THE STATE OF AMERICAN DISCOURSE (PART 1): How well do our academic/journalistic elites steward our critical public discourse? More specifically, how capably do these groups reason? Consider NPRs January 17 Talk of the Nation, which devoted a 43-minute segment to the question of Social Security. In the first 25 minutes of the segment, Neal Conan spoke with a single guest—Urban Institute economist Eugene Steuerle, an established expert on Social Security. Steurerle offered a non-partisan overview of the program—and his almost complete incoherence helps us see the remarkable state of our modern American discourse.
How incoherent was this NPR program? Consider Steurerles discussion of the Social Security trust fund. The topic was raised by the programs first phone call (found about 5:30 into the NPR tape). Heres the full transcript of that call:
CONAN (1/17/05): Let's get a caller on the line. And this is Marilyn, who's with us from Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Hi, Marilyn! You're on the air.The callers questions were only somewhat coherent, as is often the case when citizens are asked to join such discussions. But the caller raised familiar concerns about the Social Security program—concerns that have been created over two decades, by people who claim that the systems trust fund has already been spent on other government programs. Has the SS trust fund already been spent? Is the trust fund nothing but worthless IOUs? Is the trust fund just an accounting trick? Citizens have heard these claims for years, made by observers who say that SS is in far worse shape than we think. In short, if the callers questions were somewhat unclear, the concerns she expressed were completely familiar. Surely, a policy expert and an NPR host would be able to address these concerns.
CALLER: OK. My question is that I thought President Nixon put Social Security in the budget when he was in office to balance it out. And if it's in budget, are people borrowing from it at the government level? And if they are borrowing from it, is that why Social Security's in trouble? And—
CONAN: And—Marilyn, thanks very much. Gene, I think we have to begin by explaining— I think she's talking about the Social Security trust fund. What is that, first of all?
But alas! This is America 2005—and Steuerles answers to Marilyns questions were every bit as incoherent as the questions themselves. Nor was Conan able to help; as well see, the host kept saying that he was confused by the answers his expert guest was providing. Twenty years into the long debate that has left these questions in citizens minds, neither the policy expert nor his journalist host could shed real light on Marilyns questions. Is the trust fund a pile of worthless IOUs? Has the fund already been spent? Is it just an accounting trick? All across the fifty states, Americans have heard such claims for years; because theyre decent, concerned public citizens, they turn to big news orgs—journalistic elites—in search of cogent explanations. But alas! Twenty years into this crucial debate, neither Conan nor his guest could offer the caller a lick of enlightenment. Whats the real state of American discourse? Conans revealing hour-long shows us the tragicomical answer. The state of our discourse is weak, very weak, and the academics and journalists who steward that discourse are, routinely, deeply dysfunctional. And by the way: In such a world, its easy for spinners to confuse and mislead us about the current state of SS. That sad fact will also be clear in the transcript of Conans full program.
TOMORROW—PART 2: Steuerles answers had Conan confused. And we doubt that they did much for Marilyn.
OPERATION REHAB: In this mornings New York Times, the rehab program seems to have started for Daniel Patrick Moynihan. We were a bit surprised by the quote from Bob Kerrey, who co-authored a privatization plan with Moynihan in the late 90s. Richard Stevenson did todays honors:
STEVENSON (1/26/05): To many Democrats, there is a gulf between Mr. Bush's approach and Mr. Moynihan's, one that is being obscured by the White House.Based on the Moynihan-Kerrey plan, we find these claims to be somewhat surprising. We may offer more in the days to come, but for a primer, check Jonathan Chaits past work on the subject. You know what to do— click here. While youre at it, just click here also.
''He supported Social Security plus,'' said Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic senator from Nebraska, who worked closely with Mr. Moynihan on Social Security legislation. ''He said it should be on top of Social Security, not a carve-out or something that would take away from the guaranteed benefit.''
IT FIGURES: For the record, that flu of ours turned out to be labyrinthitis, an annoying disorder of the inner ear, the most sensitive part of the organ.
VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: In the meantime, weve posted last Wednesdays HOWLER, the one we couldnt get on line when our incomparable technical staff was laid low. In it, we compare a famous blunderbuss TV host to Elizabeth Barrett Brownings beloved pet, Flush. With an assist from Virginia Woolf, you know how to play it: Click here.