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Daily Howler: Uh-oh! Twenty years into the SS debate, Conan found his guest's answers 'confusing'
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THE SHAPE OF AMERICAN DISCOURSE (PART 2)! Uh-oh! Twenty years into the SS debate, Conan found his guest’s answers “confusing:”: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, JANUARY 27, 2005

KING GEORGE’S WILLING ENABLERS: Good grief! At yesterday’s 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 Sanger’s 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.

Instead, he focused on making the case for the need to overhaul the system that has been in place for decades, saying, “if you're a 20-year-old person and you look at the math, you realize that you will inherit a bankrupt system.”

But it’s grossly misleading to say that SS will ever be “bankrupt” or “broke” in the future. Sanger’s 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 today’s 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. There’s 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 NPR’s January 17 Talk of the Nation, a caller named Marilyn asked about the Social Security trust fund (for the full text of Marilyn’s call, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/26/05). As noted yesterday, Marilyn’s 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 Conan’s 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 isn’t that effective, and the exchange which Marilyn triggered this day would offered a brilliant example. Indeed, after Steuerle’s 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: 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?”

STEUERLE: That's right. One side of the government issues a bond, and the other side of the government holds the bond.

CONAN: OK. Marilyn, I'm still confused, but we'll move on. Thanks very much for the phone call.

Conan was “still confused” by his guest’s explanations, but said that he’d have to move on. And trust us: If Conan was puzzled by Steuerle’s answers, there’s little chance that Marilyn—or anyone else—found his explanations more helpful. There’s little chance that anyone got clear about her familiar concerns.

By any rational human standard, this should be seen as a striking event. As we’ve 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 can’t give her clear answers—and if an NPR host still can’t straighten the mess—then the problem we face becomes obvious. As modern Americans, we live in a world where it’s simply not possible to get clear about such crucial subjects. Twenty years into the SS debate, there’s simply no way for average people to get their basic questions addressed.

Why was Conan so “confused” after listening to Steuerle’s answers? Simple: Steuerle’s “answers” were clear as mud, even after twenty years of debate, analysis and discussion. Here’s 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?

MARILYN: Yes!

STEUERLE: Right. The trust fund is that fund into which the taxes that are paid by—the Social Security taxes are put aside to pay for Social Security benefits. Now mind you, that for the vast—

CONAN: This is when the system is in surplus, when it's taking in more money than it's paying out.

STEUERLE: That's right. But the system has never really had much more than a very, very modest surplus. You know, for instance, the liabilities of this system are well in excess of $10 trillion. Maybe today it has assets of one to two trillion. There's always been only a very modest amount put in the trust fund. The trust fund, however, has kept along the notion that the taxes, the Social Security taxes, should pay for the system. And to some extent, they have, over its past history. They won't in the future.

Readers, if you already knew what the “trust fund” is, you might still know after reading that answer. But Steuerle’s first attempted response was about as clear as a big dish of mud, producing Conan’s 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 system’s “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 Marilyn’s 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?

STEUERLE: Well, it's actually been used by every administration since Franklin Roosevelt. Essentially, very early in the creation of the system, it was decided that we wanted to get money immediately to people who are elderly. If we're going to give money to people who are elderly who haven't saved for their retirement, then we're going to take those tax dollars and immediately transfer them over. So essentially, the system has had very little in the way of saving.

Now what did happen in a recent reform—that is, the 1983 reform which followed along some reforms of the 1970s—so there was a decision to build up a very modest trust fund. But again, I want to emphasize, it was very, very modest. And even that buildup, which reaches its peak right now as the baby boomers are in the work force, even that buildup was spent down in the sense that we then ran larger deficits in the rest of the budget.

Let’s abandon our quest for simple clarity and note the “expert’s” 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 Conan’s audience. And when Conan asks yet another question, Steuerle makes things even more hazy:
CONAN (continuing directly): Mm-hmm. But where is that money?

STEUERLE: Uhhhh (long pause)—the money has essentiality been paid out to retirees or, if you want to count the slight surplus, it's been paid out to pay for other government programs.

CONAN: So the government has borrowed against that trust fund?

STEUERLE: It's less that it borrowed against the trust fund than it ran larger deficits outside the trust fund.

CONAN: But it—

STEUERLE: It wasn't saving. The government was not saving for the future.

At this point, Conan says “I’m confused,” and frankly, it’s hard to blame him. Twenty years into this crucial discussion, Steuerle seems to be playing “Who’s on first,” and Conan is showing no real skill at forming clear, helpful questions. And when Conan tells Steurerle that he’s confused, Steuerle’s answers get no clearer. Again, here’s how a citizen’s 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?”

STEUERLE: That's right. One side of the government issues a bond, and the other side of the government holds the bond.

CONAN: OK. Marilyn, I'm still confused, but we'll move on. Thanks very much for the phone call.

Marilyn raised familiar concerns. But the result? After Steurerle’s “expert” discussion, Conan said he was still confused, but that he’d 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 program’s “confusing” discussion. Steuerle’s answers were endlessly muddy, but Conan showed little skill at expressing Marilyn’s familiar concerns. He tried to deal with Steuerle’s murk, but as we’ll see in Parts 3 and 4, he showed no skill at turning Marilyn’s 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. Let’s 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 didn’t.

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 Marilyn’s call, and Conan should have voiced them earlier (more about this in Part 4). But even now, when he raised this claim, Conan’s 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 host’s 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.

If I could make one other analogy here, it would be as if you set aside in your personal account a little savings account you called your food saving account and you ignored what was happening in the rest of your budget. And then you got to a point in time where you had a little money in this food saving account, so this entitles me to have food for the rest of my life regardless of what over liabilities you've run elsewhere.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

STEUERLE: So in some sense, there are a lot of—

CONAN: But you used it for your car payment.

STEUERLE: That's right. That's right.

CONAN: Yeah. All right. All right. Gene Steuerle, thank you very much for being with us today—

STEUERLE: Enjoyed it—

CONAN: —and for helping us see through this thicket of numbers which are difficult on the radio.

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 guest’s 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.