Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Maddow leaves out Important Context in Describing The History of Republican plans to Modify Social Security and Medicare

Sigh. Some titles can’t be shortened.

Yesterday, May 23rd, 2011, Rachel Maddow described some of the History of Republican plans to modify Social Security and Medicare.

Throughout the segment, Maddow fails to give her listeners adequate explanations of what the Bush and Ryan plans would have actually done to Social Security and Medicare. I will explain those plans along with the two plans (Goldwater, Regan) that she described correctly.


In 1964, Barry Goldwater ran as the republican presidential candidate against Lyndon Johnson. He is one of the founders of modern conservatism and remains a conservative icon, almost as revered as Ronald Regan.

During an interview with the New York Times Sunday Magazine in November 1963, Goldwater said,

I think social security ought to be voluntary. This is the only definite position I have on it. If a man wants it, fine. If he does not want it, he can provide his own.

Turning Social Security into a voluntary program would ruin the program in two ways. 

First, when people are left to decide for themselves, they don’t save for retirement. In 2010 CNN Money found that 43 percent of Americans have less than $10,000 saved for retirement. As anti-libertarian as it may seem, the brilliance of Social Security is that it is mandatory. The social welfare programs enacted in the past 100 years have gone a long way towards reducing poverty among the elderly.

Second, the Social Security program pays current retirees with the money from current taxpayers, not from the revenue they (or their generation) put into the system. Thus, if current tax payers opted out of the program, current retirees would lose the benefits they earned by paying into the system in their working days.

Thus Goldwater’s plan would have destroyed social Security.


In 1961, when Medicare was proposed in Congress, Ronald Regan opposed it. He said that if citizens didn’t write their congressmen to prevent Medicare’s passage that,

You and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.

Medicare is one of the most popular programs ever created in America, and seniors love the program. Similar attacks were made on Obama’s Health Care Reform and if one listens to the Regan recording today, you could easily forget that he was talking about the now beloved Medicare instead of the still contentious Obamacare.


Here is where the fact check begins. Maddow said of Bush’s Social Security plan that,

George W. Bush said that he would use all the political capital he earned by winning reelection in 2004 to try to dismantle Social Security, to try to privatize Social Security. Even the 60 Plus Association, [….] brags on its website that they are on the record for the privatization of the Social Security system.

While the description of the 60 Plus Association bolsters her case, her description of the Bush plan for Social Security is, at best, incomplete. 

Under Bush’s Social Security plan, workers would have eventually been given the option to invest a third of their Social Security taxes into private accounts. The program would be entirely voluntary and only a third of Social Security would be privatized, at most. Maddow’s viewers would not have known either of these important aspects of the Bush plan from her report.

The plan would improve Social Security’s solvency, the amount of time that the program would pay full benefits. The plan would also yield a higher rate of return for retirees than the Treasuries that current Social Security revenues are invested in. However, it would also put a portion of Social Security benefits at risk, and if there was another stock market collapse, seniors would have lost even more of their retirement money than they did in the 2008 crash. That is why in my opinion (and it is an opinion) that Bush’s plan would have weakened Social Security. There are better options available to solve Social Security’s solvency problem.


Finally, Maddow says Paul Ryan’s Medicare proposal would, “Kill Medicare.” This is a very poor description of Paul Ryan’s plan.

Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan would give those who are 54 and younger a voucher (or “premium support” as the Republicans call it) when they are old enough for Medicare. They would use this voucher to buy insurance off the private market. The voucher would increase with regular inflation but not with medical inflation. The plan would essentially save the government money by passing rising medical costs onto seniors. Private health plans would also be incredibly expensive. How high must premiums be for an insurance company to profit from insuring the elderly, the group with the highest medical costs?

Medicare was created to cover the medical costs of the elderly, a group that is next to impossible to insure otherwise. It has been an incredibly successful program and Ryan’s plan would change the very nature of Medicare.

That being said, the government would still provide a program to help insure the elderly. Medicare would be drastically changed by the proposal which would end Medicare as we know it. Those four words, “as we know it,” are incredibly important. They get the point across in a way that acknowledges that there would still be government program to help cover the insurance costs for the elderly, while simultaneously pointing out that the plan would require seniors to pay dramatically higher costs for health insurance.


Republicans have repeatedly attempted to prevent, destroy, and weaken Social Security and Medicare over the years. Democrats have profited electorally by pointing this out. But they must also do so in a way that is honest about the plans they oppose. Maddow erred in her descriptions of the Bush plan for Social Security and the Ryan plan for Medicare. While she is right to point out the negative aspects of these proposals, she must do so in such a way that her viewers fully understand the plans she is discussing. Doing so would help advance the unofficial mission of the Rachel Maddow show to “increase the amount of useful information in the world.”

P.S. This post was a beast to research and write. I hope you found it useful.

Originally posted May 24, 2011

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