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15 September 1999

Our current howler (part IV): When THE HOWLER began

Synopsis: Five papers explained Social Security’s 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 ball—no 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 writing—wouldn'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 rates—it'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 place—as 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 way—these 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. Please:

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 yes—and 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 that lockbox:

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.