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THE STATE OF AMERICAN DISCOURSE (PART 1)! Uh-oh! Marilyn telephoned NPR with a question on Social Security: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 26, 2005

HOWLER HEURISTICS: As mentioned Monday, we expect to announce astonishing changes in the incomparable DAILY HOWLER. Will THE HOWLER grind to a halt? Will it continue in revised fashion? Readers, wouldn’t we tell you if we knew? But even if we were to fold, what follows in the next week would stand as a prime valedictory. How does our public discourse actually work in our newly-dawning century? Our American discourse is weak, very weak, and—as we’ve told you so many times—its honored stewards are deeply dysfunctional. How inept are the academic/journalistic elites which steward our crucial public debates? A recent program on NPR helps us see the turrible truth. How does American discourse work? A dread four-part series informs you.

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 NPR’s 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 Steurerle’s discussion of the Social Security trust fund. The topic was raised by the program’s first phone call (found about 5:30 into the NPR tape). Here’s 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.

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?

CALLER: Yes.

The caller’s 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 system’s 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 caller’s 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.

But alas! This is America 2005—and Steuerle’s answers to Marilyn’s questions were every bit as incoherent as the questions themselves. Nor was Conan able to help; as we’ll 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 Marilyn’s 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 they’re 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. What’s the real state of American discourse? Conan’s 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, it’s 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 Conan’s full program.

TOMORROW—PART 2: Steuerle’s “answers” had Conan confused. And we doubt that they did much for Marilyn.

OPERATION REHAB: In this morning’s 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 today’s 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.

''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.''

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 Chait’s past work on the subject. You know what to do— click here. While you’re at it, just click here also.

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, we’ve posted last Wednesday’s HOWLER, the one we couldn’t get on line when our incomparable technical staff was laid low. In it, we compare a famous blunderbuss TV host to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s beloved pet, Flush. With an assist from Virginia Woolf, you know how to play it: Click here.