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1 August 2001

Our current howler (part II): Myers light

Synopsis: There are a million ways to misstate the problem. If history actually serves as a guide, Lisa Myers will find every one.

Commentary by Lisa Myers
Nightly News, NBC, 7/24/01


There are a million ways to get SS wrong. Here, for example, was Lisa Myers, discussing last week’s report by the president’s commission:

MYERS: Today, the political rhetoric matches the summer heat. Protesters outside, the commission inside, warning that the nation’s retirement program is underfinanced by more than 25 percent and will begin going broke in only 15 years. Their interim report declares the system broken. "Unless we move boldly and quickly, the promise of Social Security to future retirees cannot be met without benefit cuts, tax increases or massive borrowing."

But will Social Security ever "go broke?" That simply isn’t going to happen, and the president’s commission didn’t say otherwise. Let’s roll ahead to 2038, when even Democrats say that the SS "trust fund" will be exhausted (if current projections prove accurate). Even in that year, the payroll tax will still provide roughly 75 percent of the money needed to maintain current SS benefit levels. (If we want to retain those benefit levels, we’ll have to dig up the extra dough.) Under those circumstances, the program will surely be underfunded, but just as surely, it will not have "gone broke." Yep—there are a million ways to misstate this problem. And if history serves as any sort of a guide, by the time this whole fine mess is finished, Lisa Myers will have found every one.

"Going broke" is a nifty metaphor, but it doesn’t quite fit this occasion. But then, we couldn’t help chuckling at other parts of Myers’ report last Tuesday night. Having described the commission’s gloomy view, she then described the upbeat opposition. "Critics attack today’s report as biased, misleading," Myers reported, "saying while the system begins to run a deficit in 15 years, it has enough reserve to stay solvent for 37 years." As we’ve told you—those who say that there is a real "trust fund" say the problem begins in 2038. Those who say that the trust fund is hooey refer to the year 2016. There are major, respected budget bigfeet found within each of the rival camps. And that’s why we just had to laugh when Myers resolved their dispute:

MYERS: Who’s right? An independent expert says the commission is right on the facts.

ROBERT BIXBY (Concord Coalition): The commission has done a very good job of letting out the problem with the current system.

Conflict resolution has never been easier! Comically, Myers simply ruled that the commission was "right on the facts," and proved it by quoting "an independent expert." Of course, Myers could also have quoted an "independent expert" who would have stated the opposite view. But so it goes when the Chandra Network slums on an actual problem.

That’s right—if history is any sort of a guide, this matter could really get messy. Our pundits are always a little bit peeved when they aren’t discussing Gary Condit’s sex exploits, and they have surely proved, beyond any doubt, their ability to botch fiscal stories. For two solid years in the mid-1990s, the press corps fumbled the Medicare debate, proving itself completely unable to sort out that much-mangled mess. And—just as Chandra reminds scribes of their once-darling Monica—so too the looming Social Security debate begins to smell a bit like that mess, in which Dems and Reps spent two solid years in semantic combat which the press corps just couldn’t straighten out.

What exactly is a "semantic" debate? In a semantic debate, the relevant facts are completely transparent; instead of arguing about relevant facts, combatants argue about preferred ways to describe them. In the mid-90s Medicare mess, there was never any dispute about the relevant facts—but Dems and Reps battled for two solid years, and the Washington press corps, hapless as always, was unable to clarify their dispute. A similar battle is shaping up now—and this time, the stakes are much, much higher. Do you really think that Lisa Myers is going to be able to sort this one out? If we want to have a sensible debate, we’ll have to provide clarity by ourselves.

Next: What exactly is a "semantic" debate? A profile of semantic confusion.

 

The occasional update (8/1/01)

Maybe Bill Gates favors privatization: Oops. Let’s reexamine one part of Myers’ report:

MYERS (7/24): Today, the political rhetoric matches the summer heat. Protesters outside, the commission inside, warning that the nation’s retirement program is underfinanced by more than 25 percent and will begin going broke in only 15 years. Their interim report declares the system broken. "Unless we move boldly and quickly, the promise of Social Security to future retirees cannot be met without benefit cuts, tax increases or massive borrowing."

Slick, slick, slick! In fact, the commission’s interim report, released on July 19, had included the statement, "the system is broken." That interim report was assembled by staff. But on July 24, the full commission specifically decided to drop that statement from its final report. William Welch, in USA Today the next morning:

WELCH (7/25): At the urging of its co-chairman, Richard Parsons, chief operating officer of AOL Time Warner, the panel dropped a sentence declaring, "The system is broken." Parsons said the statement was ambiguous and could suggest that full benefits will not be paid to current retirees or soon-to-retire workers.

Welch’s story was headlined, "Panel backs off claim Social Security is "broken.’" Bob Schieffer noted the same change in his July 24 report on the CBS Evening News: "By the end of this day of arguing, the commission chairman, Parsons, backed down and said the commission had gone too far when it said the Social Security system was ‘broken.’"

But Myers—declaring the pessimists "right on the facts"—decided to feature a gloomy statement the commission had specifically chosen to drop. Do you really think that Myers is going to clarify the debate on this serious subject?

Panel backs off claim Social Security is "broken"
William Welch, USA Today, 7/25/01

Commentary by Bob Schieffer
CBS Evening News, CBS, 7/24/01