Part 1—Ombudsman speaks: One Sunday ago, on October 30, the Washington Post published a sprawling, front-page report about the status of Social Security.
This sprawling report was the featured report on the Washington Post’s front page. It ran more than 2400 words; in addition, the report was accompanied by a large, sprawling graphic. And did we mention that this was a Sunday? All over the Washington region, the nation’s movers and shakers awoke to find Lori Montgomery proclaiming thusly, in the capital’s paper of record, about this seminal program. We’ll include the hard-copy headlines atop Montgomery’s report:
MONTGOMERY (10/30/11): Social Security adding billions to U.S. budget woes“[W]hile talk about fixing the nation's finances has grown more urgent, fixing Social Security has largely vanished from the conversation,” Montgomery said as she continued.
‘CASH NEGATIVE’ MILESTONE CAME EARLY
Fearing backlash, parties reluctant to pursue fix
Last year, as a debate over the runaway national debt gathered steam in Washington, Social Security passed a treacherous milestone. It went "cash negative."
For most of its 75-year history, the program had paid its own way through a dedicated stream of payroll taxes, even generating huge surpluses for the past two decades. But in 2010, under the strain of a recession that caused tax revenue to plummet, the cost of benefits outstripped tax collections for the first time since the early 1980s.
Now, Social Security is sucking money out of the Treasury. This year, it will add a projected $46 billion to the nation's budget problems, according to projections by system trustees. Replacing cash lost to a one-year payroll tax holiday will require an additional $105 billion. If the payroll tax break is expanded next year, as President Obama has proposed, Social Security will need an extra $267 billion to pay promised benefits.
Ruefully, we shook our heads. We almost wished it were so!
Montgomery’s sprawling report produced a pretty good chunk of discussion in the next few days. Paul Krugman and Dean Baker pushed back on their blogs, complaining about her effort. Quite a few liberal bloggers, like Digby, linked in turn to their work. Yesterday, the Post’s ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, reacted to these complaints, provoking a new wave of liberal/progressive protest. To read his report, just click here.
This lets us ask ourselves a question: Over here in the liberal world, do we know how to talk?
Do we liberals know how to talk? More specifically, do we know how to talk about Social Security? Do we know how to explain the way the venerable program works? Do we know how to explain the challenges it faces? Do we know how to respond to the welter of disinformation which has been crafted to speed its demise? These talking-points about Social Security have ruled the waves of our bungled discourse for the past thirty years:
Disinformative talking-points concerning Social Security:To these tireless work horses, we might consider adding Montgomery’s more recent claims:
The trust fund is just an accounting fiction/a pile of worthless IOUs.
The money isn’t there—we’ve already spent it!
To repay the money it took from the trust fund, Congress will have to raise taxes, cut spending or borrow more money.
Life expectancy has increased by [xx] years since 1935.
The number of workers per retiree will drop from [xx] in 1935 to [xx] by the year 20xx.
The program will go bankrupt/belly-up in the year 20xx.
Younger people know/believe the program won’t be there for them.
Montgomery’s assertions:Do we know how to talk about these claims? We find this basic question intriguing, for two basic reasons:
Social Security has now passed a treacherous milestone.
Social Security is sucking money out of the treasury.
The $2.6 trillion Social Security trust fund will provide little relief.
First, Social Security is one of the nation’s most important programs. At any given point in time, it forms the basis for the retirements of tens of millions of citizens. As such, Social Security represents one of the basic building-blocks of this country’s “public discourse.”
Beyond that, Social Security has been around for a very long time. It thus provides an excellent test of our seriousness—and our basic intelligence—as a political movement. If we liberals don’t know how to talk about something like this, what do we actually know on our side? Is there any subject we self-impressed souls do know how to discuss?
What do we know over here on our side? We’d offer this possible answer: Not much! For starters, let’s look at what Ombudsman Pexton said when he reviewed the Post’s report. From there, let’s review the way our side has talked about Monty’s front-pager.
Tomorrow: What the ombudsman said