New York Times White House correspondent David Sanger and MSNBC host Chris Matthews impugned the motives of Democrats for opposing President Bush's proposal to cut Social Security benefits for middle class and wealthy retirees by what Bush calls "progressive indexing." They argued the "progressive" nature of the proposal is in line with Democratic tradition. But contrary to this characterization, some experts, including economist Dean Baker, note that Bush's proposal would eliminate a far greater portion of retirement income for the average middle-class recipient than for the average wealthy recipient, and that Bush's proposal to let workers divert payroll taxes into private accounts may further exacerbate this discrepancy.
On the May 2 broadcast of PBS' The Charlie Rose Show, Sanger asserted that Bush's proposal for "a graduated, progressive Social Security system ... sounds pretty close to a Democratic idea" but the Democrats "don't want to engage, because to engage in that is to start the negotiating process that George Bush always does so well in." Similarly, in an interview with former Sen. John Breaux (D-LA) on the May 2 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, Matthews suggested that Democrats are opposing "a largely Democratic approach of progressive benefits" and asked Breaux if Democrats don't want to "help the president do something difficult" because they would "rather have him stew in it."
But, according to Baker in a May 2005 report for the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), Bush's proposal for "progressive indexing" is actually "regressive" relative to retirement income; it "will hit middle-income workers hardest" because such workers depend on Social Security for a larger portion of their retirement income:
Measured relative to retirement income, the benefit cuts implied by progressive indexation are regressive. The projected cut in benefits for a middle wage earner in 2080 is equal to 26.9 percent of their retirement income, while the implied cut for a maximum wage earner would be equal to just 11.9 percent of their retirement income. ... In other words, the cuts implied by progressive indexation will hit middle-income workers hardest.
A May 2 New York Times column by Paul Krugman referenced data obtained from Jason Furman of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) to describe the regressive nature of Bush's proposed cuts with figures relative to pre-retirement income, rather than retirement income. A May 3 editorial in the New York Times reiterated the same point:
[T]he Bush plan gives the false impression that the wealthiest beneficiaries would bear the most pain. That's not the case. The wealthier one is, the lower the percentage of retirement income coming from Social Security, so even a big cut has little impact. By 2075, an average worker's benefit cut would equal 10 percent of pre-retirement income; a millionaire's reduction would be only 1 percent.
In addition, a May 2 CBPP report questioned whether Bush's proposal is "progressive enough" based on gross cuts in benefits: "[H]is plan would apply the same magnitude of benefit reductions to a worker whose annual earnings average $90,000 as to one whose annual earnings average $9 million. Someone making $60,000 annually would get about 85 percent as large a benefit reduction as the individual who makes $9 million."
Further, as Baker noted in his CEPR report, Bush's determination to include private investment accounts in Social Security reform could make his proposal even more regressive because "those accounts would allow the highest income workers to evade much of the cuts implied by this indexation formula." Under Bush's proposal for private accounts, a worker who opts for a private account would essentially be borrowing the money contributed to the account against his or her future guaranteed benefit. But for the wealthiest recipients, Bush's indexing proposal would mandate such large cuts in guaranteed benefits that the remaining guaranteed benefits would not be large enough to repay this loan beginning in 2058.