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February 23, 2005

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Robert Samuelson Edition)

Outsourced to Jesse Taylor:

Pandagon: The Blind Criticizing The Blind's Fashion Sense: When you're calling on journalists to be honest, it would help if you were, I don't know...honest? (It's amazing, because he's actually taking a position I support, but the evidence he uses to get there is all sorts of botched.)

Our central budget problem... is the coming spending explosion in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, driven by aging baby boomers and rising health spending. In 2004 these programs cost $965 billion, or 8.4 percent of the economy (gross domestic product). The Congressional Budget Office projects that by 2030 their costs will rise to 14 percent of GDP, or more than $1.6 trillion in today's dollars. Avoiding a (nearly) $700 billion annual increase in taxes or deficits would require comparable spending cuts in other government programs. It won't happen. The projected increase in retirement spending nearly equals all federal 'discretionary spending'...

Question - how much of this is due to Social Security?.... Doing the math is important, but actually reporting on the math you're doing is equally important - particularly when the math is so screwed up.

Bush hasn't yet offered a detailed proposal, but he is expected to build on 'Plan 2' of the President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security, issued in December 2001. Workers could divert as much as $1,000 annually of their payroll taxes into 'personal accounts' invested in stocks and bonds. Now, the CBO has evaluated Plan 2. In 2025 Plan 2 would reduce projected Social Security spending from 5.71 percent of gross domestic product to 5.27 percent of GDP, the agency estimates. This is a trivial cut of the combined spending of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The effects of switching to personal accounts and diminishing 'traditional' Social Security benefits are gradual. Indeed, because Bush plans to borrow to pay for personal accounts, his plan would probably raise federal spending in 2025.

"Probably" in the sense that "it absolutely would." Why is brave truth-teller Samuelson softballing.... The plan, at its lowest estimate, would cost $4.5 trillion over its first twenty years.... And why, oh why, does Samuelson insist on lumping all three programs together, despite the fact that they have different purposes, different spending mandates, different issues facing them, and are dealt with separately?

He's got to add in Medicare and Medicaid, the actual problems, because otherwise he looks like an asshole.

The debate over the Medicare drug benefit in 2003 revealed the same failing. Bush's drug proposal had to cost a lot. In February 2003 the CBO estimated that all drug spending on people 65 and older would total $1.8 trillion from 2004 to 2013. Covering any significant share of that would raise Medicare spending sharply. Later, the CBO's director testified that the program's second decade would be much costlier than the first, because (among other reasons) more retirees would use it.

I wrote some columns reporting that the huge costs were probably underestimated. But the mainstream media mainly ignored the long-term costs....

Another common theme throughout the column - when it's bad information that helps Republicans, it's because the media isn't doing its job. When it's bad information that helps Democrats, it's because the media is echoing Democrats. Awesome.

Call this journalistic malpractice. Recently both the Times and Post ran front-page stories reporting -- in tones of shock -- that the costs of the Medicare drug benefit were rising rapidly. The stories were misleading; all that had changed about the estimates is that two early years (with little spending) had been dropped and two later years (with lots of spending) had been added. If the media had reported accurately two years ago, there would be no shock today.

Bush lies, and the media reports the lie. Samuelson writes a dishonest article calling for honesty, and for some reason, it's only the media's error for which blame is actually assigned. 'If only you'd reported that it was a lie earlier, nobody would be shocked by it, and we could move past it!' It's a brilliant standard of holding public officials accountable - sagely declaring that liars might be wrong while ranting that everyone else is supposed to be better than that"

Posted by DeLong at February 23, 2005 10:56 AM