Friday, January 21, 2005

Social Security - The Bait and Switch

I've previously expressed the opinion that there's very little chance, despite all of the gnashing of teeth, that any significant action will happen this year (or next, or next, or next) with the Social Security system. At the local level, any cuts or modifications of Social Security are literally radioactive to any Senate or House member who would support even the presumption of change. The pols know the deal - older people vote in significantly greater numbers than their younger counterparts.

In a recent past posting, I allowed that the controlled brouhaha over SS was a big smokescreen for something else more nefarious, and suggested that the "something else" might be Medicare / Medicaid.

It's looking more and more like this might be the case. In typical Whitehouse fashion, a Friday bombshell was dropped at a time when it would get the least media notice: Bush to Seek Cuts in Medicaid, Benefits:

White House officials are not saying what Bush's $2.5 trillion 2006 budget will propose saving from such programs, which comprise the biggest and fastest growing part.

But lobbyists and lawmakers' aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, say he will focus on Medicaid, the health-care program for low-income and disabled people. Medicaid costs are split between Washington and the states...

George Bush has a budget problem -- a historically bad budget problem. He started a war, sunk hundreds of billions of dollars (with no end in sight) into the war, asked for no sacrifice in the way of tax increases to support the war, and in fact cut taxes (mostly for the wealthy) at the same time he kicked off the most expensive war in history.

Makes no sense, does it?

It does if you're a neocon. In NeoconWorld, government exists for one thing - making war. In a NeoconWorld "ownership society", if you're sick or disabled, better get out on the corner and shake that tin cup at passing motorists, because that's your survival plan. Social programs have no place at the table. It only takes a few clicks through the uber-neocon (and ultra influential) Heritage Foundation website to figure this out.

As the article referenced above notes, Medicaid is a health plan of last resort for low income and disabled people. That makes it an instant and easy target. Poor people and cripples don't vote in nearly the numbers that old people do. It's also a much easier sell to the GOP base, particularly in stealth campaigns - recipients of Medicaid will be generalized as welfare queens in Cadillacs and malingering ne'er-do-wells. In other words, typical liberals.

At the state level, legislators would love to close up shop on this budget busting program, since the states carry half the costs. And if the federal government puts more financial burden on the states, what's going to happen? The program is scaled back dramatically by the states, effectively inoculating lawmakers at the federal level.

And if anyone thinks that SS is truly in crisis (which it's not), consider this regarding Medicaid:

A nationwide Medicaid crisis is developing more each day. In the state of Indiana Medicaid financial projections for the next two years are pessimistic. By the year 2007 a deficit of over 400 million dollars is expected. Other states are experiencing similar deficits. Mississippi currently has a $268 million shortfall. Pennsylvania currently is experiencing a $1.5 billion dollar deficit, which is projected to rise to $2 billion before the end of the year if poverty and joblessness continues to rise. Iowa lawmakers are looking for $100 million to fill their state’s Medicaid deficit.

So, yeah, there really is a crisis in this particular social program. But ultimately, the solution will be infinitely more palatable to the politicians making the decisions.

Consider one more thing: Medicaid and Medicare fall under the same umbrella. But note that Medicare issues (in the same financial boat) are not up for discussion at this point. Why? Any cuts in Medicare would impact the same constituency as Social Security. In NeoconWorld, cuts to Medicaid can be painted as impacting the shirkers, loafers, and indigents of society. Not true, particularly in the case of the elderly who end up in long term care facilities, but that's how the discussion of Medicaid cuts can and will be politically gamed.

The press and the public have been baited with a non-existent Social Security crisis. We can now sit back and watch as the Medicaid switch takes place.

Richard's axiom: when trying to figure out a magician's trick, don't watch the hand that's waving frantically in the air. The trick is being set up by the other hand that doesn't seem to be doing much of anything.