THE SHAPE OF AMERICAN DISCOURSE (PART 2)! Uh-oh! Twenty years into the SS debate, Conan found his guests answers confusing::
THURSDAY, JANUARY 27, 2005
KING GEORGES WILLING ENABLERS: Good grief! At yesterdays press conference, Bush continued his misleading statements about the future of Social Security. And sadly, the New York Times seems eager to broadcast his grossly misleading assertions. Here are paragraphs four and five of David Sangers story this morning. This passage appears above the fold, right there on page one:
SANGER (1/27/05): Mr. Bush was peppered with questions about his main domestic priority: revamping the Social Security system to create private accounts. But he declined to be specific about how he would propose to pay for the introduction of the new system, which could cost more than $1 trillion in the next decade.But its grossly misleading to say that SS will ever be bankrupt or broke in the future. Sangers response? He gets around to discussing this misleading claim deep inside the paper, in paragraph 25 of his story! And even then, when he finally discusses this claim, his skill level is notably lacking. For the record, Peter Baker handles this topic much more skillfully (and much more succinctly) in todays Washington Post.
Might we make one more observation? In discussing the future of Social Security, Sanger and Baker both refer to the projections of the SS trustees. But the trustees use extremely pessimistic assumptions about growth in assembling their projections, a fact which neither writer mentions; the current CBO projections are substantially less gloomy. But so what? Neither writer mentions the fact that more than one set of projections exist. Theres a word for work like this—incompetent. But major news orgs routinely cite the trustee figures without providing even one word of context. (Incredibly, so do many major Dem pols.) Your discourse is in the hands of elites who are deeply inept. If you ever doubted that, just read Part 2 of our latest incomparable report:
THE SHAPE OF AMERICAN DISCOURSE (PART 2): How inept are the honored elites who steward our Social Security discourse? On NPRs January 17 Talk of the Nation, a caller named Marilyn asked about the Social Security trust fund (for the full text of Marilyns call, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/26/05). As noted yesterday, Marilyns concerns were quite familiar; indeed, her concerns have been a basic part of the SS discourse for years, if not decades. And good news! She was speaking with Neal Conan, a bright, earnest NPR host, and Conans guest was Eugene Steuerle, an economist from the Urban Institute and an expert on Social Security! If our discourse were even marginally effective, this would have been an excellent chance to gain some clarity about her concerns. But typically, our modern discourse isnt that effective, and the exchange which Marilyn triggered this day would offered a brilliant example. Indeed, after Steuerles first attempt to respond to her questions, his puzzled host found himself saying this:
CONAN (1/17/05): I'm confused...Oops! Conan was confused by what Steuerle said. So Steurerle made another attempt—and another failure resulted. Here is the fuller exchange:
CONAN: Im confused. Is there somewhere—if there's a trillion and a half dollars in the Social Security Trust Fund, are there somewhere pieces of paper where: I owe you, federal government to Social Security trust fund?Conan was still confused by his guests explanations, but said that hed have to move on. And trust us: If Conan was puzzled by Steuerles answers, theres little chance that Marilyn—or anyone else—found his explanations more helpful. Theres little chance that anyone got clear about her familiar concerns.
By any rational human standard, this should be seen as a striking event. As weve noted, the caller had raised familiar concerns—concerns that have been an elementary part of the SS debate over the course of two decades. If an academic expert still cant give her clear answers—and if an NPR host still cant straighten the mess—then the problem we face becomes obvious. As modern Americans, we live in a world where its simply not possible to get clear about such crucial subjects. Twenty years into the SS debate, theres simply no way for average people to get their basic questions addressed.
Why was Conan so confused after listening to Steuerles answers? Simple: Steuerles answers were clear as mud, even after twenty years of debate, analysis and discussion. Heres the start of his answer to Marilyn. What is the trust fund, Conan asks him:
CONAN: 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?Readers, if you already knew what the trust fund is, you might still know after reading that answer. But Steuerles first attempted response was about as clear as a big dish of mud, producing Conans first interruption. (In it, he tries to establish a simple point—the trust fund is the money left over when current, incoming payroll taxes exceed current outgoing benefits.) In response to that, Steuerle offered an obscure claim about the liabilities of the system (these liabilities are much larger than the systems assets, he said), and soon he was making a puzzling statement about the notion that the taxes, the Social Security taxes, should pay for the system. By this time, an average citizen was likely to have little idea what was being asserted. So Conan tried to bring the discussion back to Marilyns imprecise questions. He tried to paraphrase what she had said—and once again, his guest went to the races:
CONAN (continuing directly): Mm-hmm. Now what about Marilyn's question? Is that money—the Social Security trust fund, how is that being used by every administration since Richard Nixon's?Lets abandon our quest for simple clarity and note the experts inability to avoid the appearance of self-contradiction. (In paragraph one, he says the trust fund has been used by every Admin since FDR; in paragraph two, he seems to say that there was a decision to build up a trust fund in 1983.) This is primal incoherence, helpful to no one in Conans audience. And when Conan asks yet another question, Steuerle makes things even more hazy:
CONAN (continuing directly): Mm-hmm. But where is that money?At this point, Conan says Im confused, and frankly, its hard to blame him. Twenty years into this crucial discussion, Steuerle seems to be playing Whos on first, and Conan is showing no real skill at forming clear, helpful questions. And when Conan tells Steurerle that hes confused, Steuerles answers get no clearer. Again, heres how a citizens basic concerns gets addressed when she calls NPR:
CONAN (continuing directly): I'm confused. Is there somewhere—if there's a trillion and a half dollars in the Social Security trust fund, are there somewhere pieces of paper where: I owe you, federal government to Social Security trust fund?Marilyn raised familiar concerns. But the result? After Steurerles expert discussion, Conan said he was still confused, but that hed have to move on.
For the record, Conan did battle bravely, returning to the trust fund topic a bit later (transcript below). But to be honest, Conan showed little real skill in the course of his programs confusing discussion. Steuerles answers were endlessly muddy, but Conan showed little skill at expressing Marilyns familiar concerns. He tried to deal with Steuerles murk, but as well see in Parts 3 and 4, he showed no skill at turning Marilyns concerns into understandable questions.
Marilyn, I'm still confused, Conan said. And remember: This NPR host is still confused after twenty years of this basic discussion. Lets say it: American discourse has ceased to exist when NPR hosts make such statements.
PARTS 3 & 4: What Conan should have said—and what occurred on his show when he didnt.
CONAN THE GRAMMARIAN: To his credit, Conan knew that the trust fund discussion had been as clear as mud. He knew that he was still confused, and he probably sensed that his listeners were still puzzled too. And so he made a good faith effort, returning to this familiar topic at the end of his segment with Steuerle. And this time, he even raised an familiar, seminal claim—the claim that the Social Security trust fund is just an accounting trick:
CONAN (fifteen minutes later): Let me go back and take one more shot at the Social Security Trust Fund, if you would. In a sense, isn't what we've been doing sort of an accounting trick? This money—whenever Social Security has been into a surplus, this money has been used to buy government bonds. The government has counted this money—and correct me if I'm wrong—and, theoretically, that money should never have been touched. However, Congress being Congress, government being what it is, they've counted that money as if it were general income. And now they have to pay it back, or they might have to pay it back, and that would, in a sense, add up twice. They wouldn't be able to get it in as income, and they'd have to be paying out.Was the trust fund just an accounting trick? Clearly, claims like this drove Marilyns call, and Conan should have voiced them earlier (more about this in Part 4). But even now, when he raised this claim, Conans presentation was hopeless. Good God! The money would, in a sense, add up twice? They wouldn't be able to get it in as income, and they'd have to be paying out? Trust us: No one in the NPR audience had the slightest idea what this meant. And once again, Steuerle showed that, despite his expertise, he was more than up to the task of matching his hosts incoherence:
STEUERLE (continuing directly): Well, again, remember—and this is part of the confusion—if the amount that was going to be put in the trust fund, even if it had all been saved, if government hadn't run deficits elsewhere, was a tiny, tiny portion of the liabilities of this system. So in some sense, the trust fund accounting, whether they had saved it or not, is indifferent. But you're right. The government did run large deficits; it did not save the money in the trust funds.For helping us see through this thicket of numbers! In fact, Steuerle was baldly incompetent right to the end, offering a hopelessly confusing analogy involving food savings accounts and car payments. Marilyn learned nothing about the trust fund, or about the familiar concerns that had driven her questions.
But Marilyn did learn one thing this day. As he signed off, Conan read his expert guests credits. Gene Steuerle is a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, co-editor of Social Security and the Family, and he was with us here in Studio 3A, the host said. There! Marilyn learned which studio Steuerle was in! It was almost surely the only thing she learned in the course of this program.