A New Front in the ‘War on Women’

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Do you want to moderate the growth of Social Security benefits so that the program is solvent? Guess what: You’re waging a war on women! So writes Slate’s Helaine Olen. Her evidence consists of the facts that most Social Security beneficiaries are women, that women rely more than men on the program, and that Alan Simpson once called the program “a milk cow with 310 million tits.” That’s enough for Olen to conclude that the underlying idea behind restraining benefit growth is “that modern women are somehow uppity.”

When she’s not dubiously assigning motives, Olen is making misleading claims about the program’s finances:

Finally, it needs to be pointed out that this whole idea that Social Security is going bankrupt, as both Republicans and self-proclaimed centrist organizations like the Third Way like to claim, is a myth. Estimates are that somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of the projected funding shortfall could be eliminated by raising something called the payroll tax cap, which is the amount of earnings taxed for Social Security. This year, that’s $118,500. It’s an amount earned by less than 10 percent of all workers.

It’s true that the program’s taxes are capped, as are its benefits. (A person who makes $150,000 a year isn’t accruing any more benefits than someone who makes $118,500.) But think about what Olen is saying: If we legislated the largest increase in the top tax rate since the Hoover administration, and broke the historic, FDR-demanded link between the program’s taxes and benefits, and assumed this tax increase would have no adverse economic effects, it still wouldn’t close the funding gap. It might not even close half of it, if you believe the Congressional Budget Office, which has a bigger estimate of the shortfall than the Social Security trustees.

And if the tax hikes do hurt the economy, or benefits have to be cut sharply because we let demagogues keep us from making gradual adjustments when we could, or both of these things happen, I have a guess about which sex will suffer more.

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