Opinion: Nikki Haley is coming for your retirement

Photo/Jordan Gale/The New York Times / Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley listens during a campaign event in Waverly, Iowa, on Nov. 16, 2023.
Photo/Jordan Gale/The New York Times / Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley listens during a campaign event in Waverly, Iowa, on Nov. 16, 2023.

Both conventional wisdom and prediction markets say that Donald Trump has a virtual lock on the Republican presidential nomination. But Wall Street isn't completely resigned to Trump's inevitability; there has been a late surge in big-money support for Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina. And there is, to be fair, still a chance that Trump will manage to crash and burn before securing the nomination.

So it seems worth looking at what Haley stands for.

From a political point of view, one answer might be: nothing. A recent New York Times profile described her as having "an ability to calibrate her message to the moment." A less euphemistic way to put this is that she seems willing to say whatever might work to her political advantage.

And anyone hoping that she would govern as a moderate if she should somehow make it to the White House is surely delusional. Haley has never really shown a willingness to stand up to Republican extremists — and at this point the whole GOP has been taken over by extremists.

That said, Haley has shown some consistency on issues of economic and fiscal policy. And what you should know is that her positions on these issues are pretty far to the right. In particular, she seems exceptionally explicit in calling for an increase in the age at which Americans become eligible for Social Security.

So let's talk about it.

The first thing you should know about Social Security is that the actual numbers don't justify the apocalyptic rhetoric one often hears, not just from the right but from self-proclaimed centrists who want to sound serious. No, the exhaustion of the system's trust fund, currently projected to occur in roughly a decade, wouldn't mean that benefits disappear.

It would mean that the system would need additional revenue to continue paying scheduled benefits in full. But the extra revenue required would be smaller than you probably think. The most recent long-term projections from the Congressional Budget Office show Social Security outlays rising to 6.2% of gross domestic product in 2053 from 5.1% this year, not exactly an earth-shattering increase.

Still, Social Security does face a funding gap. How should it be closed?

Anyone who says, as Haley does, that the retirement age should rise in line with increasing life expectancy is being oblivious, perhaps willfully, to the grim inequality of modern America. Until COVID struck, average life expectancy at 65, the relevant number, was indeed rising. But these gains were concentrated among Americans with relatively high incomes. Less affluent Americans — those who depend most on Social Security — have seen little rise in life expectancy, and in some cases actual declines.

So anyone invoking rising life expectancy as a reason to delay Social Security benefits is, in effect, saying that aging janitors must keep working (or be cast into extreme poverty) because bankers are living longer.

How, then, should the Social Security gap be closed? The obvious answer — which happens to be favored by a majority of voters — is to raise more revenue. Remember, America collects less revenue as a percentage of GDP than almost any other advanced economy.

But Haley, of course, wants to cut income taxes.

My guess is that none of this will be relevant, that Trump will be the nominee. But if he stumbles, I would beg political reporters to focus on Haley's policies. On social issues and the fate of democracy, she appears to be a pure weather vane, turning with the political winds. On fiscal and economic policy, she's a hard-right advocate of tax cuts for the rich and benefit cuts for the working class. If calling someone a "populist" has any meaning these days, she's the exact opposite.

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