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Why Mike Huckabee's stance on Social Security is not notable at all

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Mike Huckabee has garnered some unfair criticism about his commitment to Social Security. His campaign website says that he “will kill anything that poses a threat to the promises we have made to America’s seniors.” 

The media coverage portrays his position in sharp contrast to other candidates within the GOP. Huckabee himself promotes the distinction saying: “Unlike some in Washington who want to cut benefits for seniors, I will protect Social Security and Medicare. Period.” He further calls-out Chris Christie’s proposal as ‘an insult’ to Americans who have had their paychecks garnished for 50 years.

While Huckabee’s words about Social Security are different from his GOP contemporaries, there is no substantive difference between any of the candidates in the GOP field. No one in the GOP field is talking about cutting the benefits of seniors or even near seniors. The essential difference is that Huckabee says that he will do nothing, while the rest of the field put forward ideas that deliver nothing.

Social Security is a battleship in the bathtub. Changing the financial course of the system through gradual reform requires decades, particularly if the policy option insulates existing retirees. Jeb Bush for example discussed the possibility of increasing the retirement age to 70. Under a typical pace, gradual change would not bring the normal retirement age to 70 until 2060, roughly 25 years after Social Security is projected to be insolvent.

The life expectancy of future retirees is not a structural driver of the imbalances in SS. A typical reader believes that increasing the retirement age is a reasonable change because we are living longer. The prospects of a retiree at the age of 65 in 2000 is roughly the same as the projected life prospects of retiree of 67 in 2050. It is sell side noise.

The entire field of candidates for the GOP nomination seems oblivious to the research from the Social Security Administration which says that someone turning 67 today on average expects to live to 2034, whereas the Trustees say that Social Security has less than a break-even bet to pay full benefits through 2033. None of the candidates explain how they plan to protect existing retirees, much less near-retirees, from the economic black-hole that is developing inside the Social Security program. 

The GOP’s ideas do not change the math of Social Security. With higher retirement ages, the system continues to reach insolvency in 2033 (increase to 6870). So the GOP is largely content with trading the unknown benefit cuts of insolvency for legally defined benefit cuts, as though voters care about whether the benefit cut derives from insolvency or a deliberated session of Congress. 

To be honest, if the government extends normal retirement age by two years, a worker can still retire at 67 with benefit levels that are 13% lower. Fancy language aside, it is just a 13% benefit cut. If that legally defined 13% benefit cut saves a worker from a 13% reduction of benefits caused by insolvency, the combination is a wash.

From all of the drama about Huckabee’s stand, I had expected to find more than a wash. The New York Times sees Huckabee “going his own way on Social Security.” Salon sees a war brewing within the Republican Party. Slate proclaims, “Huckabee actively supports a vision of a gerontocratic welfare state.” There isn’t a dime’s difference between Huckabee and the rest of the GOP field.

Whoever the GOP fields in 2016 will protect core base from the consequences of the financial imprudence governing the system by kicking the can. Their candidate will sell voters on the idea that someone deserves protection, at the expense of another. He or she will demonize benefit cuts forced by the evil of insolvency as much worse than the same benefit reduction as a course of law. Anything to get younger Americans to buy into the idea that today’s seniors should not be affected by erosion of the system’s finances.

As strong as his words are, Huckabee isn’t above taking money which he knows will never be returned. He is just another Republican protecting the base.

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