PART 4—NO WAY OUT: If you’re an American voter, it’s amazingly easy to get disinformed about Social Security.
The disinformation campaign has been under way for thirty years—and the campaign continues. Just consider the column by an economics professor in today's Baltimore Sun.
The professor in question is Peter Morici, one of the carnival barker-style professors who get big play on cable news—even on network news programs. Morici is from the University of Maryland; this makes him geographically convenient to cable bookers. And he sports a trademarked, bow-tie conservative look—the look that pre-announces a cable guest as a pseudo-conservative fraud.
When cable guests wear uniforms, viewers can watch the ensuing debates with the sound turned off!
Beyond that, Morici is skilled with his disinformation. This is the way his op-ed column starts in this morning’s Baltimore Sun. We’ll use the headline from our hard-copy paper:
MORICI (9/22/11): Yes, Social Security is a Ponzi schemeLet’s be fair. As noted, Morici is a full professor at a major university. For that reason, it’s possible he’s so goddamned dumb that he wrote this piece in good faith.
When established in 1935, Social Security made its first payments to Americans age 65. These first recipients never contributed and were paid from contributions made by younger Americans. Those Americans and successive generations believed their contributions were investments, and that they would be paid at retirement by the earnings on those investments.
In fact, those younger Americans were paid by the contributions of successive generations of "investors," as the federal government spent their money to help finance operating deficits. With the ratio of retirees to contributors rising, the Social Security Trust Fund will run out of money by 2036, if not sooner.
Such a scheme could only continue if the working-age population grew more rapidly than the number of retirees, but it hasn't because Americans live longer and the birth rate has declined.
President Barack Obama's claims notwithstanding, Social Security is now a growing burden on federal finances, as the difference between the trust fund's income and what it pays out grows each year. As we approach 2036, either payments will have to be drastically curtailed or the government will have to shut down, on a massive basis, other activities.
Either Social Security fails, or the United States fails.
It’s possible, but we’d call it unlikely. Morici’s piece extends a disinformation campaign which has run for more than three decades. And sure enough! Through this morning’s column, Maryland voters will get disinformed again.
Will other professors speak up in protest? If the thought even enters your head, you must live on the far planet Zarkon. Except for hustlers like Morici and the occasional outlier like Paul Krugman, American professors sold you out a very long time ago.
The professors keep their big traps shut. They’re too busy screwing their graduate students or composing their latest thoughts on Jane Austen’s use of the colon. Other professors will not voice a challenge. That said, consider the standard disinformation Morici has spewed on the land:
“With the ratio of retirees to contributors rising, the Social Security Trust Fund will run out of money by 2036, if not sooner.”
Based on current projections, that is an accurate statement. But such truncated presentations have been a key part of this scam over the past thirty years. After the trust fund runs out of money, Social Security will of course continue to function—but voters don’t understand that fact. Truncated sound-bites of this type are intended to keep the public confused on this point, building the sense of alarm.
“As we approach 2036, either payments will have to be drastically curtailed or the government will have to shut down, on a massive basis, other activities.”
It all depends on what the meaning of what “drastically” and “massive” are! Presumably, Morici has heard of numbers, a fairly well-known recent invention. In this matter, numbers can be used to flesh out this highly alarming statement. In fact, if we make no changes at all to the current system, Social Security will continue to pay perhaps 80 percent of promised benefits after the trust fund runs out. It would have been easy for Morici to include a number like that in his column. But how strange—he never does! The tyranny of disinformation requires its hacks to make imprecise, frightening claims.
We’ll have more to say about that second quotation below. It will have an Yglesias tie-in—but for now, understand this:
Nowhere in this op-ed column does Morici attempt to quantify the alarming terms “drastically/massive.” (On that basis alone, the editor who accepted that column would be on his way out the door in a true journalistic culture.) In a similar vein, Morici fails to tell readers how easy it would be to eliminate that projected shortfall through minor tax increases.
Duh! Kevin Drum explained how easy it is in this September 12 blog post. You may not choose to make the adjustments Drum describes, but if you don’t understand the facts Drum cites, you don’t understand this topic. Presumably, Morici does understand the numbers involved here. True to his role in a long campaign, he just doesn’t want to tell the public about them.
As he continues, Morici decides that private accounts won’t work. His solution to the Ponzi problem is presented in this, the thrilling conclusion to his column. By now, Morici is basically lying—with the acquiescence of an editor at the Sun:
MORICI: In the end, the only way to make the system work is to ask Americans to work longer. If Governor Perry or Mitt Romney wants to fix the system, instead of arguing over terminology, they must address the retirement age. It simply must be raised to something close to 70, with no exceptions but for the truly disabled.Social Security isn't “solvent?” That’s another scary locution—and of course it all depends of what the meaning of “solvent” is! But surely, this professor understands that he’s basically lying when he says this: “The only way to make the system work is to ask Americans to work longer.”
Americans won't like that, but it beats what President Obama is offering. Characteristic to his thinking on economics, he prefers to believe what his liberal ideology, not the facts, require—and incorrectly insists the system is solvent.
Social Security, by the findings of Mr. Obama's own Social Security Administration, is insolvent and hence is indeed a Ponzi scheme. Americans seeking dignity in retirement would be better served by hearing the truth.
In fairness, that is one of the ways to erase that future shortfall. But plainly, it isn’t the only way. This music man understands that fact. (Presumably, so does the editor.) He is just determined to keep that fact from Maryland voters.
Con men like Morici have been at this game for the past thirty years. Morici has made himself rather famous playing this game in the past few years, even as he has worked to make the nation’s voters dumber. Let’s return to that earlier question:
Should you expect to see pushback from any other professors? Should you expect to see letters from other professors in the Baltimore Sun’s letters column? Should you expect to see other professors denouncing Morici by name on TV?
Will you read a column by some other professor explaining the fact that a disinformation campaign has been running for the past thirty years? That progressives and tea party members alike have been disinformed by this scheme?
Of course you won’t see such actions! The nation’s professors walked away from their obligations as citizens many decades ago. Graduate students have to be screwed—and someone must use that villa in France! You will not see such pushback in the next few weeks. Nor will your mewling career liberal journalists name the names of the horrible people who are running this evil campaign.
To understand the culture within which this campaign has flourished, let’s recall a few things we have looked at this week:
In the late 1990s, the New York Times asked an eminent economics if he wanted to write a twice-weekly column. Luckily, this professor said yes. But in a fascinating profile, Larissa McFarquhar described the reaction from this professor’s colleagues.
Robin Wells is Paul Krugman’s wife. She too is an economist:
MCFARQUHAR (3/1/10): When the Times approached him about writing a column, he was torn. “His friends said, ‘This is a waste of your time,’ ” Wells says. “We economists thought that we were doing substantive work and the rest of the world was dross.” Krugman cared about his academic reputation more than anything else. If he started writing for a newspaper, would his colleagues think he’d become a pseudo-economist, a former economist, a vapid policy entrepreneur like Lester Thurow? Lester Thurow had become known in certain circles as Less Than Thorough. It was hard to imagine what mean nickname could be made out of Paul Krugman, but what if someone came up with one? Could he take it?Luckily, Krugman took the job. But McFarquhar suggests that the nation’s professors think they’re above such work. Let’s be honest—most of these people couldn’t explain how Social Security works if they tried. (Is the left hand borrowing from the right? They wouldn’t know how to unpack that!) But these professors aren't inclined to try; they don’t accept their duty as citizens. They seem to think it’s a waste of their time to speak to the nation’s rubes.
In 1996, this same professor betrayed a hint of this attitude. By his own account, Krugman was still “sleepwalking” at this point; he too wasn’t bothering himself with mere politics. Presumably, that explains why he wrote a bungled piece for the New York Times Sunday Book Review section, a piece he renounced three weeks later:
KRUGMAN (11/12/96): First of all, a mea culpa of my own. Ignore Galbraith's coyness: I was the economist who went overboard in supporting Pete Peterson's position on entitlements and demographics. Demographics play a smaller role in Peterson's forecasts, and debatable projections of medical costs a larger one, than I realized when I recently reviewed his book for the New York Times. I broke my own rule that you should always check an argument both with a back-of-the-envelope calculation and by consulting with the real experts, no matter how plausible and reasonable its author sounds. Do as I say and normally do, not as I unfortunately did in this case.Oof! Still sleepwalking at this point, Krugman behaved like those other professors. Writing on a major topic for a very influential publication, he didn’t bother checking Pete Peterson’s argument. Reason? Peterson sounded so good!
Today, Krugman is our most valuable player. Back then, in that blithe response, he described irresponsible conflict—the type of conduct one can expect from the bulk of the nation’s professors. He also explained how a disinformation campaign has proven to be so successful.
Let’s mention Dean Baker, who wrote a letter to the Times in 1996 challenging Krugman’s review. In 1999, Baker and Weisbrot wrote a very important book, Social Security: The Phony Crisis. Unfortunately, the book is too technical for general use—and no professor, think tank or liberal journal has ever created a simplified, voter-friendly version of this essential information.
The professors are too lofty for such work. You can explain the sloth of the liberal journals any way you like. That said, let’s return to our first report in this series—to Matt Yglesias’ murky attempt to explain how Social Security works. Thirty years into this endless scam, this is the best description of Social Security our beautiful minds can manage:
YGLESIAS (9/16/11): So to review, roughly speaking we have two kinds of people in America. We have people who are paying Social Security taxes and we have people who are receiving Social Security benefits. For the past several decades, the quantity of tax revenue coming in has exceeded the quantity of benefits being paid out. That is projected to flip around, creating the need to either redirect some additional financial stream into the Social Security system in order to repay the rest of the government’s debt to Social Security or else to reduce Social Security benefits or else to increase Social Security taxes.That highlighted passage is clear as mud. But thirty years into this endless scam, it’s the best our beautiful minds can produce. Steve Benen made a point of saying how clear that bafflegab was!
The choice among these options is what the Social Security debate is about, if the Social Security debate is about funding Social Security.
The professors have failed you; the children can’t function. That’s the state of the liberal project thirty years into this scam. But people! On Monday, we said the first part of Yglesias’ explanation echoes one of the newer talking-points which are used in this campaign. We said this new point is hard to search for. But we said we’d get back to you on it by the end of the week.
Luckily, Morici folds that talking-point into his scam-heavy column. When Social Security revenues no longer equal the benefits being paid out, will that somehow create the need to “redirect some additional financial stream into the Social Security system in order to repay the rest of the government’s debt to Social Security?” That bafflegab echoed a new talking-point. Here we see a version of same, Professor Morici-style:
MORICI: President Barack Obama's claims notwithstanding, Social Security is now a growing burden on federal finances, as the difference between the trust fund's income and what it pays out grows each year. As we approach 2036, either payments will have to be drastically curtailed or the government will have to shut down, on a massive basis, other activities.Morici is speaking about the years before the trust fund is exhausted. As he has been instructed to do, he says we will have to shut down other activities, on a massive basis, to make up for the annual shortfalls. (More conventional hustlers add a second option: Or we will have to raise taxes!) That statement is grossly misleading, of course; in the years before the trust fund expires, the shortfall will be covered by the Social Security trust fund. Money borrowed from the trustees will be repaid, just as we’ll repay the money we’ve borrowed from banks in China. Morici is simply creating more confusion about this process, just as it has been written.
In the bafflegab we’ve highlighted, Yglesias seemed tangled up in that talking-point too. Such is the work of the liberal world’s most beautiful minds as this campaign keeps advancing.
The professors don’t care; the careerists can’t function. What should liberals do about this?
We will have to leave that question for another time.
Back to Hacker: For other mordant thoughts about the priorities of the professors, we again recommend the Andrew Hacker/Claudia Dreifus book, Higher Education. The authors write from deep inside the academy they have betrayed.