RUBE RUNNER: How easy is it to fool press corps rubes? Consider the clownish way Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) landed George Will and Fred Hiatt.
On Sunday, Will made a plainly inaccurate claim in his Washington Post op-ed column. He said Social Security would be running shortfalls as early as the year 2012:
WILL (3/13/05): Today the government is partially funded by that surplus of Social Security tax revenue over outlays, a fact disguised by politicians talking rot about Social Security being an "insurance" program with a "trust fund" in a "lock box." But between 2011 and 2016, Social Security outlays will exceed revenue by $32 billion, and the sums will rapidly increase during the cascading retirements of baby boomers.Say what? If you know anything at all about the SS debate, you know Wills claim is inaccurate. (See Atrios here, for example.) Everyone has read, a thousand times, the current projection of the SS trustees—the payroll tax will produce an annual surplus through the year 2018. (The CBO says 2020.) So where did Will get this oddball claim; why did he claim that SS will run a $32 billion shortfall between 2011 and 2016? Simple—Will got hustled by Senator Gregg. So did Hiatt, Wills know-nothing editor.
Where did Will get this laughable claim? Easy—he misread a phony Roll Call piece by the dissembling senator. Like so many other Republicans, Gregg was looking for a way to pretend that Social Securitys day of reckoning was disturbingly near at hand. According to the CBO, Social Security can pay full benefits through the year 2052. But its hard to get people worked up about that, so fakers like Gregg keep torturing facts to produce a sense of impending disaster. Thats what Gregg did in his column in last Mondays Roll Call. Six days later, he hauled in Will and Hiatt.
In Roll Call, Gregg recorded the size of the surplus SS is now producing. This year the government will collect $78 billion more in Social Security taxes than we will pay in benefits, he correctly noted. And not only that: The surplus is expected to expand to $88 billion in 2006, $99 billion in 2007 and so on. The brilliant solon also noted that the annual surplus would peak at $116 billion in 2011. And then he recorded the annual surpluses which will obtain after that:
GREGG (3/7/05): At that point, the surplus begins to diminish for the first time, falling to $113 billion in 2012, $106 billion in 2013 and so on down to $85 billion in 2015 and accelerating downward every year thereafter.The surplus will be getting smaller each year—but duh! At this point, it will still be a surplus! In 2015, the surplus will be $85 billion, which is bigger than the surplus this year! But Gregg wanted to produce a sense of disaster. So thats when he started to torture his facts to produce a disturbing conclusion:
GREGG: This is significant because every dollar collected in payroll taxes is spent, including the surplus. So in 2011, when budget writers are looking at the fiscal 2012 budget, they can count on less Social Security dollars to pad other spending, and the rest of the budget will begin to feel the pinch.People need to understand this reality, Gregg said—even as he did his best to confuse, mislead and scare them.
That means defense, education, federal highways, environmental programs—every other area of government will be impacted.
This will happen not in 2018, not in 2042, but just six years from now when Congress will have to make choices between Social Security benefits and other programs. People need to understand this reality.
Note the reality Gregg is describing. In 2012, the payroll tax will produce a $113 billion surplus—but this will be slightly less than the surplus it produced the year before. Of course, this will have exactly no effect upon spending in any federal program. Duh! The federal government borrows that surplus each year—and it borrows lots more money besides, depending on how much money it needs. How will this work in 2012? In that year, the federal government will borrow that $113 billion from SS—and it will also borrow money from many other sources. The fact that the SS surplus is shrinking slightly wont effect government operations at all. The government will borrow slightly less from SS that year, and slightly more from other sources. Repeat: This will have no effect on any operation of government.
Gregg knows this—but he hopes that you dont. And he correctly assumes that the press corps big, stupid rubes are dumb enough to buy this pure twaddle. And yes! Hoping to play the corps lunkheads for fools, he even went on to say this:
GREGG: In the five-year period from 2011 to 2016, the contracting Social Security surplus will gouge $32 billion out of the rest of the budget and with each coming year remove an accelerating amount as the Social Security surplus continues to shrink.That prediction by Gregg is completely absurd—but it led to Wills world-class howler. Six days later, Will was drawing his wisdom from Greggs phony column. And uh-oh! In the process, Will even managed to misstate the stupid thing Gregg had really said.
How did Will misstate what Gregg said? Simple: Gregg had made a fake prediction; he predicted that, after 2011, the declining annual SS surplus would gouge money out of the federal budget. He added up the declines in the annual surplus and got a total of $32 billion, over a five-year span. But Will (or whoever writes his column for him) seemed to misread what Gregg said. Gregg didnt make the absurd claim that ended up in Wills column—the claim that outlays would exceed revenues over this five-year period. Will (or whoever writes his column) took a fake prediction from Gregg and turned it into a plainly inaccurate fact. No, readers: Social Security outlays will not exceed revenue during the five-year period in question. And everyone in America knows that—except for George Will and Fred Hiatt.
How easy was it to fool the corps rubes? Wills statement was glaringly false; anyone—anyone—would have known it. But Will (or whoever writes his column) didnt see this obvious groaner. Neither, of course, did the hapless Hiatt—or whoever edits Post columns for him.
PARTIAL ROLL CALL OF THE RUBES: For the record, Gregg hauled in a whole gang of press corps rubes, all across the country. Wills column contained an obvious howler. But so what? According to Nexis, it also ran in the following papers last Sunday:
The Pittsburgh Tribune ReviewPresumably, there were many others; Nexis doesnt provide an exhaustive record of the papers which carry Wills column. But its one of the most widely-syndicated columns in the country.
The (Salt Lake City) Deseret Morning News
The Albany (New York) Times Herald
The Augusta (Georgia) Chronicle
The Duluth News-Tribune
The Tallahassee Democrat
The Biloxi Sun Herald
Lets say it again. Wills assertion was blatantly false. Anybody would have known this. But so what? Rubes like Hiatt put it in print, and it produced the desired effect. Across the country, readers were told that terrible shortfalls are coming quite soon. Across the country, Gregg found rubes who were ready to help him fool readers.
AT THE SOURCE: Lets mention the name of another Big Rube—Roll Calls executive editor, Mort Kondracke. Greggs original claim was completely absurd. But you know Mort! He was right there to print it.
THE NEW YORK TIMES KEEPS PACE: Will editors put any claim into print? Plainly, the answer is yes—when it comes to Social Security. Just yesterday, the New York Times let David Brooks publish this baldly inaccurate statement:
BROOKS (3/15/05): [M]any [Democrats] made demagogic speeches about Republican benefit cuts, as if it is possible to fix the system without benefit cuts. Many ginned up the familiar scare tactics designed to frighten the elderly.As if its possible to fix the system? It is obviously possible to fix the system without any benefit cuts. (See Sam Rosenfeld at Tapped, linking to Ezra Klein.) Of course, youd never know this from reading the Times—a failed newspaper which seems determined to keep readers deep in the dark.
How might the 75-year SS shortfall be eliminated without benefit cuts? Months ago, we quoted Baker and Weisbrot as they explained it (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/10/04). The boys were writing in 1999, using dates and figures which then applied. But the principle today is no different:
BAKER/WEISBROT (page 24): If we were to ignore the problem completely for the next 13 years and then fix it by the most politically drastic meansraising the payroll taxfuture generations would not be greatly burdened. For example, an increase on the payroll tax of one-tenth of one percent each year (split between employer and employee), beginning in 2011 and continuing until 2046, would close the gap. This would still leave future generations with an after-tax wage far higher than that of todays employees. For example, the average worker in 2030 would have an after-tax wage that is 28.7 percent higher than today, in real (inflation-adjusted) terms. Without these payroll tax increases, that employee would have an average wage 30.7 percent higher than his or her counterpart of today.Instead of a 31-percent wage hike, we can take 29—and insure promised benefits for future seniors.
That sort of information should have appeared in all our major papers by now. But youll see Bill Mahers gorilla perched on that bidet before any such thing occurs. Your big newspapers flee from facts the way a saint backpedals from sin. Youll never read this in the New York Times. Instead, youll read Brooks wild howlers.
The poor Times! They dont have the rights to Wills misstatements. So they have to type new ones themselves.