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VOUCHING FOR CONGRESSMAN RYAN! Ryan’s vouchers are all around. A star liberal didn’t quite name them: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, APRIL 5, 2011

Far-fetched professors on Mars: Has there ever been a major culture quite as dumb as ours?

In this morning’s New York Times, Alicia Munnell advances one of the most far-fetched rationales for political action we have ever seen.

Why should we put Social Security on a stronger long-term footing—and why should we do it today? Munnell, who served under President Clinton, answers these questions from Chestnut Hill, located just south of Mars:

MUNNELL (4/5/11): Restoring balance to Social Security would also make Americans feel more secure about their retirement. Surveys have repeatedly shown that many Americans do not believe that Social Security will be there for them. While such an assessment is wrong—even without any changes, Social Security payroll taxes could pay 100 percent of benefits for the next 25 years, and 75 percent to 80 percent of benefits for decades thereafter—anxiety about the program’s future leads people to grab benefits as soon as they can. The problem is that benefits claimed at the early retirement age, 62, are 25 percent smaller than at the full retirement age (currently 66) and are likely to be inadequate when retirees have exhausted their other sources of income later in life. Eliminating the Social Security shortfall will, therefore, reduce the misplaced fear that causes Americans to claim benefits early.

Truly, that is amazing. For the record, Munnell is Peter F. Drucker Professor of Management Sciences at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. In 2009, she received the Robert M. Ball Award for Outstanding Achievements in Social Insurance from the National Academy of Social Insurance.

But enough with the product placement!

In Munnell’s judgment, Americans take their Social Security benefits early because they “do not believe that Social Security will be there for them.” They have to take the money now, since it may not be there later. “Anxiety about the program’s future leads people to grab benefits as soon as they can.”

Munnell offers no evidence that this claim is true; the notion strikes us as a bit far-fetched. But let’s suppose this notion is true. Why would “eliminating the Social Security shortfall” stop all this short-sighted conduct?

Munnell specifically notes that these early-enrollers are wrong in their current assessment. Indeed: “Even without any changes, Social Security payroll taxes could pay 100 percent of benefits for the next 25 years, and 75 percent to 80 percent of benefits for decades thereafter.” Why does she think these misinformed people will change their behavior if the life of the program is extended for perhaps a few dozen more years?

Earth to Munnell: Those people are wrong in their current assessment because they’ve been deceived, for decades, as part of a disinformation campaign. That disinformation campaign will continue, even if the program’s solvency is extended. The deliberate deception will continue—and the Munnells will say nothing about it. People will still hear false and misleading claims—and they’ll still believe them.

They’ll still hear people swearing that the trust fund is just an accounting trick! Why would their conduct change?

Yesterday, Paul Krugman wrote about the deliberate lunacy driving the climate change discussion (click here). But deliberate lunacy of this type drives all our public discussions—a problem which is rarely mentioned by the nation’s “intellectual elites.” People like Munnell hide their eyes from this state of affairs. As a group, they refuse to tell the public where their “wrong” beliefs come from.

Today, Munnell tells us how we can end the confusion about SS! Who else but the New York Times would publish such consummate piffle?

The things we the people believe: We the people believe that Social Security won’t be there for us. We believe that climate change is a hoax invented by the world’s scientists. We believed that Bill Clinton killed many people—and that Candidate Gore was a “delusional” liar.

We believe that if you lower tax rates, federal revenue grows. European-style health care has failed everywhere it’s been tried!

There’s almost nothing we don’t believe—and we get a lot of encouragement. But when we believe a ridiculous claim about Obama, it can only be about race! Another professor steps forward on Mars to hand us this deathless insight.

VOUCHING FOR CONGRESSMAN RYAN (permalink): Paul Ryan doesn’t want anyone saying his Medicare plan includes “vouchers.”

Yesterday, in this post, Kevin Drum said he assumes the discouraging word “must have polled poorly in some recent Frank Luntz poll or something.” We’ll guess that Kevin is right.

A similar squabble drove the Gore/Bradley debate in 1999, when Candidate Bradley, for better or worse, proposed replacing Medicaid with payments that, for better or worse, looked a great deal like vouchers. Candidate Gore kept using that term; Candidate Bradley writhed and complained and then started lying. He even said that Gore was the man who introduced Willie Horton to the American people. A long string of journalists stood in line, eager to recite a claim they knew to be utterly bogus.

At that time, folks said the V-word polled badly among Democratic primary voters, who associated the term with educational vouchers. We have no idea about that. But Ryan seems to hate “vouchers” too.

This seems a bit ironic.

In fact, Ryan’s vouchers can be found all over DC, where they’re vouching for Ryan’s good character. Yesterday, in the Washington Post, E. J. Dionne produced a striking example.

According to Dionne, Ryan’s plan “reportedly will include steep Medicaid cuts, disguised as a proposal to turn the program into a ‘block grant’ to the states” (our emphasis). According to Dionne, Ryan’s central purpose “will not be deficit reduction but the gradual dismantling of key parts of government” (Our emphasis. Deficit reduction is Ryan’s stated purpose.) Meanwhile, beyond the gent’s apparent deceptions, Ryan’s plan seems bad on the merits. The plan has two parts, Dionne said—“tax cuts for the rich, program cuts for the poor.” Ryan wants “to preserve the Bush tax cuts and, over the long run, to enact more breaks for the wealthy.” According to Dionne, the net effect of Ryan’s plan “would be to leave even more Americans to the mercies of the private insurance market.”

That doesn’t sound like a very good plan—and it doesn’t sound like Ryan is being real honest. But just like that, Dionne vouched for Ryan’s character, even as he acknowledged that he has little basis for making such an assessment.

Ryan’s daughter slept with a Brit (click here). Ryan’s vouchers speak up for the man:

DIONNE (4/4/11): But while I am assailing his ideas, let me put in a good word about Ryan himself: He is, from my limited experience, a charming man who truly believes what he believes. I salute him for laying out the actual conservative agenda. Here’s hoping he is transparent in the coming weeks about whom he is taking benefits from and toward whom he wants to be more generous. If he thinks we need an even more unequal society to prosper in the future, may he have the courage to say so.

Does Ryan “truly believes what he believes?” For ourselves, we have no idea. We have no experience with Ryan—unlike Dionne, whose experience is “limited.” Nor are we sure what Dionne’s formulation even means. Doesn’t everyone “believe what he or she believes?” In this case, the question is whether Ryan is being honest about the things he says he believes—about his actual political goals, about his actual motives.

Presumably, Dionne doesn’t know if Ryan is being honest. But so what! He went ahead and joined the army of Ryan’s vouchers.

Please note: Dionne didn’t have to assail Ryan’s character. Given his limited knowledge base, he didn’t have to voice a judgment at all. But an army of vouchers is marching on Washington as Ryan makes ready to unloose his plan. David Brooks falls all over himself in this morning’s Times, praising Ryan’s once-in-a-lifetime courage. Indeed, Ryan “is scheduled to release the most comprehensive and most courageous budget reform proposal any of us have seen in our lifetimes,” Brooks absurdly says—while making no serious or honest attempt to explain Ryan’s Medicare plan.

That said, it has become the established norm to vouch for Ryan’s character, just as establishment pundits reflexively vouch for Newt Gingrich’s massive intelligence. Yesterday, Chris Matthews bowed to this norm on Hardball, first in a tease, then in his introduction to a discussion of Ryan:

MATTHEWS (4/4/11): Up next: the budget battle. Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, wants to revamp Medicare and Medicaid and cut it a bit. It’s either political courage or perhaps political suicide. Our strategists join us next. This is a hot one, especially for retirees or those who would like to retire some day.

You’re watching Hardball, only on MSNBC.

[…]

MATTHEWS: Let’s go to the economics issue that probably affects more people.
Medicare affects more people than Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s trial. Let’s go to Paul Ryan. He’s the chairman of the budget committee and the political risks of a budget plan.

Let’s listen to this guy. He’s got a lot of guts. Let’s see if he’s too gutsy or whatever. Let’s watch.

Matthews then played tape of Ryan, pre-assailing his opponents’ character. “We are giving them a political weapon to go against us,” the gutsy congressman was shown saying. “But they will have to lie or demagogue to make it a political weapon.”

That was a remarkable charge. It was also a remarkably nasty charge, coming from a man of such widely-acknowledged high character.

Matthews didn’t fawn over Ryan in the way Brooks later did. But he did build Ryan’s “political courage” into his framework for this segment. Soon, Democratic strategist Steve McMahon was following Matthews’ lead. (“What Paul Ryan did, which was courageous, it was as courageous as it was politically stupid because he proposed taking it out senior programs and programs for the poor, not a penny out of defense.”)

Can we talk? In advancing his budget plan, Ryan makes himself the greatest darling of oligarchic American power. Ryan is a made man for life; he and his family and friends will never want for much. Whatever one thinks of his budget proposal, it’s hard to know why such a stance would mark a pol as being unusually courageous. But this framework is quite common when it comes to the brave honest Ryan—just as it was long required that pundits must cite the troubling dishonesty of President Clinton, then Candidate Gore.

Almost no one pushed back against that framing, which sent George W. Bush to the White House. Today, a burgeoning liberal world does exist. But in many cases, your greatest liberal heroes remain career players. Below, you see the way an angry Josh Marshall recorded that Hardball segment:

MARSHALL (4/4/11): TRULY PATHETIC

Why on earth did the Democrat speaking for the Democrats just now on Hardball say it was "courageous" but "politically stupid" for Paul Ryan to put up a plan to abolish Medicare and other federal social programs? That's the best he can do? "Courageous"? That's simply amazing. If ordinary people who look forward to being able to rely on Medicare once they retire can't even get advocates who don't think it's "courageous" to try to abolish Medicare, why are Democrats even in this game?

You can respect people's contrary opinions. But presumably it's wrong to abolish Medicare because it's wrong. And that Dems are the party who believes it's wrong.

It's a separate matter that so many people are creating this cult about Paul Ryan that he's some sort of visionary leader when he's just putting forward policies that the right of the GOP has been advocating for decades. But really, even the Democrats think that this is "courageous"? I guess in a way it was courageous for the Delaware GOP to run Christine O'Donnell.

Has this guy even understood what the policy is? How courageous would it be to abolish Social Security? Sometimes things are politically risky because they're profoundly bad ideas.

Simply amazing.

Josh didn’t include McMahon’s name, which he surely must know. (McMahon remained “this guy” throughout.) As a newly anointed Hardball star, he didn’t mention Matthews at all.

Darlings, it simply isn’t done! Advancement is at stake!

This is the way Chris Matthews escaped through all those vicious, ugly years in which he worked to send Bush to the White House. Career liberal players nursed their careers. The truth, and you, finished second.

You have been played this way for decades. Special preview: We can’t wait to see Maddow name the names of “the Beltway press” tonight!

Update: This morning, Josh identifies McMahon, with tape. (Did he really not know who he was?) Still no mention of Matthews, whose framework McMahon was reinforcing. That's how it's done on these programs.