« The Accursed--and Expensive--Kings and Pricey Company | Main | Jeff Madrick on Social Security »

December 24, 2004

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Yet Another Social Security Edition)

The usually-excellent Edmund Andrews of the New York Times talks to CJR Campaign Desk about Social Security. He opens with the ritual "both sides are equally mendacious" declaration:

CJR Campaign Desk: Archives: The Social Security overhaul issue is one where there are a great number of armies of vested interests pushing either an ideological or financial agenda for private accounts or a well-organized union-backed effort to fight Social Security reform. There is a lot of mischaracterization of the issues at stake. It seems to me that one of things we can contribute as journalists is to cut through and identify the real issues that are at stake here...

But when the rubber hits the road it appears that the big lies are--as everyone with even a quarter of a brain knows--on the Bush side:

EA: The first thing to say is that both those [Bush administration long-term deficit] numbers [$3.7 trillion and 10.4 trillion] should be taken with a grain of salt.... [I]t's probably more honest to talk about a $3.7 trillion deficit over the next 75 years. The much higher number, which the administration sometimes calls $10.4 trillion -- sometimes they boost it to $11 trillion.... I think that they use this number to heighten the sense of crisis. One of the administration's themes is that we are at a crisis point [with Social Security]. But there is a lot of debate about that. And even $3.7 trillion, which sounds like a big number, may or may not constitute a crisis.... The problem with throwing out these numbers is that it sounds big, but 75 years is a long time.... [T]he projected gap... can be addressed in a lot of different ways. And these personal savings accounts really don't make much difference one way or another.... [P]eople need to be very, very skeptical about when they hear the rhetoric. They need to be quite skeptical of claims that there is a crisis coming that needs to be addressed right now in a particular way. They need to be very skeptical of any claim that personal savings accounts are the solution to this crisis or shortfall -- because they aren't. They may have a lot of virtues but they really don't do much one way or the other to solve the problem. Some argue that they even, in the long term, make the fiscal gap worse....

It's hard. I don't want to be partisan. I don't want to be manipulated by one side or another in this....

But Mr. Andrews, when you open with a declaration of equality--with statements like "great number of armies of vested interests pushing either an ideological or financial agenda for private accounts or a well-organized union-backed effort to fight Social Security reform. There is a lot of mischaracterization of the issues..." you have already been manipulated by the Republicans. As Paul Krugman jokes, if the Bush administration were to claim that the earth is flat, the story leads the following day would be "opinions on shape of earth differ."

Andrews goes on, making it clear that he doesn't really enjoy this particular job:

It's hard. One of the hard things about this subject is that it is rather dry and arcane. Some of the biggest disagreements are over seemingly obscure things that most people, including myself, really don't want to devote a whole lot of brainpower to in our relaxation time... the issues are complex enough that there is a huge opportunity for fudging over the truth of what is really at debate. So that is why I think, in this case, there is a real role for the media to play in dissecting the issues dispassionately because there is an awful lot of smoke and mirrors going on.

And then, at the end, Andrews returns to blaming both parties relatively equally:

And not just on the Republican side. When Democratic groups imply that this is something you can put off for decades -- that's also a very dubious assertion. When people say, "Don't worry about it. The Social Security fund will not actually be exhausted until 2042 and even then Social Security revenues will be good for 80 percent of the obligations at that time" -- that's a misleading way to describe the situation.

But he can't seem to come up with a coherent explanation of why the Democratic talking point--"the Trust fund will last until 2042 and at that point Social Security revenues will be good for 80 percent of obligations"--is misleading. He says its because it denies the need for reducing benefits. But it appears to me a declaration that current projections say that unless more revenues are raised benefits will have to be cut by 20% relative to current law in 2042, and by more in years further in the future:

The misleading part of that [is that there] is a long term gap. The only question is, how much? The sooner you deal with it, the better and less painful it is. And part of that pain very well may be cutting back on future benefits. There is no question that the obligations lined up right now seem to exceed the revenues that people expect to come in, for demographic reasons and others. And each year that you put it off you run a serious risk of forcing more painful choices down the road. And what a lot of people are mobilized to oppose is any hint of reducing benefits. But that might be necessary. The debate needs to be honest and it is often not an honest debate. [Overall,] there's a huge opportunity for mischief in this. It just seems to be much more so than a lot [of other debates].

I believe that the Democratic talking point is in fact misleading in two ways, but Andrews identifies neither of them. The first is that it takes the SSA's economic and demographic projections seriously, while it now seems very likely that they undershoot what productivity and labor force growth will be over the next couple of generations: there is a greater than 50-50 chance that things will turn out better than the SSA's current numbers. (And, indeed, unless the political thumb is put on the scales, the next SSA report on March 31 will paint a more optimistic picture.

The second way that the Democratic talking point is misleading is that it assumes that the SSA will be able to draw down its trust-fund balance in an unproblematic way. But the General Fund is in much greater and much more immediate crisis, and at the moment there are no plans on the part of the administration for fixing the extraordinary financial mess they have gotten the General Fund into. To say that the Trust Fund is projected to last until 2042 sweeps a huge number of important issues under the rug, and misses an opportunity to educate the public on how dire the General Fund is and how much rapid action is called for.

It is somewhat discouraging to think that Edmund Andrews is as good as it gets (outside the FT, the WSJ news pages, and I would once have said (five years ago) The Economist). But he's trapped by the belief that objectivity requires that he say "a plague on both your houses." And he's writing about things he doesn't find terribly interesting: "dry and arcane... disagreements are over seemingly obscure things... most people, including myself, really don't want to devote a whole lot of brainpower to in our relaxation time..."

Posted by DeLong at December 24, 2004 09:39 AM

Comments

so, what did michael kinsley say?

more to the point, even fairly good reporters like edmund andrews succumb to the rules of the guild, and one of the rules of the guild is that, unlike above-it-all reporters, who spot dishonesty in equal measure everywhere thanks to their eagle-eyed vision, all politicians are equally scummy and mendacious.

it is a complete piece of crap, of course, but that's how many reporters think, which is why they should be reconsidering their choice of career.

Posted by: howard at December 24, 2004 09:49 AM


The first big lie was the Clintonians pretending there was a budget surplus in the 1990s. This could only be upheld if the payments from the Social Security fund into the General Fund weren't really debt like Treasury bonds. Apparently, Social Security taxes could just go into the same hole as every other tax. Now the Republicans are taking advantage.

Posted by: Andrew Boucher at December 24, 2004 10:20 AM


Brad, that report ain't comin' out on March 31st unless either 1) a "reform" bill has been pushed through Congress or 2) it's findings have been completely hijacked to support "reform".

You know, I know it, everyone who's following this knows it.

Posted by: paul at December 24, 2004 10:27 AM


Scummy as it is, this "social security crisis" is a ruthlessly brilliant diversion from the real, immediate issue that should be on the nation's plate.

We *ought* to be talking about our current revenue and current spending. Instead, all eyes, ink, and video coverage are on a phony 40-year-from-now administration-declared "crisis."

This is the same shell game that was played on us during the election. Or whatever it is that happens when a mountebank says "look out for that tornado over there" while his buddy steals your car, house, clothes, and picks your pocket to boot.

In this case, once a little something is done (and no matter how ultimately destructive it will be), we'll see the photo ops, the declaration of triumph, the media celebration of said declaration, and a newly-minted crisis to "solve" next year.

Truly, this administration not only knows no limits, but is undisputably the world's best in over 60 years at controlling media. That includes not only its own house organs, but also the so-called "independent" media. They have it down cold, and it's so infuriating to see how stupified these "independent" media seem to be time after time. Can they not see how they're getting played? Have they no wits to find a response?

Posted by: Altoid at December 24, 2004 11:28 AM


I just finished reading Edward Bernays’ 1928 classic ‘Propaganda’:

Chapter 1: Organizing Chaos
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

Posted by: bellumregio at December 24, 2004 11:41 AM


Andrew, the early clinton surpluses were inclusive of social security revenues, but by the end, that wasn't the case....

Posted by: howard at December 24, 2004 04:00 PM


There's an interesting parallel between the way the right treats social security and the way the left treats global warming. Both are potentially large problems that occur way off in the distant future. Private accounts are a tiny step in what might be the right direction to solve the problem but as currently envisioned they are obviously on too small a scale to solve the whole thing.

Similarly, the Kyoto Accord is a tiny step in what might be the right direction to solve the global warming problem, but obviously it makes no significant difference in the scope of the problem if we stop there.

In both cases, "do nothing" is probably the prudent course, but the next-best course -- and that will help get people elected and viewed as problem solvers -- is to make a VERY SMALL change and see how that works, with the idea that if nothing horrible happens, they might make a slightly larger change later, and so on, until the problem is eventually solved. That's assuming the change works. If the change turns out in practice to have negative or no effect, it's easier to back out and reverse a small change than a big one.

Posted by: Glen Raphael at December 24, 2004 07:25 PM


"Brad, that report ain't comin' out on March 31st unless either 1) a "reform" bill has been pushed through Congress or 2) it's findings have been completely hijacked to support "reform". You know, I know it, everyone who's following this knows it."

Well Paul, I don't exactly know that. But I can take a look at the calender and see that there is no way in hell to shove a bill through Congress by March 31st. They need a bill and they need hearings. Republicans need some kind of political cover, they don't call Social Security the Third Rail of American Politics for nothing.

As for hijacking the findings, they already did that starting with the 2002 Report that switched 'productivity' for the 'GDP' that more people would recognize, and in 2003 with introducing the notion of "infinite future" projections into a model that previously had strictly held to a 75 year projection. But they are running out of tricks.

The 4.0% productivity number for 2004 is real and reported, and the Bush Administration is already on record with a 3.5% number for 2005. Plug these into the model and the Trust Fund Ratio skyrockets. Numbers for the next decade have already been screwed down as far as they can go. It is telling that the most optimistic model (Low Cost Alternative) has a peak of 2.2%, and that for only 2006-2007. And these numbers relied on a 2.7% number for 2004 and 2.1% for 2005. And to repeat these were the optimistic numbers that show no crisis at all. Good luck selling numbers south of the longterm 1.6% that underlie the Intermediate Cost alternative.

I just don't believe Bush has the credibility to simply sit on the 2005 Report and say "Trust Me". We don't even need to touch overseas issues, we can just point to the Medicare debacle where the known costs were deliberately withheld from Congress to the tune of a $100 billion.

We have their feet to the fire here, and we have our own access to spreadsheet programs. They have to release numbers by March 31st and the numbers to support privatization are simply not there.

This is not the equivalent of Iraq where once the decision went to "Go", we were committed to a long term course of action come what may. It would take months and months to actually set up a system of private accounts and all that time real economic numbers would be being reported, all available to compare against the 2004 Report numbers. And if they continue to thump both the Low Cost and Intermediate Cost alternatives Republicans who pushed through cuts to guaranteed benefits in exchange for pie in the sky are going to be faced with hard looks at their own electoral calender.

BushCo bet the house on a successful Iraq. That was designed to give them cover on everything. They lost that bet, and unless we drop the ball completely we can sweep the table with the Social Security issue.

We are the reality-based community after all.
Economic Assumptions: http://www.ssa.gov/OACT/TR/TR04/V_economic.html#wp159107

Posted by: Bruce Webb at December 25, 2004 04:23 AM


What caught my eye in this was the sentence,'Some of the biggest disagreements are over seemingly obscure things that most people, including myself, really don't want to devote a whole lot of brainpower to in our relaxation time....'. And he is being tasked with doing this on his time off by who?
What is Andrew's function at the Times? If he is a reporter, he needs to devote brainpower to this so he can write informative articles for his readers. If an editor, he needs to devote brainpower to this so he can fact-check the WH stenographers.

It does fairly scream, 'Like I care about this. It is not in my job description, but I write about it to pass the time at work.'

Posted by: linnen at December 25, 2004 07:18 AM


I'm not sure if this makes me more depressed or outraged.

"One of the hard things about this subject is that it is rather dry and arcane. Some of the biggest disagreements are over seemingly obscure things that most people, including myself, really don't want to devote a whole lot of brainpower to in our relaxation time."

How can he call the debate about the future of the key plank of the New Deal "dry and arcane?" And what's this about "relaxation time"? The "seemingly obscure things" he's talking about are the details of the plans and projections that he's PAID to explain to the public. Ugh. This makes me realize that without the Internet the interested citizen would have a very hard time tracking down good information on the debate.

Posted by: DonPedro at December 25, 2004 01:48 PM


> It is somewhat discouraging to think that
> Edmund Andrews is as good as it gets (outside
> the FT, the WSJ news pages, and I would once
> have said (five years ago) The Economist).

I believe this is the first time that Brad has
so explicitly acknowledged that the Economist
is, shall we say, not the magazine it once was.

Can somebody CC this to St.James St. please. I want my old Economist back, but my opinion carries
no weight. Brad's does.

Sean

Posted by: Sean Matthews at December 26, 2004 06:30 AM