The debate about the future of Social Security has opened, and how progressives respond will decide whether the United States is a civil society or a pirate state where the government’s primary role is to take from the poor and give to the rich.

So far, the response has been mixed. The signals from the Obama White House are bad, with the president indicating openness to “compromises” that would compromise the legacies of the New Deal, the Fair Deal and the Great Society. In contrast, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, key congressional Democrats, labor unions and activist groups are raising all the right objections.

The spark for the debate was the release of a statement from the co-chairs of the president’s Fiscal Commission-the high-powered committee charged by President Obama with developing strategies for balancing budgets and addressing deficits and debts-that indicates they are leaning toward implementing the sort of rigid austerity schemes that would ruin the US economy.

The Commission is not due to make any serious proposals until December, at the earliest. But the statement from former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, a supposedly-sensible Republican, and former Clinton White House chief-of-staff Erskine Bowles, a North Carolina Democrat who tried without success to get elected to the Senate, suggests that the commission has adopted the fraudulent calculus that says every federal program is more of less equally wasteful, and thus equally “on the table” for cutting. Those cuts, to their view, would begin with deep cuts in Social Security benefits and a hike in the retirement age to 69. Where would it end? The proposal by Simpson and Bowles to tear the safety net gives Wall Street speculators precisely the opening they have been seeking to make a grab for the biggest corporate-welfare payout ever: privatization of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid.