a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Van Hollen, Geithner reassure on earned benefits — but just for now

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 3rd December 2012

Ten days ago I wrote about this statement by my Congressman, Chris Van Hollen, to a Wall Street Journal symposium:

I think there are other things you can do — look, I’m open to a conversation about this. I think when it comes to things like Social Security, again, you’ve got to take a mixed approach. I mean if you look at Simpson-Bowles or other plans, again, they have a combination of additional revenue along with spending reform. — [Alan Murray, Wall Street Journal: But you’re willing to at least look at that?] — I’m willing to consider all these ideas as part of an overall plan. I don’t think we should jump to the solutions which simply … especially in Medicare, which simply transfer costs, and within Social Security, I think there are actually other ideas, some of which some of us discussed in the SuperCommittee, but unfortunately to no avail.

As ranking member of the House Budget Committee and a key Democratic Party functionary (e.g., ex-DCCC chairman), Van Hollen’s views on budget matters are a fair indication of the Democratic position on issues like these.  So I wrote Van Hollen’s office, laying out my concerns and then inquiring, about the the above quote,

My first question: doesn’t that amount to being open to a Social Security benefit cut?  (Perhaps via what I think are called “chained cost of living adjustments”, i.e., a way of decreasing the adjustment for inflation?)  If not, why not?

My second question: Rep. Van Hollen then says, “I don’t think we should jump to the solutions which simply … especially in Medicare, which simply transfer costs, and within Social Security, I think there are actually other ideas, some of which some of us discussed in the SuperCommittee, but unfortunately to no avail.”  What were those “other ideas”?

Late last week, I got an answer from Congressman Van Hollen’s press secretary Bridgett Frey, referring me to a Huffington Post article by Zach Carter, featuring the video embedded below in which Van Hollen said,

“With respect to Social Security, I agree with what the president has said and what [Rep.] Peter DeFazio said, Social Security is not part of the deficit and debt problem and we’re not going to raid Social Security in order to balance other parts of the budget. As the president has said you can deal with Social Security and try to strengthen it on its own terms but it should not be part of these other conversations.”

The video also shows a clip of Van Hollen refusing to go along with FOX News’ Martha Macallum’s suggestion to raise the Medicare eligibility age:

No.  There are much better ways of dealing with Medicare costs. Why wouldn’t people say, let’s look at ways where we can reduce the cost of Medicare without simply transferring rising health care costs?

Now both of those statements are great, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee is urging supporters to thank Rep. Van Hollen for saying so.

So I did — in person, at a Saturday night fundraiser/birthday party for our State Senator Jamie Raskin — thanking my representative both for his opposition to raising the Medicare eligibility age and for decoupling Social Security from the immediate ‘fiscal cliff’ negotiations.  I also asked about the ‘spending reforms’ Van Hollen had mentioned to the Wall Street Journal symposium — but unfortunately, all he had time to answer was that he felt Social Security would need to be addressed later.

How much later? I wondered, as Mr. Van Hollen headed off to the dais to praise our excellent State Senator.  While both Van Hollen’s statements are welcome, they don’t actually take Social Security off the table altogether, they simply postpone its consideration.  That may well be a win for now (in which case: thanks, for now), but it left my questions unanswered about what specific kinds of “spending reforms” Van Hollen is hinting he might support later on — and it doesn’t answer just how soon that might be.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Post | 2 Comments »

Van Hollen OK on Medicare — but “willing to consider” Social Security “spending reform”

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 21st November 2012

Click image to view C-SPAN clip of Rep. Chris Van Hollen’s (D-MD-8) discussion of
Medicare and Social Security in the context of the “fiscal cliff” — running from
~8:15-14:30 in the full C-SPAN video of his interview with Wall Street Journal
deputy editor Alan Murray.

Last week I got a worrisome Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC)  e-mail: the Wall Street Journal was reporting that Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD-8),  my Congressman — and the ranking Budget Committee member — was open to  “cutting entitlements,” as a part of negotiations around ending tax cuts and avoiding the so-called “fiscal cliff.”  Journal reporters Janet Hook and Carol Lee added that Van Hollen — who was attending a Wall Street Journal confab with CEOs — said “changing Social Security and increasing the Medicare eligibility age above 65 should be part of negotiations,” and that “I’m willing to consider all of these ideas as part of an overall plan.”

Personally, I think the current deficit mania is disastrously misguided at a time when the economy is still struggling.  But  I certainly want Social Security and Medicare benefit cuts completely off the table — so I called Van Hollen’s DC office to say so.  A staffer told me he’d been misquoted, leading me to wonder, “So what exactly *did* Van Hollen say about Social Security and Medicare?

Luckily, it turns out that the interview was taped by C-SPAN, so I could see for myself; the relevant remarks started around the 8:15 mark and continued for another six minutes.

Van Hollen began with Medicare, and to cut to the first chase, he did not advocate increasing Medicare eligibility age as the Journal had reported.  Instead, Van Hollen’s ideas were generally about seeking efficiencies in Medicare rather than reducing access to it:

We need to move Medicare away from a fee-for-service system. And we’ve begun to do that.  Because fee-for-service systems contains no incentives for anybody in the system to contain costs.  … We’ve actually begun to put in place the building blocks to get there: accountable-care organizations, bundled payments.

I think we can make significant savings in the area of … dual-eligibles: people who are on Medicare and Medicaid –  a relatively small percentage of the overall Medicare/Medicaid population but a very high percentage of the costs. And there are lots of misaligned incentives between the Medicare and Medicaid payments.

You can look at things like redesigning “Medigap” policies, because right now, some Medigap policies actually create incentives for people to spend a lot more on Medicare.*  […] 

What I think we should avoid is …simply transferring [health care] costs on to other individuals.  I think our first focus should be on trying to contain overall healthcare costs

Regarding substituting “premium-support” voucher plans for Medicare, Van Hollen responded:

…the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office looked at that and concluded it does not contain costs, it simply transfers costs. …what they concluded was if you simply …provide a voucher to go out there in the private health care system, as you know, in the private health care system costs have been rising at at least the same rate as in the Medicare system.   […]  Simply transferring somebody out of Medicare to the private health insurance market, it will save Medicare money, but …by requiring premiums to go up dramatically on these individuals whose median income is $23,000 right now.

I quite agree with Van Hollen’s opposition to “here’s a lump sum, go figure it out” voucher plans that discourage seeking medical help and transfer costs to the poor instead of helping them.  People more knowledgeable than myself may take issue with some of Van Hollen’s Medicare suggestions — e.g., maybe there can be good reasons for dual eligibility (though less so for inconsistent subsidies).  But overall, and to his credit, Van Hollen’s solutions are quite a bit less less draconian than simply raising the Medicare eligibility or retirement ages — a.k.a. “hope you die first.”

Turning to Social Security, however, Van Hollen stumbled right out of the block:

 In Social Security, number one, I think we should create a process like we had with Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill. 

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Post | 2 Comments »

So what exactly *did* Van Hollen say about Social Security and Medicare?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 17th November 2012

On Wednesday, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a.k.a. PCCC or “,” reacted sharply to the Wall Street Journal article “Obama Sets Steep Tax Target” by Janet Hook and Carol Lee — not, of course, to Obama’s goal to let tax cuts for the richest to expire, but to signs of what some Democrats might be willing to bargain away for that.  From the Wall Street Journal article:

On Capitol Hill, it isn’t clear how strenuously Democrats will resist cutting entitlements. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.) said he and others were open to changes as long as they were done in a measured way and were part of deal that included tax increases. Mr. Van Hollen also said changing Social Security and increasing the Medicare eligibility age above 65 should be part of negotiations.

“I’m willing to consider all of these ideas as part of an overall plan,” Mr. Van Hollen said Tuesday at the Journal’s CEO Council.

The PCCC immediately set up a phone campaign urging supporters to call Van Hollen and tell him “Cuts to benefits should be completely off the table.” 

I did, calling Van Hollen’s congressional office — (202) 225-5341.  To my surprise, the staffer I reached told me that Van Hollen had been misquoted and that he definitely does not want to raise Medicare eligibility from 65 to 70 or see cuts to Social Security benefits.

I hadn’t expected a flat denial, and said that was “good to hear.”   But that’s a pretty egregious misquote if that’s what happened — and it occurred to me (after hanging up, as usual) that what Van Hollen might prefer is a different thing than what he’d be willing to vote for.

In fairness, there’s been no hint from Van Hollen before now that he was willing to throw Social Security or Medicare recipients under the bus to avoid sequestration; both in speeches to the Budget Committee in May and in a Politico op-ed in July, the Congressman spoke of wanting to avoid the “meat ax” of sequestration via a “balanced approach” — somewhat vaguely defined as “a combination of spending reductions and cuts to tax breaks for the wealthy and powerful special interests” in the July op-ed, but specifically “preserv[ing] the Medicare guarantee” in his May remarks.

Moreover, Van Hollen is the ranking member of the Budget Committee, so the Democratic alternative 2013 budget has his stamp of approval; it, too, specifically calls for “preserving the Medicare guarantee,” but only speaks (defensively) of preventing Republican plans to privatize Social Security — thus not ruling out other bad ideas like reducing cost of living adjustments, but not proposing them either.

Still, as far as I know, the Wall Street Journal has not issued a correction to its November 14th report — nor has PCCC backed down on asking for more phone calls to Van Hollen.

So please join me in calling Chris Van Hollen’s Washington, DC and Maryland offices some more about this:

  • Washington, DC: (202) 225-5341
  • Rockville, MD: (301) 424-3501
  • Hyattsville, MD: (301) 891-6982

You might say something like,

I understand the Wall Street Journal reported that Congressman Van Hollen was willing to consider changing Social Security and increasing Medicare eligibility age as part of a deal to let Bush tax cuts expire.  Did he really say that?  If not, what did he say?  Cuts to benefits should be completely off the table.

Please let me know what you learned, and/or notify PCCC. Thanks!

Posted in Post | 1 Comment »

Thoughts on Lawyers, Guns and Money at the End of an Election Cycle

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 6th November 2012

Dear sirs,

Thomas Nephew


As I’ve noted before, the level of disrespect and intolerance for alternative left viewpoints at the well-known “Lawyers, Guns & Money” blog and elsewhere bothers me.  So I’ve rewritten my comments here, and hope that a simple chart and reasoned discourse are better than the angry post I started off with.  Let us read  Robert Kuttner:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Post | No Comments »

Things like ethics

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 13th May 2010

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein gets it. Sort of:

Lloyd C. Blankfein continued to defend Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s reputation on Wednesday in comments to some of the firm’s wealthiest clients.The embattled chairman and chief executive, who last week was grilled by a Senate subcommittee looking into Goldman’s role in the financial crisis, said the firm will always put clients first. He said there is also a silver lining to the civil-fraud charges leveled against the firm by the Securities and Exchange Commission: It allows the firm to re-examine how its business practices.

“Frankly, at this point we have to go with an open mind and determine what we may be doing wrong,” Mr. Blankfein told customers of its private-wealth-management business during a 30-minute conference call. “On a very microscopic level, we’re going to use this as an opportunity for a deep dive on our practices and how we run things.”

He pledged to clients that he wants Goldman to “be the leader in things like ethics, in putting clients first.”

— Blankfein Defends Goldman’s Ethics (Bruno, Philbin; Wall Street Journal, May 5)

Michael Lewis (“The Big Short”) responds with an attaboy, and action items to“create the illusion for American mortals (or as we like to call them, “The Morts”) that our business is in their interest, much less that we share anything in common“:

No. 5: Be careful not to say or do anything now that will constrain our ability, after this crisis has passed, to do whatever we want.

The other day, on your emergency conference call with our customers, you said that you wanted Goldman to be seen as a “leader in things like ethics.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself. If in the future we fail to be a leader in ethics we can point to your statement as evidence that we never intended to be a leader in ethics, merely in “things like ethics.”

Lewis vows to compile a list of “things like ethics” for Blankfein to lead in — but Blankfein’s way ahead of him: he’s talking about “things like ethics,” and that all by itself is being a “leader” in “things like ethics”!  And I like finding a silver lining in civil fraud charges against your company — it shows the kind of roll up your sleeves, getting busy with that ethics stuff we’re looking for.  Good luck with “determining what you may be doing wrong”! … That’s right: “getting caught.”

Mainly, of course, Blankfein knows that having the right buddies helps with things like ethics. Remember Obama’s “First of all, I know both these guys”? Again, it’s not actually ethics, just something like ethics — call it maybe “reputation illusion management.”  I just hope Obama hasn’t been learning too much from Blankfein about how to “put his clients first.”  This doesn’t look good, though.

Posted in Post | No Comments »

Obama on Social Security

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 23rd November 2007

I noticed the graph on the right earlier this year when Ezra Klein lifted it from a Council on Budget and Policy Priorities.*

As the title indicates, yes, there’s a looming budget crunch — but as the dark blue area at the bottom of the graph indicates, no, it’s not because of Social Security. And no, there is no Social Security “crisis.” Period.

As Klein put it, “Look at that gentle slope for Social Security! You could do that in Rockports! Mt. Medicare and Medicaid, by contrast, require climbing gear.”

So what’s up with Social Security? The people in charge of keeping Social Security working are the Board of Trustees of the Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance. Their 2007 report, it’s true, now forecasts that the Social Security trust fund will be drawn down by 2042 — but as their own figure shows, even then there would continue to be an income stream from current workers that would pay out higher benefits to retirees than ones today receive. As Mark Weisbrot (Center for Economic and Policy Research) argues last week:

In fact, even if nothing were ever done to close the projected gap – and that is a wildly implausible scenario – Social Security would, after 2046 still have enough money to pay indefinitely a bigger benefit than it does today. That’s in real terms, adjusted for inflation. Of course, this benefit would be less than what seniors in the distant future would be entitled to, so we will eventually make some adjustments. But there’s no hurry.

What the OASDI report doesn’t tell you is that their estimates are based on pessimistic economic growth rates — and that even then, their estimate of when the fund will be drawn down has been receding into the future for the last ten years (although the 2042 estimate was the same in 2004 as it is now). And that even then, if a trust fund depletion looms, “the financing gap would be roughly equal to the amount by which we increased military spending between 1976 and 1986 (a period in which we were not, incidentally, at war),” as Weisbrot and his colleague Dean Baker pointed out in their 1999 book “Social Security: The Phony Crisis.”

So why is Barack Obama speaking of a Social Security crisis or scare-mongering with remarks like this one to Tim Russert on “Meet The Press”:

Now, we’ve got 78 million baby boomers that are going to be retiring, and every expert that looks at this problem says “There’s going to be a gap, and we’re going to have more money going out than we have coming in unless we make some adjustments now.” Now, I think that Social Security is the single most important social program that we have in this country, and I want to make sure that it’s there not just for this generation, but for next generations.

Last week the New York Times’ Paul Krugman offered a charitable interpretation, I think, in his “Played for a Sucker” column:

Mr. Obama’s Social Security mistake was, in fact, exactly what you’d expect from a candidate who promises to transcend partisanship in an age when that’s neither possible nor desirable.

…Social Security isn’t a big problem that demands a solution; it’s a small problem, way down the list of major issues facing America, that has nonetheless become an obsession of Beltway insiders. And on Social Security, as on many other issues, what Washington means by bipartisanship is mainly that everyone should come together to give conservatives what they want.

Likewise, for all that she’s not my favorite candidate either, Hillary Clinton is right on the money about this (emphases added):

I’ve said, these are Republican talking points. Social Security is not in crisis. Health care’s in crisis. Medicare’s in crisis. The energy—climate change is a crisis. And I’m not going to be repeating Republican talking points…

Why are Democrats having this debate? Democrats should be rejecting the premise of this debate. That’s what we successfully did when we took Bush on with privatization. We said, “It’s not in crisis. We’re not going to play this game. You’re trying to undermine and destroy Social Security.”

So I feel very comfortable with where I am. And for the life of me I don’t understand what my opponents are trying to achieve. There are a couple of folks who might give them an atta-boy, but when it comes down to it, let’s focus on health care, Medicare, energy and all these other issues…

Someday, tweaks may be needed for Social Security. But when Barack Obama tries to distinguish himself by crying wolf right now about the program, he’s working for the wrong people, and he’s undermining one of the only victories the Democrats have been able to pull off in the last several years — stopping Bush’s efforts to privatize Social Security.

I’m reading Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine” right now, and she paints a convincing picture of the past 30 years of “frontier capitalism” — a capitalism that makes its own frontiers by wrecking one country after the other and then buying up public assets for a song.

Social Security is one of the biggest, fattest targets for this century’s robber baron class, both because of all the money in it, and because it sticks in their craw the way Jimmy Stewart’s savings and loan stuck in Potter’s craw in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

So if what Obama means by “audacity of hope” is crying wolf about Social Security, we need a good deal less of that, please. And if transcending politics means playing into the hands of his party’s opponents, we don’t need any more of that, either.

* THE LONG-TERM FISCAL OUTLOOK IS BLEAK: Restoring Fiscal Sustainability Will Require Major Changes to Programs, Revenues, and the Nation’s Health Care System,” by Richard Kogan, Matt Fiedler, Aviva Aron-Dine, and James Horney. — full report, 27 page .PDF file.

NOTES: “receding into the future” — Economic Policy Institute; Clinton quote via Jonathan Schwarz (“A Tiny Revolution”), where you can also listen to her; “transcending politics” — Andrew Sullivan’s Atlantic Monthly article “Goodbye To All That.”

Posted in Post | 8 Comments »

Does that make any sense to you? It’s kind of muddled

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 8th February 2005

THE PRESIDENT: Because the — all which is on the table begins to address the big cost drivers. For example, how benefits are calculate, for example, is on the table; whether or not benefits rise based upon wage increases or price increases. There’s a series of parts of the formula that are being considered. And when you couple that, those different cost drivers, affecting those — changing those with personal accounts, the idea is to get what has been promised more likely to be — or closer delivered to what has been promised.

Does that make any sense to you? It’s kind of muddled. Look, there’s a series of things that cause the — like, for example, benefits are calculated based upon the increase of wages, as opposed to the increase of prices. Some have suggested that we calculate — the benefits will rise based upon inflation, as opposed to wage increases. There is a reform that would help solve the red if that were put into effect. In other words, how fast benefits grow, how fast the promised benefits grow, if those — if that growth is affected, it will help on the red.

Okay, better? I’ll keep working on it.

(The White House: President Discusses Strengthening Social Security in Florida)

Audience response was appreciative:


Hard to pick the stupidest participant here. That’s your safety net unraveling too, Red. (Via digby)


UPDATE, 2/9: Via trackbacks to the digby post, ponder this Bushism, from the same event, noted by “North Gare”: “THE PRESIDENT: I wish I was your old. (Laughter.)” Again with the laughter. “Uncomfortable laughter”, maybe? Is this early-onset Alzheimer’s, lack of sleep, or what? North Gare’s main point is actually about Bush’s use of “in other words” as a verbal crutch; have a look.

Posted in Post | 1 Comment »