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Caveat lector

10 April 1998

Our current howler: Goldberg, pursuing security

Synopsis: When it comes to the problem with Social Security, Reader Goldberg can’t really be sure

President Pressed Debate on Change in Social Security
Richard Stevenson, The New York Times, 4/8/98

President, Advisers Stage First Road Show on Social Security Issues
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 4/8/98

Clinton defends future Social Security
John Godfrey, The Washington Times, 4/8/98

Search is on for Social Security solution
William Welch, USA Today, 4/8/98

Clinton Rules Out Raising Payroll Taxes To Ensure Solvency of Social Security
Jackie Calmes, The Wall Street Journal, 4/8/98

Here at DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters, we sometimes cite the old joke, "Goldberg's Law." You recall it: "The man with one watch always knows the time. The man with two watches is never quite sure."

Sometimes, it's like that with newspapers.

The day after Wednesday's Social Security forum in Kansas City, five major newspapers tried to explain the future problem with SS. Each one gave an account of the problem that seemed coherent on its own terms. But when a reader compared accounts from paper to paper, confusion would have to result.

The papers agreed: Social Security was OK now, and a significant problem lies ahead. But what is that problem, and when will it materialize? Accounts varied from paper to paper.

A survey of the five papers' coverage, with a nod to Goldberg's Law:

Richard Stevenson, New York Times: Stevenson gave a simple account of the impending problem. Without any changes, "Social Security will run short of money starting in 2029," he said. After that, it would "be able to pay only 75 percent of promised benefits."

Goldberg might feel he knew the score. Then, he'd read the next paper:

Ceci Connolly, Washington Post: According to Connolly, "[T]he problem comes in about fifteen years [around 2013] when America's baby boomers start retiring." At that point, "the government will be asked to pay out more in benefits than it will collect in payroll taxes." She tends to support one part of Stevenson's account: "In 30 years [in 2028], Clinton said, the depleted Social Security bank account will be able to provide only 75 percent of the current benefits."

One writer has said "the problem comes" in 2013; one has said the program "runs short of money" in 2029. Goldberg now tries a third paper:

John Godfrey, The Washington Times: Godfrey seems to agree with Connolly in one way: "By 2012, receipts will exceed benefits." (He seems to have his terminology confused—see postscript). But now he offers an element new to Goldberg when he mentions, but does not attempt to describe, some sort of "trust fund" that will help with the problem. His full sentence: "By 2012, receipts will exceed benefits, and by 2029 trust fund balances will reach zero." Apparently, shortfalls begin in 2012, but some sort of trust fund helps out after that.

On to the people's paper:

William Welch, USA TODAY: Welch describes some sort of "reserves." He writes, "By 2029, according to the government's estimates, the system's reserves will be exhausted, and will not have enough money to pay all benefits." (The statement seems to contradict itself. If the system's "reserves" are in fact "exhausted," how can they pay any benefits?) But Welch seems to agree that some sort of "reserve" that will be drawn on through 2029.

Jackie Calmes, Wall Street Journal: If Goldberg now happened upon Calmes' piece, he would get a different picture entirely. Calmes says this: "While Social Security is running big surpluses now, that is expected to reverse by 2019." Her account implies that there will be big deficits (the "reverse" of "big surpluses") by the year 2019. (On April 7, Calmes wrote: "[B]y 2019, it is expected that Social Security will begin running annual deficits.") There is no mention made in Calmes' account of any reserve or trust fund. There is no suggestion that deficits will be made up in some way through 2029. In fact, her reference date differs completely from those of the other four scribes.

Is it surprising that even avid news readers are confused about Social Security? In these papers, readers were told that the problem begins at three different points over a seventeen-year span. They get various accounts of what happens in 2029 (see below), several of them seeming to be self-contradictory. Meanwhile, some readers have read of some sort of "reserve" which would apparently help out with the problem—though they would seem to have received different versions of what the account would do.

In fairness, none of these articles is intended to present a definitive account of how SS works. But it ought to be a point of concern when five major papers present the situation in such different ways. For today, THE DAILY HOWLER does not intend to say who has given the most felicitous account. But, with stories as widely divergent as these, is it any wonder—when it comes to Social Security—that Citizen Goldberg isn't really quite sure?


Party like it's 2029: What happens to Social Security in 2029? Today's reader has plenty of choices:

New York Times: SS will run short of money starting in 2029.

Washington Times: By 2029 trust fund balances will reach zero.

Washington Post: The depleted SS bank account will be paying three-fourths of current benefits.

USA Today: The system's reserves will be exhausted, and will not have enough money to pay all benefits.

How does a "depleted" bank account pay three-fourths of benefits? How do "exhausted" reserves still pay at all? Meanwhile, Godfrey seems to have his terms reversed when he says "receipts will exceed benefits" in 2012. Oh well. Enjoy the "Great Debate," everybody! Pick out one paper. Read quickly.


Visit our incomparable archives: Why is the public "uninformed" about SS? Two scribes should review their own work. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/8/98.