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Elizabeth Warren Vs. the Neoliberals: The Battle Over Americans’ Retirement Security

In the last year or two, something remarkable has happened in American politics. After decades in which future deficits, mostly caused by health care costs and conservative tax cuts, were invoked by those seeking to slash Social Security benefits for reasons of ideology or pecuniary interest, the national conversation has changed. Preceded by intellectual pioneers like Atrios and Social Security Works, Senators Tom Harkin and Mark Begichhave proposed to slightly expand, rather contract, Social Security benefits. My New America Foundation colleagues Robert Hiltonsmith, Steven Hill and Joshua Freedman and I have proposed a more radical expansion, coupled with caps on 401k’s and other tax-favored retirement savings programs, which chiefly benefit the richest Americans. Byendorsing the concept of expanding Social Security, Senator Elizabeth Warren lent credence to an idea that has gained the support of mainstream pundits like Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias.

Unfortunately, nobody has told President Obama.

In a speech in Pittsburgh on January 29, the president fleshed out the My Retirement Account (MyRA) proposal he mentioned in his State of the Union address. The president’s remarks begin promisingly enough:

Today, most workers don’t have a pension in America,” he added. “Just half work for an employer that offers any kind of a retirement plan. A Social Security check is critical, but oftentimes, that monthly check, that’s not enough. And while the stock market has doubled over the last five years, that doesn’t help somebody if you don’t have a 401(k).

All of this seems like a lead-up to a Warren-like endorsement of proposals to expand Social Security benefits, right? Well, no.