Chained CPI Catfood Canapes, Mr. President? No, Thank You!

Ezra Klein, who's been a reliable White House conduit, says the White House is going to make a deal with the Republicans that will accept a relatively small increase in taxes on millionaires -- in exchange for the chained CPI that will cut

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Ezra Klein, who's been a reliable White House conduit, says the White House is going to make a deal with the Republicans that will accept a relatively small increase in taxes on millionaires -- in exchange for the chained CPI that will cut benefits for the vulnerable elderly. By the way, not only will the chained CPI cut benefits for the elderly (disproportionately affecting women), it will also affect benefit payments for disabled veterans.

In addition to being an actual cut, it's a cut that hides its face behind the skirts of technical jargon. After voters were told that Social Security cuts are "off the table," we learn that they're simply going to be hidden under a different shell in this game. (Remember when I told you to pay attention to Obama using the word "slash"?) This is more than discouraging; it's undemocratic. Voters were clear and unambiguous: they supported Obama to prevent Medicare and Social Security cuts, and the president accepted their support by assuring them it wouldn't happen. But he used enough weasel words that some of us figured what was coming.

As Atrios says, we're kicking it old school. Get your dialing fingers ready and tell your senators and congress critters: No Social Security cuts! The White House switchboard is 202-456-1414. (Leave their responses in the comments.)

Hi, my name is [NAME] and I'm a constituent living in [CITY].

I would like the senator to commit to opposing any cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid benefits.

This includes committing to oppose any plan which raises the retirement age or Medicare eligibility age, or changes the cost-of-living adjustment to reduce benefits over time -- all of which are benefit cuts.

Can I count on the senator to vote against any bill that includes any cuts to Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security benefits?

Here are the coming attractions:

Boehner offered to let tax rates rise for income over $1 million. The White House wanted to let tax rates rise for income over $250,000. The compromise will likely be somewhere in between. More revenue will come from limiting deductions, likely using some variant of the White House’s oft-proposed, oft-rejected idea for limiting itemized deductions to 28 percent. The total revenue raised by the two policies will likely be a bit north of $1 trillion. Congress will get instructions to use this new baseline to embark on tax reform next year. Importantly, if tax reform never happens, the revenue will already be locked in.

On the spending side, the Democrats’ headline concession will be accepting chained-CPI, which is to say, accepting a cut to Social Security benefits. Beyond that, the negotiators will agree to targets for spending cuts. Expect the final number here, too, to be in the neighborhood of $1 trillion, but also expect it to lack many specifics. Whether the cuts come from Medicare or Medicaid, whether they include raising the Medicare age, and many of the other contentious issues in the talks will be left up to Congress.

The deal will most likely attempt to modify the effect of the chained CPI with a bump in benefits, as recommended by the Simpson-Bowles chairmen's report. For the typical single elderly woman, the cut from the chained CPI would reduce her monthly benefits by an amount equal to the cost of one week’s worth of food each month at age 80. She would still have two years to wait before receiving any help from the bump-up.The Bowles-Simpson bump-up would restore her monthly benefits to current levels for only two years – and then benefits would fall behind again.

The White House has found a prominent progressive economist to give them protective cover.

Neither of the two proposals released yesterday include a continuation of the payroll tax cuts -- which the CBO says would have the same negative effect on the economy as having no deal at all.

Digby points out that making a deal at this stage that only postpones the debt-ceiling fight for one year means more cuts will be coming -- and that Obama wants it that way. She also informs us that the chained CPI will hike taxes in the lower brackets.

Krugman's reaction is a little more optimistic than mine:

Unlike what we’d heard from Republicans before, this contains stuff that Obama can’t get just by letting us go over the cliff: more revenue than he could get just from tax-cut expiration, unemployment and infrastructure too. But it has a cost, those benefit cuts.

Those cuts are a very bad thing, although there will supposedly be some protection for low-income seniors. But the cuts are not nearly as bad as raising the Medicare age, for two reasons: the structure of the program remains intact, and unlike the Medicare age thing, they wouldn’t be totally devastating for hundreds of thousands of people, just somewhat painful for a much larger group. Oh, and raising the Medicare age would kill people; this benefit cut, not so much.

The point is that we shouldn’t be doing benefit cuts at all; but if benefit cuts are the price of a deal that is better than no deal, much better that they involve the CPI adjustment than the retirement age.

But is this rumored deal better than no deal? I’m on the edge. It’s not clear that going over the cliff would yield something better; on the other hand, those benefit cuts are really bad, and you hate to see a Democratic president lending his name to something like that. There is a case for refusing to make this deal, and hoping for a popular backlash against the GOP that transforms the whole debate; but there’s also an argument that this might not work.

I want to see more — and also want to see whether the Republican crazies scuttle the whole thing before it even gets off the ground. If they don’t, there will be some serious agonizing for progressives, yours truly included.

Dylan Matthews of the Washington Post gets the last word:

Here is a sentence you won’t hear politicians or policy wonks saying in the next few weeks: “We should pay Social Security beneficiaries less in the future and push a lot of people into higher tax brackets.” Here is a sentence you almost certainly will hear: “Let’s adopt chained CPI.”

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