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BIRN, BABY, BIRN! Is any fact about Social Security so simple that Birnbaum can grasp it? // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 5, 2005

WHY DO THEY DO IT: Some day, psychologists will try to explain it—why people from the Interior Regions try to compete with our mighty Pac-10. For ourselves, last night’s exhibition kept us up late. But we still offer the following dribs and drabs before returning to larger wars on the morrow:

BIRN, BABY, BIRN: The technical ineptitude of our “press corps” seems to know no boundary. The simplest distinctions evade our reporters—even when they try to report the day’s highest-profile budget issues. Example: For two solid years in 1995 and 1996, press corps typists couldn’t explain whether Newt Gingrich had proposed “cutting Medicare” or whether he’d merely “reduce the rate at which the program would grow.” And in this morning’s Washington Post, Jeffrey Birnbaum, the hapless Fox “all-star,” displays his eternal incompetence:

BIRNBAUM (1/5/05): Late yesterday, the Treasury Department and the White House dismissed a report by the Associated Press that said the Bush administration was focusing on a Social Security proposal that would allow younger workers to invest as much as 4 percent of their payroll taxes in private accounts. "The president has laid out principles; he has not selected a plan," Treasury spokesman Robert S. Nichols said. "He has not made any decisions about a specific proposal.”
Is anything known to man so simple that “journalists” like Birnbaum can explain it? In fact, the proposal in question doesn’t allow workers to invest “as much as four percent of their payroll taxes.” On the contrary, the proposal in question would allow workers to invest four percent of their wages, a very different kettle of fish. At present, workers submit 6.2 percent of their wages in payroll taxes (you can see it right there on your pay-stub). But, under the proposal in question, they could invest four percent of their wages instead, leaving only 2.2 percent of their wages for the traditional SS system. And you can probably do the math; this means they’d be investing a whopping 65 percent of their payroll taxes—sixteen times the piddling amount which Birnbaum incorrectly describes. (Purists will include the employer’s matching 6.2 percent payroll tax submission when they make these calculations. If we do so, the proposal in question would allow workers to invest 32.5 percent of their payroll taxes—eight times what Birnbaum reports.)

But then, four percent, 65 percent—what’s the big difference? It’s close enough for journalistic work by the standards of our modern press corps. And make no mistake: This is not a pointless, wonkish distinction; when Birnbaum types his mistaken account, he reflects a key point of RNC spin. Indeed, privatization advocates love to say it: Workers will only be allowed to invest a small proportion of their payroll taxes; this creates the reassuring sense that Bush is proposing a minor adjustment to the current SS system. So let’s go over those numbers again; under the proposal in question, workers would be allowed to take 65 percent of their payroll taxes out of the current SS system. Birnbaum, hapless to his soul, scales that down to four percent, pleasing Karl Rove as he does.

So let’s ask it again—is there anything known to man so simple that people like Birnbaum can report it? And who exactly is the editor who keeps waving this blunder into print? No, this single passage in this one paragraph won’t change the ongoing SS debate. But let’s consider a broader question: What kind of larger analysis can we expect from a paper like this, a paper that just keeps printing such basic mistakes? In 1995 and 1996, the Washington “press corps” was never able to straighten out simple facts in the Medicare mess. If Birnbaum can’t get this simple fact right, what’s the chance that he’ll ever comprehend the larger discussion involved here?

One suggestion? Maybe Birnbaum should stop his semi-nightly pandering for Fox and read the work of those clowns on the Net. We explained this basic point back in December, when the Times’ Edmund Andrews bungled the matter (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/16/04), and Atrios and Josh Marshall touched on the point again only yesterday (just click here)! But no matter! Birnbaum, an “all-star,” is overmatched even by this bone-simple matter. Do you see why we cheer on those rare occasions when information finds its way to our newspapers?

SAVE THE PROGRAM FROM ITS DEFENDERS: Meanwhile, save SS from its published defenders! In this morning’s New York Times, Barry Schwartz—a psychology professor—writes an op-ed in defense of the current program. As mentioned, Schwartz, a psychologist, is out of his field. And just like that, it shows:

SCHWARTZ (pgh 3): Though experts differ on the urgency and the severity of the problem [with Social Security], most everyone agrees that the trust fund will eventually run out of money unless we do something. Two obvious and painful things we can do are decrease benefits or increase payroll taxes.
“The trust fund will eventually run out of money?” Yes, that’s almost certainly true, but that isn’t the problem. (By the way: By most reckonings, the trust fund “will eventually run out of money” even if we do something.) After all, when the trust fund runs out of money (in 2052, the CBO projects), payroll taxes will still be generating 81 percent of what is needed to maintain the promised level of benefits. But, having made the situation sound more dire than it is, Schwartz quickly reflects more RNC spin, saying that we face “painful” choices (increased payroll taxes!) after the trust fund runs out. But is that bit of cant really true? More specifically, just how “painful” would such choices be? As we have noted, Baker and Weisbrot say the system can be made whole for seventy-five years by minor tweaks in payroll taxes. These tweaks would leave future workers earning 29 percent more than they currently earn, instead of 31 percent more. Would that be a “painful” choice? Meanwhile, Paul Krugman has said that the system can be made whole through the next century for the cost of one-fourth of Bush’s tax cuts. Would that be a “painful” choice—to move one-fourth of the way back to the tax levels of the Clinton boom? Those options don’t seem hugely “painful” to us. But in Schwartz’s piece, readers aren’t told what these options actually are. Instead, they’re quickly assured that the options are “painful,” reflecting key RNC spin.

Remember the irony in all this: Schwartz’s hand-wringing remarks about future pain come at the start of a piece in which he defends the current system! Why do we cheer the occasional piece that offers real info about SS? Because our discourse is larded with RNC spin, even from those who defend the system and even from major budget reporters! In today’s papers, Birnbaum can’t explain a bone-simple fact, and Schwartz—writing in defense of SS—quickly serves RNC spin too. On the heights of Olympus, the great gods laugh as they gaze on the work of we hapless mortals. We’d enjoy a good solid laugh too—if there were nothing at issue.