Part 2—The fruit of our (lack of) labor: On Sunday morning, October 30, the featured report in the Washington Post concerned the Social Security program (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/7/11).
On Sunday morning, November 6, Patrick Pexton, the ombudsman, reviewed this sprawling report. On our side of the tribal divide, Dean Baker criticized Pexton’s review, just as he had criticized the original report one week earlier.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at what Baker said. Today, let’s review what the ombudsman said about the Post’s justifiably maligned, sprawling front-page report.
In fairness, Pexton did make some good points. In this part of his review, he made a very basic point—a basic point we rarely see liberals make:
PEXTON (11/6/11): Social Security did reach a turning point in 2010. Until then, payroll taxes produced enough annual revenues (“cash” in Montgomery’s parlance) to pay current retirees.Baker seems to dispute Pexton’s claim that Social Security reached a turning point in 2010. (More on that tomorrow.) But however once assesses that claim, Pexton makes a key point in the highlighted passage. Thanks to a decades-long disinformation campaign—a campaign the liberal world has quite passively accepted—this country is full of voters who believe that Congress pulled some sort of scam in the past few decades regarding the Social Security trust fund. (The excess payments which rolled into the system as a result of the 1983 reforms.)
The huge number of baby boomer retirees will continue to be paid largely with payroll taxes, plus—very important—the proceeds from $2.6 trillion in government bonds. The Social Security Administration bought these bonds from the Treasury during the years when the trust fund was intentionally building up a surplus of payroll tax receipts because the baby boomers hadn’t started to retire.
The 1983 reforms to Social Security, agreed to by Democrats and President Reagan, designed it this way. It’s working precisely as planned. These bonds are a sovereign obligation by one part of the government, the Treasury, to pay an institutional investor, the Social Security Administration, which is another part of the government. It’s an obligation to one and an asset to another. That’s why the trust fund is in balance and does not contribute to annual deficits. Retirees will get their benefits, at least through 2036, unless the Treasury defaults, which isn’t going to happen.
Voters believe that Congress borrowed and spent this $2.6 trillion in some sort of nefarious way. This compliments the general belief that Congress cannot be trusted—and so we probably ought to start closing these big programs down.
In fact, Congress has acted in precisely the way the system was designed by the sainted Ronald Reagan (among others). No one pulled a subsequent scam, absconding with all that swag. In our view, Pexton makes a rhetorical mistake when he wanders off into deep weeds, discussing this matter in terms of “sovereign obligations,” “assets” and “institutional investors.” But tens of millions of voters vaguely believe that Congress pulled some sort of big-spending scam after Saint Ronnie put in his reforms. It’s especially important that conservatives learn that no such thing ever occurred—that the system has continued to work exactly as Saint Reagan planned it.
We liberals have been too dumb, too feckless, too self-enthralled, to explain this basic point. Too self-impressed; too unintelligent; too convinced of our own tribal greatness. Too lazy, too fat and happy.
Pexton made another good point near the end of his piece, although this point has been widely made by liberals in recent years:
PEXTON: So, is Social Security part of the government’s debt problem? Yes, it is, ultimately. Is it a major contributor? No, not in the short run, relative to other debt and tax issues, a point the story should have made clearer.If we choose to get into rhetorical weeds, we can argue about whether Social Security will be a contributor to the government’s “debt problem” at all, at any point. But Pexton at least gets credit for pointing out that Social Security doesn’t represent a major budget problem, a point which has been widely made by liberals in recent years.
Those are the two strongest points in Pexton's review of Montgomery's work. In our view, his failures were more striking. Indeed, we think he missed the overall problem with Montgomery’s alarmist screed.
What was wrong with Pexton’s review? As he started his piece, he indulged himself in a very standard press corps reaction. “Eek, a mouse,” he seemed to say, complaining that critics of the report had been much too shrill:
PEXTON: If I ever had doubts that Social Security is the proverbial third rail of American politics, they were dispelled this week by readers who criticized a front-page story last Sunday on the subject by Post economic policy reporter Lori Montgomery.Groan. Social Security is very important. It’s hardly surprising that a report like the Post’s would produce spirited reaction, from Nobel Prize-winning economists and regular readers alike. But for decades, mainstream journalists have struck this pose when readers complain about highly significant work. Pexton sounds like a grouchy old man in that passage—like the type of old-school pseudo-journalist who thinks the work of the press elite should somehow be immune from comment from below (or from above). And as he continued, his basic approach only got that much worse:
Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and columnist for the New York Times, criticized the story in his blog, saying it was “negative journalistic value added.” Dean Baker, an economist and co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, said on his “Beat the Press” blog that the story “discards all journalistic standards.” And dozens of readers said the story was misleading, inaccurate and intended to sensationalize, not to analyze.
PEXTON (continuing directly): I spent a couple of days last week talking to Social Security experts across the ideological spectrum. Some, mainly those on the left, didn’t like the story, while those on the right did. But some in the middle, like Jonathan Cowan of the Third Way, declared it realistic and on point.Groan. In this passage, Pexton takes the tired old Goldilocks approach; he suggests the two extremes may be too shrill and that the correct approach must of course be found “in the middle,” where Pexton says he found Cowan. Of course, nothing he says gives us any way to evaluate Cowan’s claims on the merits—and yet this folderol comes at the start of his piece.
Through the use of the tired old construct, Pexton implies that the Post’s approach must be “realistic and on point” without offering any evidence in support of this notion.
Quite justifiably, that last paragraph was the most heavily criticized part of Pexton’s report. But as he continued with his review, the ombudsfellow made larger mistakes. Indeed: In our view, he failed to see the basic problem with Montgomery’s gruesome report.
What was wrong with Montgomery’s report? Its principal problem was its shrieking alarmist tone, a tone which drove the report from its triple headline down. Through her shrieking alarmism, Montgomery advanced a million right-wing fantasies—fantasies which have been sold to the public through three decades of disinformation. Pexton understands the fact that Social Security isn’t “a major contributor” to the nation’s budget problems; he even says so at the end of his piece. But three decades of disinformation have been designed to make voters think otherwise—and Montgomery drove that belief along through her alarmist rhetoric.
Pexton seems completely oblivious with regard to this problem. Note the way he comments on Montgomery’s first piece of shrieking alarmism:
PEXTON: Now for the points of this story. Did Social Security “pass a treacherous milestone” in 2010 and go “cash negative,” as Montgomery wrote in her lead? I’m not sure a milestone can ever be treacherous—the path after it might be—but the demarcation point is well, just that.Pexton sees that there is a problem with the term, “treacherous.” But he fails to see the ways this alarmist rhetoric supports three decades of disinformation—disinformation designed to make the public think that Social Security is likely to collapse in the future. (Go bankrupt, go belly-up.) Pexton seems to know that this isn’t the case; he seems to know that Social Security doesn’t face an existential crisis. But he fails to see the problem involved in Montgomery’s second piece of alarmist rhetoric:
Social Security did reach a turning point in 2010. Until then, payroll taxes produced enough annual revenues (“cash” in Montgomery’s parlance) to pay current retirees.
PEXTON: However, with the payroll tax holiday enacted by Congress and signed by President Obama last year to boost the economy, less money is coming in. That law required this new gap to be covered not from the trust fund, but from the government’s general fund. That’s why Montgomery wrote that Social Security is now sucking money out of the Treasury. It is.Groan. Shrieking and screeching in familiar old ways, Montgomery told readers that the system has passed “a treacherous milestone”—and that, as a result, it is now “sucking money out of the Treasury!” Pexton knows that this vast sucking sound comes from a system “working precisely as planned”—from a system which isn’t “a major contributor” to the government’s budget problems. But he fails to see that Montgomery’s rhetoric conveys the opposite impression—an impression which has been pimped very hard over the past thirty years.
To state the obvious, this is why critics said that Montgomery’s report was “intended to sensationalize, not to analyze.” Pexton whines about this criticism when he reports it, then completely fails to see why the complaint was lodged.
Pexton fails to see the problem with alarmist rhetoric. Indeed, before too long, Pexton succumbs to this pleasing temptation himself! Here is a fuller sample of something we quoted above:
PEXTON: However, with the payroll tax holiday enacted by Congress and signed by President Obama last year to boost the economy, less money is coming in. That law required this new gap to be covered not from the trust fund, but from the government’s general fund. That’s why Montgomery wrote that Social Security is now sucking money out of the Treasury. It is.The trust fund will “evaporate” in 2036? Pexton uses some colorful language himself, then fails to explain that the system will continue to function after the trust find has expired, though payments will have to be reduced absent new revenue. This country is currently crawling with voters who simply don’t understand that fact. They don’t understand it because they've been misled—for example, by people like President Bush, who kept saying the system would “go bankrupt” after the trust fund expires.
And, because more people are out of work and for longer periods in this financial crisis, payroll taxes are lower than planned. That puts more pressure on the trust fund to make up the gap in payments to current retirees by using the interests and proceeds from the bonds earlier and faster than anticipated in 1983. That’s why, at some point, Social Security will have to be addressed; otherwise the trust fund will evaporate in 2036.
Hustlers and con men have labored for decades to disinform the public about the future of Social Security. Pexton explains a few more points than most journalists do, but he doesn’t seem to understand the overall shape of this problem. Lori Montgomery’s shrieking tone advanced the feeling that we have entered a very dangerous ("treacherous") time. Hustlers and con men have worked for decades to spread that fear around town.
At one point, Pexton complains that Montgomery should have explained “the Social Security trust fund mechanism...in more detail.” Ironically, he then fails to explain this matter himself. He doesn’t seem to understand the way the various cons of the disinformation campaign have actually worked. But then, when people like Pexton seem unprepared to discuss such points, can we liberals really blame anyone but ourselves?
We have slept the decades away, sleepily failing to tackle these matters. Truth to tell, we liberals don't know how to talk about Social Security, so how can we possibly help someone else? Indeed, when Baker responded to Pexton’s work, he didn’t exactly set the woods on fire. As usual, we liberals—so self-impressed—failed to notice this problem.
Pexton doesn’t seem to grasp the way this decades-long scam has worked. Isn’t this really one more fruit of our own (lack of) labor?
Tomorrow: What Baker said