Social Security And Journalism’s Failure To Inform

Journalists are supposed to inform us.

What one means by “inform” is, I suppose, in the news consumer’s mind, but the point is that anyone who regularly partakes of American journalism should at least understand the basics of any given issue in the news.

Alas, that is not the case. Journalism, and journalists, are letting us down.

As just one example, Trudy Lieberman of Columbia Journalism Review points out the gross deficiencies in media coverage of “the Social Security debate”:

For nearly three years CJR has observed that much of the press has reported only one side of this story using “facts” that are misleading or flat-out wrong while ignoring others. Whatever the reason—ideology, poor understanding of how the program works, gullibility, or plain old reportorial laziness—news outlets have given the public a skewed picture of the financial health of this hugely important program, which is the sole source of retirement funds for millions of Americans and will continue to be for decades to come.

Lieberman points out that Social Security, while “not in perfect financial health,” is nevertheless a tweak or two away from extended solvency, a fact which has not “been discussed much in the press.” The reason it hasn’t, Lieberman suggests, is “because it doesn’t fit into the doom-and-gloom narrative that has proved politically expedient to tell.”

The result of this misreporting or underreporting or non-reporting is that people—many of them young people—are losing their faith in Social Security, which plays right into the hands of right-wingers, who have always hated it:

“The elite press repeatedly quotes the commentary of the devoted opponents of social insurance retirement programs,” says Yale professor emeritus Theodore Marmor. “But they appear unaware of how they are supporting a strategic attack on social insurance that has been going on for years.”

Singled out for bad reporting and bad journalism is The Washington Post’s Lori Montgomery, the once-respectable paper’s budget correspondent. Montgomery pushes a narrative that fits nicely in with the narrative pushed by conservatives in the Republican Party: in order to come to grips with our financial problems, federal social programs—including Social Security—have to be sliced. There is a “surprisingly broad consensus” for that view, Montgomery’s reporting insists.

The Post’s Robert Samuelson is also specifically cited as pushing the “popular message” that Social Security is a welfare program that “is slowly and inexorably crowding out the rest of government.”  Other journalist at other outlets have done the same thing, which leads Lieberman to surmise:

With that kind of news reporting, young people…can be forgiven for misunderstanding the concept of social insurance and believing Social Security is almost dead. Over the decades since the passage of Social Security in 1935, the media have used the term “social insurance” less and less, which of course keeps people in the dark about what it really is. In 1930, The Washington PostThe New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune together published nearly eighty articles with the words “social insurance” in the headline. In 1990, there were at most two—one in the Times and one in the Post. By then the Cato Institute and other conservative think tanks were well on their way to changing the media’s narrative and description of Social Security. The program was no long to be described as social insurance, but as an investment that fell short of what people could achieve on their own by saving and managing their payroll tax contributions. It was not a good deal for younger workers.

Lieberman tells us how the right-wing Heritage Foundation has “systematically” attacked “the country’s most popular social program” by deliberately using a “Leninist” strategy, including “guerrilla warfare against both the current Social Security system and the coalition that supports it.” Part of that guerilla warfare involves gaining “the support of key individuals in the media as well as to win over vital constituencies for political reform.”

Sadly and disturbingly, not only have individuals in the media been won over, many Democrats have been compromised, too:

The media haven’t reported much about how the nuts and bolts of proposals to fix Social Security would affect ordinary people, but they’ve done a super job of showing how Social Security’s opponents have brought one of the biggest segments around to their way of thinking—Congressional Democrats, including the second ranking member of the Senate, Dick Durbin, who is often the media’s go-to guy for the progressive perspective. It’s kind of a validation of Cato’s manifesto…

“We used to have Democrats speaking out (in support of the program) which we don’t have today, “ says Eric Kingson, co-director of the advocacy group Social Security Works.

Well, I still hear some Democrats speaking out, but I admit their voices are not as loud and aren’t heard as often as they used to be. And part of the reason for that is because journalists have largely bought into the Social-Security-is-dying propaganda and are failing to inform the public as to what is really going on.

Thankfully, one outstanding journalist, Trudy Lieberman, is trying to do something about it.

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19 Comments

  1. EC,

    The doom and gloom re the Social Security (and Disability Insurance) Trust Fund is probably because it has very little cash. The same is true of the Medicare/Medicaid and other trust funds. At the end of 2011, the total federal debt was 14.764 trillion, of which 4.636 trillion, or 31%, is owed to various trust funds, leaving 10.128 trillion owned by the public — including China.

    For example, according to http://www.ssa.gov/finance/2011/Financial%20Statements.pdf, the Balance Sheet for the Old-Age Survivors and Disability Trust Fund shows total assets of 2.702 trillion, but 2.688 trillion, 99.5% of that total, is in Treasury Department IOU’s. In other words, the Treasury is borrowing from the SSA and the other trusts to pay its bills; more than 4.6 trillion to date.

    So, the financial viability of these trust funds is predicated on the ability of the U.S. Treasury being able to repay its IOU’s. Therefore, all the fuss is that IF the U.S. can no longer BORROW money, then the trust funds, including your and my Social Security and Medicare, will be S.O.L. and flat broke.

    Of course, all of this technical, highfaluting financial talk is usually above the pay grade of most journalists so they are both ill-prepared and ill-informed to ‘splain this stuff to the general public. Sadly, it’s also over the heads of most of those in Congress as well – on both sides of the isle.

    Herb

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    • Herb,

      The SS trust funds, which are “invested” in special issue Treasury securities, are IOUs in the same sense that other Treasury securities are IOUs. But an IOU from the United States Treasury is an obvious safe choice for investors, including those paying into SS. Even (and especially) when the world’s economy was staggering, people around the world put their money in long-term Treasury instruments because the U.S. represents stability, even though we are in the financial (and political) shape we’re in. As I have said before, it is all relative.
      That is why there is no good reason to think, “IF the U.S. can no longer BORROW money.” The U.S., as long as you and I will be alive, will always be able to borrow money. The only question is how much it will cost us.

      What I don’t like is when politicians or journalists point to SS and say there are major problems with its finances. There aren’t “major” problems. SS is the least of our problems.

      Duane

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      • Duane,

        Got to http://www.ssa.gov/finance/2011/Financial%20Statements.pdf, then go to page 14 (of the pdf file) and read the last paragraph in Footnote 5. What it says, essentially, is that the OASI and DI trust funds are financed just like any other part of the government. It says, if needed to cover OASI and DI expenditures, the Treasury can (1) sell more bonds, or (2) raise taxes, or (3) reduce spending, or, presumably, some combination thereof. So, Social Security is at much at risk as the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency or any other part of the government in being able to fund their obligations.

        In any case, I believe it is very dangerous to assume that we have always gotten out of these messes in the past and that therefore we can do it again and all will be well. Our government has never faced the multitude of issues that are now on the table – from debt, to energy, to education, to the tax code, to wars, to the lack of campaign finance reform, to what is becoming more and more a blatant disregard for the rule of law, to the fact that there is no leadership coming from the White House, to the fact that Congress is as inept as it is irresponsible, and on and on.

        And the news media – left, right and center– bear a lot of the blame for not calling out our elected officials. They’d rather take the easy way out and follow a few miscreant celebrities and read “tweets” rather than follow the Woodward-Bernstein model of investigative reporting. Remember what Jefferson said: “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”

        If you really think we can get through these problems without a major paradigm shift in our philosophy of government and without some substantial pain, well, I’ve got a bridge in New York I’d like to talk to you about.

        Herb

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        • I agree with you, Herb, that “a major paradigm shift” is needed to deal with the financial mess, but I do not believe that Social Security needs to be abandoned to do that. SS has been tremendously successful and most experts think it can be fixed with modest tweaks in eligibility age and in the tax caps that apply. I submit that if we did not have SS, the burden on the welfare rolls would swell enormously with hapless oldsters.

          I think what needs fixing is:

          1. Healthcare.
          2. The tax code.
          3. The budget process.
          4. Government size (esp. DHS and DNI need to go.)

          As for the media, I can’t agree. Very good work is being done, and as examples of that I cite the USA Today newspaper and Time Magazine, my two personal favorites. I am constantly surprised at the productive and incisive reporting and editorializing that goes on in just those two, but the problem, I think, is that the good stuff is drowning in all the bad stuff. We have an under-educated and distracted electorate in this country. Without looking it up I’ll bet that People Magazine far out-sells Time. This needs fixing too. Wish I knew how.

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        • Herb,

          A couple of things:

          1) SS is not at risk the same way that agencies in the government are.  Read the passage again. The key is,

          Treasury special securities provide the OASI and DI Trust Funds with authority to draw upon the U.S. Treasury to make future benefit payments or other expenditures.

          Now, it goes on to say that when it is necessary to redeem those securities to pay benefits, the government has to come up with the dough, just like it would any other expenditure. But the Agriculture Department, say, doesn’t have the “authority” to draw upon any funds due to the fact it is not holding special securities from the Treasury.  Thus, if OASI or DI were to demand funds to pay benefits, and if the government refused to fork over the money, then the government would be in default (just like it would be if it didn’t pay back the Chinese with interest when they wanted to cash in). That’s not the case if Congress simply tells the Ag Secretary to take a hike over his budget.

          2) And you misread by logic about the debt and deficits. I worry about them, too, but I worry about them because one side of our political system has given the finger to the concept of compromise and will not act fiscally responsible by agreeing to a combination of spending cuts and tax increases.

          3) I do agree we have a lot of problems (I’m still not sure they are unprecedented), but I see campaign finance reform as the key to our long-term success. If we can’t regulate how we do our political campaigns, then the moneyed interests will eventually have total control of our politics, which will eventually lead to long-term instability. That’s the context in which we can talk about the U.S. becoming like Greece, with rioting in the streets, for instance.

          4) Finally, I don’t quite know what you mean by “our” philosophy of government. One of our political parties has spent us into deep debt (Bush inherited a budget surplus and left us with a continuing legacy of deficit spending only a small portion of which is wholly attributable to Obama and the Democrats) without a means to get out of it and now has adopted a stance that is guaranteed to inflict that pain you mentioned on everyone but the wealthy.

          If revamping Republican political philosophy is what you mean by “a major paradigm shift in our philosophy of government,” then I’m right there with you. Democrats, often to my disappointment, have gone almost all the way toward the Republican position only to find the Republicans move even further to the right. So, Democrats are not at fault here, in terms of compromising with Republicans. Obama was way too willing to do that, in my opinion, but even so, he eventually found no willing partners.

          It is simplistic but bears repeating: the way out of this fiscal mess is tax increases and spending cuts and as long as one political party only wants to cut, then the paradigm shift needs to begin in that party.

          Duane

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        • Herb, let me echo Jim and Duane that it seems to me that SS can be fixed without much drama. And it is indeed very successful. In the 80’s, Reagan and O’Neill agreed on reforms -more like adjustmets – that were designed to carry the program for another quarter century after which it was assumed another adjustment would be in order. And it worked. But now, we have a GOP that is totally unwilling to make the adjustmentts because they are committed to getting rid of SS, not fixing it.

          And that, of course, tracks back to campaign financing and who owns the gov’t these days. And we will probably all agree on the answer to that

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  2. Bernie Sanders will introduce legislation that would strengthen Social Security without cutting benefits to any of its beneficiaries. Sanders’ legislation would eliminate the income cap that currently exists in the payroll tax that does not tax income above $106,800.

    The Social Security system is currently fully funded until 2037. Lifting the payroll tax cap would virtually eliminate funding shortfalls the program would experience over the next 75 years.
    From Bernie Sanders’ web site, http://www.sanders.senate.gov

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    • Helen,

      I loves me some Bernie Sanders!

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    • I met the guy a few times when he was Mayor of “the People’s Republic” of Burlington in VT. That old socialist pulled the city out of a fiscal mess and set it on a very successful track. Made it prosperous. But, you know, he’s liberal so that doesn’t count.

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      • I wish that aspect of his career was well known. I admit I don’t know much about it myself and it seems like something worth touting.

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  3. ansonburlingame

     /  April 19, 2012

    Are you kidding me,

    SS and Medicare are heading to banrutycy becuse money in does not equal money out. It is callaed living within your means as a governmet, simple as that .

    Take each program separately and measure money in versus money out and they FAIL using simple math. As evisioned they were supposed to stand alone, money in and money out;

    But today we must trade warships for SS or Medicare payments.

    THAT is not standing on their own, it is a matter of redistribution, which progressives love t argue about.

    Anson

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  4. Duane, I think Dem’s huge failure at messaging is almost as much to blame as a corporate owned media that’s too lazy to even get it right.

    Today’s big issue (and what will be a giant campaign issue) is the matter of income distribution. I think all the Dems, from the Prez on down, use the wrong argument. They talk about ‘rich people’ and ‘fairness’. Those words don’t win them any votes. What they SHOULD be talking about is the danger to our country, to our stabiltiy, to our future. They should be talking about the abundant lessons of history. They shoulld be talking about how loss of income mobility is a recipe for a failed country. They should be right out there – in everyone’s faces – about how this threatens us.

    While liberals agree on the moral aspects, that’s not what makes the argument in media or the electorate.

    Like

    • Moe,

      I couldn’t agree more. My main argument over the last three years on this blog is the one you are making. Apart from the moral issue of fairness or the philosophical issue of societal justice, there is the pragmatic issue of survivability.  Will our country endure as an island of stability and prosperity in the world, if we continue to ignore the (increasing) inequalities that exist among us?

      The point is that we (Democrats and the like-minded) have to save capitalism (a proven engine of general prosperity when regulated) from the capitalist extremists among us.  I think the argument framed that way is a winner even among some Republicans, and certainly a clear winner among independents.

      Somewhat surprisingly, even Saturday’s Joplin Globe editorial—this coming from a mostly conservative newspaper—acknowledges the problem (the editorial was republished from the Mankato Free Press):

      Cheers to the American public for increasingly recognizing that the yawning gap between the wealthiest and the rest of the country is dangerous and unsustainable.

      In a new Washington POST/ABC poll, which was mostly gauging Americans’ feelings about presidential candidates, this question was asked:

      “What do you think is the bigger problem in this country: unfairness in the economy that favors the wealthy or over-regulation of the free market that interferes with growth and prosperity?”

      By a solid 52-37, respondents chose the “unfairness that favors the wealthy” answer.

      The Census Bureau reports that income inequality has risen 18 percent since 1967. It climbed every year between 1998 and 2006 before dropping the following year and has been rising since.

      Many critics chided the Occupy Wall Street movement as an aimless endeavor with ill-defined goals. But the movement taps into Americans’ unease with too much wealth in too few hands.

      Whatever political rhetoric flies, Americans have an innate practical sense about when the pendulum has shifted too far.

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      • I think our political class has gone so far down the rabbit hole with the political consulting industry that they really don’t know how to talk to people any more. If I have to sit through another State of the Union with a Clintonesque laundry list and buzz words everywhere and some Marine mother of six who lost her llegs in Iraq but still runs marathons sitting next to the First Lady . . . I shall gag.

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  5. ansonburlingame

     /  April 21, 2012

    Moe,

    The Dems will for sure make income inequality a huge issue in the campaign. “It is wrong and something must be done about it”.

    The key is “WHAT should be done about it” on the part of government. Cut it anyway you like it, redistribution of wealth under government controls becomes the answer. We could call such a law the “Robin Hood Law”.

    Distribution of wealth has caused many revolutions in the past. Just take the French Revolution, ultimately a hugh failure. In our own revolution we sustained the wealth, primarily landed wealth and did not chop the heads off of the “rich”.

    Of course the very small tip of that huge iceberg in America today is rescinding the Bush Tax cuts BUT ONLY ON THE WEALTHY. As the current statues stand today we will rescind those tax cuts on ALL Americans come Jan 2013. If that happens, I can’t wait to read this blog.

    But you know as well as I do that rescinding the Bush Tax Cuts on everyone will do little or nothing about income inequality and our deficit spending will not be affected much at all without concurrent and huge cuts in spending as well.

    Thus far in the course of human history the world has only found two ways for government to redistribute wealth. It is called Socialism and Communism, depending upon how far a given government chooses to go in such redistribution efforts And look at the long term results of such efforts today.

    Moaning about income inequality is one thing. Really doing something about it is an entirely different matter. And the simple fact of technology and globalization compounds the problem in a huge way. In 1919 a “rich Russian” could not transfer his wealth with the flick of a finger. He had to let the “mob” take it from him.

    Not so today, at least in a free society.

    Anson

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    • It’s much easier to change than what you describe anson – you acheive it with monetary policy, tax incentives – there are many ways to do it that don’t even resemble ‘robbing rich’ etc. Income tax reform. Support higher education. So many ways.

      [Thus far in the course of human history the world has only found two ways for government to redistribute wealth. It is called Socialism and Communism,]

      Really? Tell that to the rest of the developed world. No one, absolutely no one except maybe Russia, has the income disparity we have. Tell it to Germany – one of the most dynamic and successful economies in the world. Tell it to Brazil whose economy grew almost 19% in 2010 while we were stagnant.

      We increasingly practice a predatory form of capitalism – the kind Adam Smith warned about. A kind that is very very bad for free coountries.

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    • Anson,

      More Econ 101 seems in order here. You seem to have this hangup about “income inequality” and “wealth redistribution.” But of course redistributing wealth is exactly what governments are supposed to do. They take in revenues, mostly taxes, decide how those revenues are to be spent, and then spend them. Sometimes it has a Robin Hood effect, but other times it gives money back to the wealthy, usually through tax breaks or lucrative contracts. General Electric, for example, has paid no income tax for the past 2 years in spite of record profits.

      This is the ages old “Guns or Butter” debate that goes on in constantly in the halls of our legislatures, including, of course, Congress. That’s the way our government and almost every constitutional government in the world operates. It has nothing to do with Socialism, Communism, or Liberalism.

      The only control we the people have, or are supposed to have, over what gets spent and how it gets distributed, is through our votes for our representatives. But over the last few decades, as we all know, it’s the rich who use their vast financial resources to influence elections, sometimes over the will of the people. That form of government is called a “Plutocracy.” And that is what we have in this country today. (By the way, after Plutocracy comes Fascism.)

      So, I feel your pain and join you in expressing serious concerns over the way our country is being run. But it’s hard to compete with the Koch brothers or the Warren Buffets of the world. And Moe’s comment about predatory capitalism is spot on. Free markets can’t function in a too-big-to-fail economy.

      Herb

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  6. ansonburlingame

     /  April 22, 2012

    You both extol Germany today as an economic engine. I wonder what the real force under that engine might be today? You suggest that their tax structure is the key element. Bah, Humbug, I say.

    GERMANS, German engineering, German work ethic, German nationalism (the first in the European Union to reject multiculturalism), all the things that Hitler capitalized upon ( With Bismark the first to unify Germany and create a true nation), to create the power of Germany after WWI.

    Provide the “culture” of Germany, the GERMAN people as a culture, today in America and you would see the same results, in my view.

    I have visited Germany and the people there are far different than that of the United States. Here is just one example from 1984.

    As the CO of a visiting submarine, I was entertained, royally. At one even I was befriend by a German ship broker and his wife, a “tycoon”. I noted that the booze flowed freely at the event and I asked about DWI laws.

    The tycoon said that the law as tough. Get a DWI and the driver lost six months of his “pay” from whatever source. If a “worker” got caught while making $4000 per month his fine was $24,000, as an example. If the tycoon got caught, it could be in the hundreds of thousands or even millions, just for a DWI. EVERYONG had a designated driver in Germany, EVERYONE.

    I am reading a great history of the Ottoman Empire right now. At one point the Sultan decided he needed more money and decided to “tax the rich” up to 50% of their income. A revolt ensued for sure.

    He then tried to tax the peasants for 50% of their produce. The rich began to starve and another revolt ensued.

    As I read the turmoils of “empires” from the past, the beginning of the decline of such empires always began with failure to live within their means. A big country tried to becomer bigger and gained revenue in the process up to a point. Then onnerous taxation caused internal revolt, beginning with the rich and then farther down the economic chain. Solution? Live within your means, interally and externally for a nation.

    WHY were the rich in America able to sustain 50%, 70% even 90% taxation post WWII? Simple reason. The ecomony was expanding so fast they could pay such taxes and still accumualte wealth.

    What you guys are proposing is to redistriute the wealth to grow the economy? Please give me a good historical example of where that has succeeded? Don’t try Germany today, please.

    Anson

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