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A GOOD TALK SPOILED (PART 2)! Go ahead—take the Russert Challenge! Try to figure out what he said: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 15, 2005

THE SLEEP OF THE BANKRUPT: Here at THE HOWLER, we’ve criticized Bush’s use of the term “bankrupt” in his discussions of Social Security. Last Wednesday, David Walker, comptroller general of the GAO, came down on our side of this question. Walker appeared before the House Budget Committee. He spoke with Rep. Brian Baird (D-WA):
WALKER (2/9/05): One of the things that I find in Washington is that sometimes you've got to go back to Webster's to look what the definition is. The definition of bankruptcy is “utter failure or impoverishment.” The definition of insolvency is “unable to pay debts as they come, as they fall due.” I would respectfully suggest, for 2042, the [Social Security] program would be insolvent under that definition, but not bankrupt.

BAIRD: That is a very helpful clarification and I appreciate it and share the opinion.

We’ll disagree with Walker on one point—the use of dictionary definitions isn’t a great way to approach these issues. (After all, most members of the public can’t define “insolvency” either.) But Bush and his minions keep telling the public that SS will be “bankrupt, flat broke, flat bust” in 2042. “The entire system will be exhausted,” he said in his State of the Union Address. These statements create the image of a shuttered business—an enterprise forced to close its doors. Almost surely, many young people believe “they won’t see a dime” from Social Security because their president keeps implying they won’t when he used these slick, loaded terms.

Last week, the GAO’s Walker said the obvious—it’s misleading to use the term “bankrupt” in this context. But so what? American news orgs have slumbered and snored as Bush parades around the country, persistently misleading trusting citizens who turn out to hear him speak. Long ago, major papers should have run front-page “analysis” pieces discussing the language Bush is using. They should have discussed the misimpressions citizens get from the loaded term “bankrupt.” They should have discussed the misleading claim aimed at younger voters—the claim that SS “won’t be there” for them.

But alas! News orgs have done the thing they do best—they’ve slept, snoozed, snored, scratched and slumbered. Even this simple, obvious task is beyond their level of interest. E. J. Dionne explained it last week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/11/05). In today’s climate, big news orgs get soundly “pummeled” when they dare discuss such matters. More specifically, they “can count on being pummeled as liberal ideologues, even when they are only seeking the facts.” Result? Big news orgs avoid this obvious topic, pretending that “conventions of journalism” keep them from this basic task.

Cowardly news orgs have run and hid as Bush parades around, misleading voters. Cowardly news orgs don’t like getting pummeled. Walker stated the blindingly obvious last week. But news orgs have taken a pass.

One last point: Some store-boughts have actively covered for Bush. “The entire system will be exhausted,” Bush said in his State of the Union Address. When Dems objected to this blatant misstatement, Joe Klein covered up for the president (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/11/05). He pretended that Dems had objected to something else—to a perfectly accurate statement by Bush! And how pathetic are your big news orgs? Time put Klein’s trash into print.

A GOOD TALK SPOILED (PART 2): Warfare broke out on this week’s Sunday shows concerning one aspect of Social Security. On This Week, Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) said the vexing policy problem had surprisingly few “moving parts:”

GREGG (2/13/05): If Kent [Conrad] and I were to get in a room quietly and we had a magic wand we could fix this in about three or four hours. Because there are only four or five moving parts to Social Security. We all know what they are. And we all know how to do it.
At most, there were five “moving parts,” Gregg said. But on Meet the Press, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) had a gloomier view:
GRASSLEY (2/13/05): [Bush is] out there having a seminar with the American people on the problems of Social Security that everybody knows exists but the public has not concentrated on it. He's going to force the people of this country to concentrate on it...There are 100 moving parts. It's up to Chuck Grassley and Charlie Rangel in a bipartisan way to bring those parts together.
Later, Grassley said it again. “There's 100 moving parts,” he insisted. “What do you put together to get a solution?”

A hundred moving parts—or five? Here at THE HOWLER, we’re voting with Grassley. The current discussion is quite complex, and the public will never get anything straight unless TV hosts like Nantucket’s Tim Russert can clarify the basic issues. But alas! When Russert tackled Social Security this Sunday, he was overwhelmed by the task. Why is the public so confused, so misinformed about Social Security? Maybe because they watch Meet the Press! Russert’s performance was hopeless this week. The American people deserve better.

Example: Consider what happened when Russert challenged Grassley, his Republican guest. “When the president talks about private accounts, the second piece of that is what has to be done to pay for those,” Russert said at one point, his diction already beginning to crack. But then Russert tried to lay out the facts—and the result was utter confusion. Go ahead—take the Russert Challenge. Try to figure out what he said:

RUSSERT (2/13/05): When the president talks about private accounts, the second piece of that is what has to be done to pay for those. Now, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities [CBPP] has done an analysis of what the commission that reported to President Bush recommended in terms of wage indexing. And this is what they found—that under current law, in 2042, recipients would get a 36 percent replacement, money—their three highest years' income—a 36 percent replacement; 2075, it would be 36 percent. Under a proposal of so-called wage indexing, it would drop to 27 percent, and in 2075 to 20 percent, which would be a benefit cut of 26 percent and 46 percent. OK. Now, that's reality. That's part of what an honest presentation to the American people would include. Why haven't we heard that?
Good God! “Why haven’t we heard that?” Russert asked. One answer was obvious: Because it’s not English? To state the obvious, Russert’s verbal presentation was almost wholly incoherent; almost surely, it didn’t help that he had posted a graphic from the CBPP—a complex chart which appeared on the screen for a total of twenty-five seconds. (The graphic had four vertical columns and three horizontal lines, and carried a welter of column headings.) At THE HOWLER, we’ve studied this topic a good deal; despite that, we had to struggle hard—and struggle quickly—to make out what Russert was saying. Let’s just make an obvious guess—very few of Russert’s viewers were able to follow this jumbled presentation. Nor had they likely understood the presentation which had come just before:
RUSSERT: Senator [Grassley], shouldn't there be truth in packaging? The suggestion being made around the country, that if we have private or personal accounts, then that's going to really be a big step towards dealing with the long-term financial problems of Social Security. Here's what—a memo that was written by Peter Wehner, who's Bush's director of strategic initiatives. And he says that, "The suspicion that personal savings accounts may have little to do with making Social Security solvent over the long run was reinforced”—by his e-mail. “If we duck our duty on benefit calculations, it can have serious short-term economic consequences. Here's why. If we borrow $1-2 trillion dollars to cover transition costs for personal savings accounts and make no changes to wage indexing”—future payoffs to recipients—“we'll have borrowed trillions and will still confront more than $10 trillion in unfunded liabilities."
Huh? Unless you’ve followed these issues closely, that was about as clear as mud. (Plainly, NBC’s transcribers had no idea what Russert was saying. In a typical excess of fairness, we’ve cleaned up the chaotic punctuation found in the network’s official transcript. For fun, go check it out.) Yes, the text of Wehner’s e-mail appeared on the screen, but Russert departed from it several times as he read, and oh yes—the e-mail contains basic misinformation about the so-called “transition costs,” information which Russert never corrected. (The transition to private accounts would cost far more than $1-2 trillion.) But to be honest, there was no real reason to correct the bad info, since the chances are very slight that any viewers had been able to follow Russert’s presentation at all. We’ll print the text of Russert’s full spiel below; we invite you to read it and try to guess if anyone was able to follow his meaning. In his challenge to Senator Grassley, Russert raised a number of “moving parts”—far too many for one presentation. Rest assured—very few people watching at home could follow what Russert had said.

We side with Grassley, not with Gregg—there’s a very large number of “moving parts” in the current discussion of Social Security. For that reason, the public will never understand this debate unless skilled hosts can guide them. But on Sunday, Russert made us think of Frost’s famous guide, the one from “Directive”—the up-country guide “who only has at heart your getting lost.” Tomorrow, we’ll show you how a skillful, competent guide might have framed this discussion.

TOMORROW: If Russert had minimal skills.

ALL THIS NOW TOO MUCH FOR US (FROST): Here is the full, bewildering passage in which Russert tried to challenge Grassley. There’s a word for Russert’s performance—inept. Why is the public so confused, so misinformed? In part, they’re grossly confused about Social Security due to stumblebum efforts like this one:

RUSSERT: Senator, shouldn't there be truth in packaging? The suggestion being made around the country that if we have private or personal accounts, then that's going to really be a big step towards dealing with the long-term financial problems of Social Security.

Here's what—a memo that was written by Peter Wehner, who's Bush's director of strategic initiatives. And he says that, "The suspicion that personal savings accounts may have little to do with making Social Security solvent over the long run was reinforced”—by his e-mail. “If we duck our duty on benefit calculations, it can have serious short-term economic consequences. Here's why. If we borrow $1-2 trillion dollars to cover transition costs for personal savings accounts and make no changes to wage indexing"—future payoffs to recipients—"we'll have borrowed trillions and will still confront more than $10 trillion in unfunded liabilities."

So when the president talks about private accounts, the second piece of that is what has to be done to pay for those? Now, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has done an analysis of what the commission that reported to President Bush recommended in terms of wage indexing. And this is what they found, that under current law, in 2042, recipients would get a 36 percent replacement, money—their three highest years' income, a 36 percent replacement; 2075 it would be 36 percent. Under a proposal of so-called wage indexing, it would drop to 27 percent, and in 2075 to 20 percent, which would be a benefit cut of 26 percent and 46 percent. OK. Now, that's reality. That's part of what an honest presentation to the American people would include. Why haven't we heard that?

Go ahead—enjoy a good laugh when Russert says, “OK—that’s reality.”

Incredibly, that was one unbroken “question”—a rambling, incoherent filibuster that lasted one minute and 46 seconds. Trust us—no one knew what Russert was talking about. Tomorrow, we’ll take you “[b]ack out of all this now too much for us,” showing how a competent host might have framed this question.

By the way—for the low-down on that earlier guide, here is Frost’s “Directive.”