiliar with Paul Krugman, he’s a Nobel prize winning economist who teaches economics at Princeton. He also writes a column for the New York Times.)

  7. I am with you Bill, Krugman is another voice that understands and tells the people the truth regarding economic policy and its effects.

    One of the reasons I believe the Obama administration doesn’t like admitting he is alive, or an American.

  8. Bob #6, thank you for pointing out that my statement regarding no SS increases were under Bush was in error; they were however dealing with the failing economy Bush left behind and is still dragging us down. I pulled out my carefully maintained budget from the year 2006; when figuring the total SS increases from 2006-2008 there was a total increase of $34. Figuring the three years of SS at the same rate beginning in 2009 through this year, the increases total $60. Below I have copied the sentence from Sheila’s article regarding the current debate regarding SS increases vs. our cost of living increases and I have to ask where financial advisors are getting their cost of living figures. My cost of living expenses for 8 years certainly totals far more than $94. Increases on my utilities alone totals more than $11.75 annually.

    “The CPI index being used has been criticized as an inaccurate indicator, resulting in larger raises than are needed to keep up with a rising cost of living.”

    But; as Sheila stated regarding the proposed “chained CPI”; the intent is being mischaracterized whether we agree with it or not. I am not pleased with the proposed change in figuring SS increases but do see the need to ease the strain with more and more “baby boomers” coming to retirement age. I believe more emphasis and investigation needs to be placed on escalating costs of everything we need for simple day-to-day living expenses. The fact that those of us depending on SS must pay the same costs for everything that those with high incomes are charged is overlooked. As with all old adages, “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” holds true more than ever today.

  9. Ooops; that statement at the end of my first paragraph should of course read $11.75 monthly, not annually.

  10. OK, I suck at math – and statistical data but I’m sure you got my message that no COLA keeps up with escalating prices on anything anywhere. My apologies and, boy is my face red.

  11. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, SS payouts, measured as a rate of return on inputs, has been decreasing steadily for decades. When people speak of SS “insolvency” what they don’t understand is that there are no targets or expectations. Revenues are collected and paid out to specific groups according to a series of demographics.

    The CBO did a great analysis on this. Can’t speak for politically-biased economists on either side of the aisle, but it’s very obvious for anybody willing to look into it that social security is NOT the investment it used to be. Any attempts at reducing payouts are just putting more gauze on a never-ending bleed that requires a tourniquet.

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