House of Cards' Ridiculous Social Security Plot

A blog about business and economics.
Feb. 20 2014 3:30 PM

House of Cards' Ridiculous Social Security Plot

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Our scheme is evil, but also dumb.

Photo by Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

News came today that in the president's latest budget proposal he won't be asking to cut Social Security benefits by switching to the use of the chained CPI as its preferred inflation index.

As a matter of practical politics, that's not even remotely surprising. That was the White House's preferred way to cut Social Security benefits, but cutting Social Security benefits was something the White House wanted to do in the context of a grand bargain on the budget deficit. Now that the budget deficit is falling and the grand bargain talks are off, it's off the table.

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Which brings me to House of Cards.

There's a lot of implausible plot threads in this show, but the treatment of Social Security in Season 2 is politically insane. You have a Democratic administration working furiously to cut Social Security not in exchange for some big GOP concessions, but just to avoid a government shutdown. In the real world, there's absolutely nothing politics-minded Democrats would rather see happen than have Republicans shut the government down in an effort to force the country to swallow Social Security cuts. I saw some liberal wags on Twitter saying it was fitting that an amoral sociopath like Frank Underwood would lead the charge for cuts, but liberals shouldn't sell themselves short here. The liberal position on Social Security is very popular. A purely cynical Democrat would never want to give up a great issue for the country.

But even worse, the actual cut being contemplated is ridiculous. Underwood starts the negotiation by proposing to raise the retirement age to 67, which is where it already is under current law. Then a hard-line Republican pushes him to agree to 68. The problem here is that 30 years ago congress already agreed to gradually raise the age to 67. The change to 68 is tiny—far too tiny for anyone to pick a huge political fight over.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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