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Daily Howler: Krugman presents basic facts on SS. Now watch the press corps ignore them
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BUFFALOED AGAIN! Russert recited his usual facts. He recited all the facts that are scary: // link // print // previous // next //

BUFFALOED AGAIN: Why do American citizens think there’s a “looming crisis” in Social Security? One answer is fairly obvious—big press honchos constantly say so. Consider Sunday’s Meet the Press, for example. Senator Harry Reid dared to say that he opposed Soc Sec private accounts. In reply, Tim Russert put it on cruise control, serving up the scary speech he has delivered ten thousand times in the past:
RUSSERT (12/5/04): But, Senator, there are now forty million people on Social Security. In the next twenty years, there's going to be eighty million. Life expectancy used to be 65 years old. It's approaching 80. If you have twice as many people on these programs for fifteen years, you've got to restructure them in some way, shape, or form. What is your solution?

REID: Tim—

RUSSERT: What is your alternative?

Poor Harry! The solon got to say one word—“Tim”—before the humble son of Buffalo challenged him boldly again.

Russert delivers this ominous speech the way other life-forms take air. He’ll interject his (selective) facts into almost any discussion. Indeed, this produced one of the funniest moments of Campaign 2000, during a Republican debate in New Hampshire (excerpts below). When Russert insisted on stating his own views on Social Security—cutting off candidates so he could opine—candidate Alan Keyes rocked the great moderator. “I begin to wonder when Mr. Russert will declare his candidacy,” Keyes said (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/17/00). The following day, the Manchester Union-Leader, the debate’s sponsor, apologized for Russert’s odd conduct.

At any rate, everyone’s heard it a thousand times—the Standard Recitation, in which too many people will be retired and too few workers will be there to support them. These facts make it sound like Soc Sec can’t survive—and Russert is expert at rattling them. But something odd happened on Sunday’s Meet the Press. Once Reid got his chance to speak, he offered some alternative facts—some of the facts we highlighted yesterday from that Paul Krugman column:

REID (12/5/04): Tim, all experts say that Social Security beneficiaries will receive every penny of their benefits that they're entitled to—100 percent of them—until the year 2055. After that, if we still do nothing, they'll draw 80 percent of their benefits. I want those beneficiaries after year 2055 to draw 100 percent of their benefits. But this does not require dismantling the program. For heaven's sakes, they're crying wolf a little too regularly here. There is not an emergency on Social Security.
Say what? There is not an emergency? Krugman’s presentation was more detailed, but Reid noted that, even after 2055, with no adjustment to current arrangements, beneficiaries will draw 80 percent of promised benefits. He didn’t cite Krugman’s further point—that the system can be made whole through the next century with minor infusions of cash. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/7/04, for excerpts from Krugman’s column.

No, Reid’s presentation wasn’t perfect, but it was somewhat novel. How many voters have ever heard anyone say that, when Soc Sec goes “bankrupt” in 2055, it will still pay 81 percent of promised benefits? And how many voters have ever heard that the system can be made whole by modest new revenues—revenues equal to only one-quarter of Bush’s tax cuts? Few Americans have ever heard anyone cite these key facts. Russert’s presentation is common; he recites his scary facts the way other bipedals breathe. But the facts presented by Krugman and Reid are rarely heard in mainstream press circles. We all hear Russert’s scary facts, about how many folks will retire. But we rarely hear countervailing facts—facts which are more direct, and less inferential, facts which directly describe the real shape of this important program.

Why does Russert love his speech so? Why does he only cite scary facts, while omitting the facts Krugman cited? We don’t know, but it can’t be lack of preparation. By his own embarrassed admission, Russert is always prepared, for every show, and the facts included in Krugman’s column are hardly deep, dark secrets. Surely Russert has heard all these facts. Indeed, in Social Security: The Phony Crisis, Baker and Weisbrot discussed the scary facts which Russert loves to recite:

BAKER/WEISBROT (page 32): Another statistic played up by [advocates of privatization] is the ratio or workers to retirees. It is often noted, for example, that the number of workers paying Social Security taxes for every retiree drawing benefits will fall from 3.3 today [1999] to 2.1 by the year 2030. It is thus argued that the system will become unsustainable without serious benefit cuts.
Too many old folks! And way too few workers! Russert loves reciting these facts, which suggest the system is headed for disaster. But as they continue, Baker and Weisbrot, somewhat drily, offer a larger context:
BAKER/WEISBROT (continuing directly): But the decline in this ratio has actually been considerably steeper in the past. In 1955 there were 8.6 workers per retiree, and the decline from 8.6 to 3.3 did not precipitate any economic disaster.

These figures also neglect to take into account the reduced costs faced by the working population from having a smaller proportion of children to support. A more accurate measure of the actual burden faced by the employed labor force would be the total dependency ratio, which includes both retirees and children relative to the number of workers. This ratio is projected to increase from 0.708 today to 0.796 in 2035. This is not a large increase, and the latter figure is considerably below the ratio for the year 1965, which was 0.947.

In short, those future workers—the ones Russert cites—may not have it so bad after all. Yes, they’ll have more dependent retirees on their hands—but they’ll have fewer dependent children. But then, The Phony Crisis is full of facts which place the situation in a broader context. Why then do we only hear facts which suggest a “looming crisis?”

Surely, Russert knows a wide range of facts; by his own admission, he’s always prepared. Isn’t it time he offered his viewers a wider range of information? Even better: Isn’t it time that Baker, Weisbrot and Krugman became part of the debate on this program?

BUFFALOED IN MANCHESTER: During that New Hampshire debate, Russert rattled his normal assortment of facts. In other words, he presented only those facts which suggest a Big Soc Sec Crisis:

RUSSERT (1/6/00): Let me turn to an issue—before we allow the candidates to question one another—Social Security and Medicare. And Senator McCain, let me start with you.

When Social Security was created there were...42 workers for every retiree. There are now going to be, soon, two workers per retiree. The program currently costs $40 million. There are 40 million people on Social Security and Medicare. There soon will be 80 million. Program costs $600 billion, 2035 it's going to cost $5 trillion.

In 1997, you sat with me and said that we should look at making sacrifices, not only on age, not only on means testing, but frankly taxpayers and workers are probably going to have to pay some more to ensure their future.

As president, would you put age, means testing and increased premiums on the table, as you did two years ago?

When McCain said “No, I wouldn’t,” Russert rattled more scary (if indirect) facts:
RUSSERT: So life expectancy, Senator, life expectancy goes to 87 years old.


RUSSERT: People retire at 62, 65, 67.


RUSSERT: And the government will pay their Medicare and Social Security from 20 to 25 years. And you can do that without means testing, without raising benefits [sic]?

McCain seemed to say that private accounts could help with the problem. Eventually, Candidate Bauer butted in—and no, he didn’t adopt Russert’s outlook. So before he moved to other questions, Russert felt the need to reassert his own brilliant view on the subject:
RUSSERT: Just for the record, Mr. Bauer, if nothing is done, benefits must be reduced by a third, or the taxes doubled in the year 2035—

BAUER: In what—

RUSSERT: More to come. More to come.


There! Russert gave himself the final word, asserting his opinions as if they were facts. Moments later, Candidate Keyes, justifiably peeved, asked if Russert was running for office.– To this day, Russert loves the scary facts, but he never seems to mention the others. It’s hard to say why the Buffalonian does this. Could it be those Millionaire Pundit Values again—values learned on a breezy estate among the swells of Nantucket? And yes, for those compelled to ask—this is your “liberal press corps” in action.

REAL WISDOM: Yesterday, we opened an e-mail and found some real wisdom! A mailer said that Cal got screwed when some coaches vaulted Texas past the Bears in this week’s college poll. That, of course, is a matter of judgment. But here’s where the wisdom began:

E-MAIL: Note that if the coaches are to justify their change of vote, they have to say that Cal's ten-point victory on the road at Southern Mississippi made them rethink things.

Consider (1) Texas’ nail-biter over Kansas about two weeks ago (forgotten game) and (2) the fact that most teams in the South rarely, if ever, travel across country to play in the Midwest and West. I mean, Georgia hasn't left the South in my lifetime.

Thank you! All week, we’ve heard scripted pundits insist that Auburn got screwed in the BCS because the SEC is the toughest conference (“by far”). We’ve long resisted this tired old script. Actual facts here on Friday.