Is rational debate DOA?

Continuing our discussion last week on the need for a more civil and thoughtful national discourse, I was interested in some of the responses to preliminary ideas from the co-chairs of President Barack Obama’s deficit commission, which is scheduled to report next month.

Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson suggested, among other things, that we control Social Security costs by raising the retirement age or reducing benefits to those with high incomes.

A letter immediately went out from 100 “progressive” Democrats in the House, including our own Rep. Mazie Hirono, warning that any proposal that touched any hair on Social Security’s sweet little head would be dead on arrival.

I’m not a big fan of cutting Social Security; I just became eligible to apply for it after paying a good chunk of my income into the system all of my adult life.

But we have to face the fact that with the wave of baby boomers hitting retirement age, the system will soon be paying out more than it is taking in and we’ll need to do something to either increase the taxes coming in or reduce the funds flowing out.

The Bowles-Simpson remedies may not turn out to be the way to go, but declaring ideas offered after due consideration DOA without bothering to give them 10 seconds of thought is lazy and counterproductive.

That’s the problem with the tone and substance of our national debate — there’s a knee-jerk instinct on all sides is to declare anything they don’t like DOA, and as a result, nearly everything ends up DOA and little gets done.

The better path forward is to put all options on the table with open minds, hash them out in good faith and see what makes the most sense that the most people can live with.

The left’s denial of legitimate concerns about the federal deficit is as irrational as the right’s denial of global warming.

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18 Comments on “Is rational debate DOA?”

  1. Kolea Says:


    I am too busy this morning to say much, but let me start with this. You say “the [Social Security] system will soon be paying out more than it is taking in.”

    Before we take that for granted, maybe you can clarify by what you mean by “soon”?

    We are in the midst of a prolonged recession. The priority must be to get the economy going again if we are going to have money to do anything. So why, when we should be talking about providing jobs, increasing consumption and stopping the forced removal of millions of people from their homes (and into economic ruin), are some people proposing we take our savings from from the elderly’s SS benefits and Medicare? They want to eliminate tax credits for homeownership, a tax increase which would mostly hit the middle-class. They want to tax healthcare benefits, another tax aimed mostly at the middle and working class. And they want to eliminate corporate taxes and cut taxes on the highest income folks. Won’t the tax cuts they are proposing also add to the deficit?

    Oh, my thinking is obviously in error. I am thinking short term, while they are looking at what is necessary to turn the economy around to prevent future deficits? If we are going to allow “mission creep” of this sort, whereby we put a “Deficit Commission” in charge of restructuring the entire economy, why are their answers, in the main, the same “trickle down”,” help out the rich proposals we are ALWAYS hearing?

    You say the “left’s” response is a “knee-jerk”? Because you are aware of the defects of “knee-jerk thinking, I assume you have spent time reading the critiques which have been published in response to the commission’s proposals? Just because the recommendations were only released by the two co-chairs a few days ago, does not mean the ideas they are proposing have not been evaluated by the critics for more than ten seconds.

    Nobel prize winners Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman are among the most prominent of the folks you are dismissing as “knee-jerk” critics of the deficit commission’s proposals.

    I wonder who has thought about this longer and with more nuance: you or Krugman and Stiglitz? I wonder who spent “10 seconds of thought” about the ways to turn our economy around, YOU or the 100 members of Congress you have just dismissed out of hand?

    To be fair to you, you DID admit “there’s a knee-jerk instinct on all sides,” which suggests you ARE aware, if only at the semi-conscious level, of your own tendency to do exactly what you are condemning.

    I would welcome “rational debate” over proposals for rebuilding the economy. How would you see that proceeding?

    When some of the top local economists held a public forum in the Capitol basement to discuss the State’s budgetary crisis, it got almost zero media coverage. Maybe it was because they ALL disagreed with the “slash state spending” proposals favored by the top corporate leaders?

    And please, since you continue to promote this nonsensical idea that both “the left” and “the right” are equally irrational and extreme, I ask that you, as an act of your own “good faith,” spend a few hours this week watching Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly on the one hand, then Rachel Maddow and Keith Olberman on the other. You will find things to criticize with the MSNBC hosts. But after watching those programs, I doubt you will continue to insist both sides are equally irrational and lacking in “good faith.”

    The insistence that BOTH sides of an argument are equally wrong is just another example of “knee-jerk” thinking which prevents a fair evaluation of competing proposals.

  2. Mike Middlesworth Says:

    Eliminate the limit on how much income is taxed for Social Security and the problem goes away. Or at least adjust the cap for inflation, just as benefits are.

  3. Michael Says:

    Obvious fact is presented, that with less people working not many are putting funds into Social Security. Like a well, people take out water but if the well is not filled back, it will run dry.

    Monthly cut will hurt but what is affected is Medicare. Health Insurance is high. I would be happy with a pay cut but leave my Medical alone. Even now many with fixed incomes have to pay a portion of Health Care.

    Many get pay raises, but one only ends up paying more taxes. Union dues go up. Consumer producst costs goes up. Basic Economics says that one gets a pay raise the price of any consumer product or service will go up. More money you make the more you spend, less one saves.

    I wonder for those who need to work 10 to 20 to 30 years before they can retire, What are they working for?
    Those young educated or not will be working for those who retired before them. Again, less people working and more collecting, this system will hold no water. Take 500 dollars go to Las Vegas and win the Jack Pot and retire for life. Move to a State that has lottery and win the Jack Pot. Go to Harvard and see what your future is. Serving number 1001. Next!

    Why don’t our leaders listen to comments made by the common folks like us? DOE. Dead on Election!

  4. Capitol -ist/WassupDoc Says:

    Maybe “death panels” aren’t such a bad idea after all.

    Why not raise the “get paid to retire” age to 80 within the next ten years?

    Maybe being forced to work an additional decade or so will encourage people to stop smoking, change their dietary habits, lose weight & exercise more.

    Maybe we can reduce our dependency on fossil fuels if cars are no longer affordable or people can no longer drive because of physical deficits.

    Long ago – I mean, when I was in my mid-20s – I realized that retirement was not an option for me unless I married a very rich man. That didn’t happen so we will be working right up until the day we die.

    I found the Star-Advertiser’s first story in the series about Hawai`i’s ageing population very interesting because all of the issues raised require a lot more money – primarily from the federal government.

    Again, perhaps we need to initiate death panels. And maybe make the death penalty mandatory for all felony convictions to reduce costs of prisons? And force women to have lots of children in order to grow a future work force. How about doing away with minimum educational standards so that 10 year olds can be put out to work to generate taxes.

    All of these would reduce the deficit without having to raise taxes on the wealthy.

  5. Hawaiino Says:

    Rep. Hirono needs to wake up, as does our President. A Progressive which I identify with as my preferred political label, would engage with the opposition to enact reform See T. Roosevelt, Wilson, early FDR, Johnson, mid-term Clinton.
    It is never easy to concede on a position, but it’s better than conceding an entire session to unproductive posturing.

  6. WooWoo Says:

    That was a long post for not having much time! 😉

    You keep mentioning that we have more pressing issues. The proposals being put forth will take years to implement. Now is the time to hammer out a plan.

    Middle class: the ugly fact of the matter is that the middle class will have to take a hit… But for good reason. The benefits provided through the govt overwhelmingly benefit the middle class. I get a hefty home mortgage deduction (and am middle class) but I support the gradual phase out of a piece of special interest legislation that has become a sacred cow. No other country offers this hugely generous deduction. It is not necessary. 5% phase out per year for the next 20 years.


    I suggest you do some math and compare the size of the deficit and the amount of increase in tax revenue that would be realized by raising taxes on the minuscule portion of the population that is wealthy. I took a quick look at the Forbes list of 400 richest Americans. I reckon that if you confiscate all of their assets, you get about 1 trillion, which is less than one year’s deficit. And then what do you do next year?

  7. Michael Says:

    In Greece there was a big riot when the Government wanted to raise retirement to age 60. Also in France to age 62.

    America is Uno but Nada in any other sense.
    I think I should move to a country where my dollar is valued at one weeks pay to some. Viva Mexico. Ole’

  8. Carolyn Martinez Golojuch, MSW Says:

    Why not just stop creating wars around the world?!? Then we would have funds for education, health care and social security. While we’re at it, make sure the country’s richest start paying their fair share. Why should I subsidize their lifestyle?

  9. Michael Says:

    That is a good thought, But?
    If you have no Wars, No need for Soldiers and No Soldiers will mean more unemployed. No protection for our freedom there won’t be a lifestyle for anyone.
    Why not have Wars fought as in the Bible? David and Goliath. One Man from each side. Winner take all. Archilles of Troy. Samson.
    Our economy is in too much Quicksand. The more you struggle the more we sink. There are some politicians that are light headed, they tend to float, while the rest of us, sink.

  10. Holly Huber Says:

    The real solutions – which no elected official will consider – remove the cap on social security collections and don’t pay out benefits to those who don’t need them. Under the current system, millionaires and billionaires are collecting social security. So what if they paid in and then are too wealthy to collect. Life isn’t fair!

  11. Kolea Says:


    There is a Mark Twain quote I love, and sometimes use: “I didn’t have enough time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

    I had just intended to challenge Shapiro’s statement that we will soon be paying out more than we are paying in. I hear people saying this all the time and, when you tell them SS is expected to be solvent until 2037, they don’t believe you.

    The reason this is an important point is people can be convinced to accept dramatic changes in “an emergency” they might not accept if they understand we have more time to discuss these things. This “deficit commission” is a kind of fraud being perpetrated on the people. How come, in the name of combatting the deficit, their ideas on the entire economy are being treated as privileged? Conservatives PRETEND to get angry when judges “legislate from the bench.” Where is the anger at unelected people “legislating” from a stacked commission?

    Why, in the name of “deficit reduction,” are these guys recommending tax CUTS for the wealthy and tax INCREASES for the rest of us? Why aren’t the proposed tax cuts for the wealthy regarded as INCREASING the deficit? OH, they “stimulate the economy”? Really? You got any evidence to show that tax cuts for the rich in THIS economy are more likely to lead to economic growth than paying for teachers and keeping the schools open?

  12. WooWoo Says:

    I have no problem with increasing taxes on the rich per se, but that alone doesn’t come close to solving the problem. Dave is right about knee-jerk reactions and trite one liners. “just tax the rich” doesn’t get us, by itself, where we need to go.

  13. Kolea Says:

    @Mike Middlesworth and Holly Huber,

    I agree with you that SS could cover its costs if they raised the ceiling on income subject to the FICA tax. But I worry you might not have thought about that for more than 10 seconds before submitting it for our consideration. So the idea is disqualified under Dave’s rule.

    So instead, let’s think about the commission’s alternate proposal. Let’s make old folks work until they’re 69 before collecting SS. I like that idea especially for people in the building trades! Those savings will help pay for tax cuts for the wealthy.

    @ Dave,

    I searched the internet and couldn’t find where Mazie and the other 99 progressive Democrats in congress said we should not have concerns about the deficit. So maybe it is not them who are being “lazy and counterproductive,” but you for mis-characterizing their position. They only said they would not support cuts to Social Security or delays to eligibility.

    Mike and Holly both seem to be saying they think it is possible to “fix” SS without cutting the benefits. So by your standards, are they also “lazy”, “counterproductive” and “irrational”?

    Nice way to initiate a call for a “more civil and thoughtful discourse: “Hi, I’m Dave. You guys are irrational and your ideas are poopy. Let’s begin.”

  14. David Raatz Says:

    This is not a knee-jerk response. For months – indeed, ever since the debt commission was created – members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (among others) have been pointing out it doesn’t even make sense for the commission to consider Social Security. By law, Social Security cannot add to the federal deficit (and, in fact, it does not). CPC co-chair Raul Grijalva explained that in a letter to the President back in September:

    It’s not uncivil to point out the inappropriateness of what Bowles and Simpson are advocating. Nor is it uncivil to stand on principle, which is exactly what Rep. Grijalva, Rep. Hirono, and economists like Krugman are doing in casting a critical light on the debt commission.

  15. WooWoo Says:

    @david ratz-

    Saying that by law SS cannot add directly to the federal deficit is technically correct but in reality false, or an irrelevant distinction.

    I have two expenses, A (non-discretionary) and B (discretionary). I am not allowed to borrow money to pay A, but I am allowed to borrow to pay B. I am required to pay A, and my A expenses are growing. So I borrow money, ostensibly to pay for B, but that is a mere technicality. I am borrowing because the growth of A is making me.

    Of course, we need to look at both discretionary and non-discretionary expenses. But to say that SS insolvency is not an issue is living in denial.

    Longer lives + declining birth rate = inevitable insolvency.

    Somebody please explain to me where my equation breaks down.

  16. Michael Says:

    Why if Non-profit means not making money, then CEOs of such Non-profit organization make thousands when many who work for a non-profit organization are volunteers? Should non-profit organizations be taxable too? Make money, pay tax, no make money, no can pay taxes. Simple solution make everyone work and then everyone pays taxes. Less tax burden on those who already paying and arm and leg for taxes.

    So why is there no one throwing “Tea bags” in the Ala Wai or Honolulu Harbor in protest?

  17. shaftalley Says:

    can we consider privatizing social security?yes,there will be always be risks involved,but things are very,very risky right now with the way SS is being least allow working people the choice(free choice!)to opt out of SS and use that money for whatever people wish to do with their own money.

  18. betty Johnson Says:

    the govenment should take a pay cut

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