15 September 1999
Our current howler (part IV): When THE HOWLER began
Synopsis: Five papers explained Social Securitys future problem. Uh oh--they explained it in five different ways.
Sure I Would
Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, 9/12/99
Safest retirement lockbox
Scott Hodge, The Washington Times, 6/7/99
Do you doubt us when we say that this press corps loves clowning?
Then you didn't read Maureen Dowd Sunday. Up to old tricks, the
commentariat's queen railed against an article in that crucial
mag, Esquire. Tom Junod had penned a dimwit piece about
Hillary Clinton's sex appeal. And Dowd decided, then and there,
that she'd had about enough of this drivel:
DOWD: The problem with this is that it yanks us back to judging
women on their looks and desirability. That is where women have
been throughout history, relying on their appearance to get approval,
and that can be debilitating.
Really? Hey, this was good stuff! Dowd was eager to help us
see how "trivializing" Junod's approach really was.
So she applied the offensive "Junod approach" to a bunch
of leading male candidates too, and managed to kill another column
with her standard pointless blather.
Yep. It's no wonder Dowd is the queen of the ballno one gossips
and kills time any better! No one would have paid any attention
to Junod's silly piece if Dowd hadn't seen that it gave her a
way out. Another Sunday would come and go, and she wouldn't have
to do any real writingwouldn't have to write on those boring
"issues" she once told Joe Klein that she hates to discuss.
(So Klein told Brill's Content.)
Silly stuff like this wins the Pulitzer Prize? It's a measure
of what's wrong with press culture. And in this environment, should
we be surprised if lesser scribes fail when it comes to their
basics? All week, we've looked at major Washington scribes bollixed
by simple fiscal topics. The lockbox, the surplus, our current
tax ratesit's a steady stream of misstatement and error. And
the Medicare mess of 1995-96 remains a tribute to fiscal confusion.
But the granddaddy of them all for press fiscal follies? It's
long been Social Security. Ever since the so-called "trust
fund" came on the scene, designed to bolster the program's
long-term prospects, the press corps has virtually made a living
creating confusion about SS. Our favorite example? In April 1998,
a great debate about Social Security was about to start, and five
major papers covered a highly-publicized forum at which President
Clinton discussed SS with the public.
When the SS forum in Kansas City took place, THE DAILY HOWLER's
spectacular World Headquarters had just been opened for business.
Our excited young analysts were starting the work that continues
right up to the present. And when our analysts spied the various
articles describing the president's Kansas City event, they quickly
saw that major work lay ahead in this crucial area. Indeed, anyone
who reviewed the work of the five major papers would have seen
why SS has long been so opaque.
The papers agreed that SS was OK now. They agreed that a problem
lay ahead. But what was the problem? The papers explained
it in a bewildering variety of ways. Two said the problem began
in 2012; the Wall Street Journal said 2019. The New York Times
said the problem began in the year 2029. And what exactly was
the problem? Well, that was remarkably tangled up too. If you
read one paper, you thought you knew. If you read two papers,
you were no longer sure.
We filed two dispatches, in those earliest days, assuming we'd
follow this great debate closely. When we founded the HOWLER,
we already knew how much confusion pervades fiscal reporting.
Of course, the great SS debate never really took placeas a nation,
we took a different option. We decided to spend the year clowning
around, chatting on Everything Monica.
We strongly suggest that you read the two pieces we
filed back in April '98. We think they provide a striking look
at the confusion surrounding SS. And by the waythese articles
remind us of the basic advice we give school kids this time of
year. We tell the kids to stop clowning around, and above all,
get back to the basics.
Visit our incomparable archives: We strongly
suggest that you read these dispatches limning our SS coverage.
Why is the public "uninformed" on SS? Two scolding
scribes should review their own work. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/8/98.
Five papers explained the future problem. They explained it
in five different ways. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/10/98.
The road not taken: What is the future state
of Social Security? Will the program be able to pay future benefits?
Questions like this, although double-B basic, almost never get
asked at all. We're too busy gossiping about the Clintons' marriage,
and wondering which house they will actually buy. Oh yesand clowning
around on network TV, laughing at Mrs. Clinton's old photos (see
THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/10/99).
Would the "lockbox" proposal provide much help? Would
it insure that recipients get future benefits? In June, a fascinating
article by Scott Hodge captured our attention. Hodge, senior fellow
at Citizens for a Sound Economy, ticked off these two facts on
HODGE: [E]ven if we were to bank $2.7 trillion [the projected
SS 15-year surplus] at Fort Knox until the Baby Boomers begin
to retire, it would be trivial against the system's long-term
liabilities. In fact, $2.7 trillion would cover just 2.2 percent
of the program's long-term shortfall.
Say what? Then this:
HODGE: Let's assume for a moment we could eliminate the entire
$3.6 trillion long-term public debt today and, thus, save ourselves
$230 billion in interest costs each and every year. While these
interest payments would total $17 trillion through Social Security's
75-year actuarial forecast, this is only enough to cover 14 percent
of the program's long-term liability.
These data, and others in Hodge's article, suggest that SS
faces serious problems paying future benefits. But have you seen
anyone discuss that matter recently? Of course not. We've
been too much busy discussing what Hillary meant to say about
the president's grandmother. Alas! One day, we may be grandparents
too, looking back with chagrin at our folly.