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Daily Howler: Bruce Morton laughed at 'fair and balanced' when he spun you on Social Security
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THERE THEY WENT AGAIN! Bruce Morton laughed at “fair and balanced” when he spun you on Social Security: // link // print // previous // next //

THERE THEY WENT AGAIN: How does the “liberal” press corps present the Social Security debate? We got a look at modern press notions of “fair and balanced” when CNN’s Bruce Morton limned the topic on last evening’s Newsnight.

How do “liberal” scribes present the issue? Morton opened by offering his own opinion in what posed as a news report. Then he presented a Republican pol with a sampling of Approved Scary Facts:

MORTON (12/9/04): Social Security is in trouble. Politicians like South Carolina Senator LindsEy Graham know it.

GRAHAM (videotape): Between 2011 and 2030, there will be a sixty-five percent increase in retirees and an eight percent increase in the work force. We're short of money to pay the benefits. If we do nothing, the cost will be trillions.

For those who don’t know how this sort of thing works, “sixty-five percent” sounds like much more than “eight.” And that helps prove Morton’s opening contention; Social Security must be in real trouble! As he continued, Morton presented a clueless young woman who recited another Standard Tale:
MORTON (continuing directly): Non-politicians like Chelsea Naja know it too.

NAJA (videotape): The problem is, is I'm 27 years old. And every week—every two weeks, I get my paycheck and I see the chunk that goes to Social Security. And what worries me is I'm not going to have that there when I retire.

Of course, Naja is completely wrong if she thinks Social Security “won’t be there” when she retires. (Unless she thinks Republicans will have killed it. Even after the program “goes bankrupt” in 2052, it will continue to pay 81 percent of promised benefits.) But so what! Standard Tales about the program always involve this frightening prospect. And so, when Morton “explained” the program’s trouble, he presented an advocate of partial accounts—Robert Bixby of the Concord Coalition:
MORTON (continuing directly): The problem is all those baby boomers rushing toward retirement. But the real problem is that the obvious remedies, raise taxes, cut benefits, raise the retirement age, involve pain. And politicians hate to vote for pain. So can you fix it?

BIXBY (videotape): What we have is a system that promises far more future benefits than it can afford to deliver. So, somehow, you need to bring the benefit promises in line with the money coming into the system. If you take out benefit cuts, if you take out tax increases, or contribution increases, I don't know how you can get from here to there.

Having presented one expert who favors private accounts, Morton provided a bit of “balance.” He presented another expert who ardently favors this solution:
MICHAEL TANNER (continuing directly; videotape): I think we're closer to Social Security reform than we have ever been.

MORTON: Michael Tanner of the libertarian Cato Institute is optimistic in part because the president wants reform.

BUSH (videotape): Reforming Social Security will be a priority of my administration. Obviously—

MORTON: But you still have to get from here to there. Lindsay Graham's plan, for instance, would raise the amount of income on which you pay Social Security tax. But the president is a tax cut man.

BIXBY: Politicians are always looking for a free lunch when it come to Social Security. And, frankly, so is the public.

TANNER: There's no such thing as a free lunch. And any Social Security reform is going to have certain costs involved.

“Fixing the system will have to hurt,” Morton said, adopting the “Social Security is broken” metaphor. “But not fixing it may hurt worse.”

You can read the entire transcript to see how this topic is typically handled. Morton himself said the system was “in trouble”—that it needed to be “fixed.” He then had Naja recite the idea that the system may disappear by the time she retires. Having presented only one pol—a pol who favors privatization—Morton then brought on a pair of experts—one who favors private accounts, and one who ardently favors the notion! For years, this has been the press corps’ idea of “fair and balanced” when it comes to presenting this topic.

Aaron Brown presided over this mess, which raises questions in our mind. Just this Tuesday, Paul Krugman—one of the country’s foremost economists—pointed out, in the New York Times, that the system is not about to go “bankrupt” and that the shortfall of funds after 2052 can be remedied fairly easily, without resorting to private accounts (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/7/04). Did it ever occur to Brown that the facts and viewpoints in Krugman’s column might play a role in the public discussion? Apparently not. Meanwhile, Democratic Senator Harry Reid made a similar presentation on Sunday’s Meet the Press. Did it ever occur to Brown that Reid might provide a balance to Graham? Again, apparently not. Instead, viewers got the Standard Scary Story—the tale the “liberal” press corps always presents. Viewers were allowed to hear only one view. And they got to hear only the scary facts. Debunking facts need not apply.

Why did Brown present this crap? We plan to write and ask him ourselves. But this is the way your mainstream press has presented this topic for years and years. Is it any wonder that people like Naja think the system is going under? That Social Security just “won’t be there” by the time they retire?

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Of course, Morton has long been the Perfect Stooge when it comes to reciting RNC propaganda. No mainstream pundit moved any faster to start trashing Gore back in March ’99. His report was brainless—pure propaganda. To see a “liberal” stooge at work, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/25/99 and 4/2/99. For a full transcript of Morton’s report, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/7/02.

EXPLAINING FREE MONEY: In this morning’s New York Times, Edmund Andrews reports on Bush’s plans for Social Security. One part of his report really grabbed us. Was this what the Post meant in Monday’s editorial, when they said “the net transition cost should be zero” if we move to private accounts?

ANDREWS (12/10/04): Analysts estimate that the government would have to borrow as much as $2 trillion to cover transition costs over the next two decades because payroll taxes would plunge immediately while the government's obligation to existing retirees would decline slowly.

Administration officials say that the transition costs pose no problem because the government would eventually save more in reduced future obligations than it would lose during the transition.

''It is merely bringing forward liabilities that the United States already has,'' Joshua B. Bolten, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, told reporters on Thursday.

Is that what the Post was trying to say in its murky editorial (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/6/04)? Of course, you can always “get back your transition costs” if you slash future benefits steeply enough. (If you simply eliminate future benefits, you could “get back” enormous sums.) If that’s how the Washington Post thinks the transition costs should be paid for, couldn’t it find a clearer way to convey this idea to its readers?

KEEPING IT MURKY: Andrews also fails to mention the facts and viewpoints found in Krugman’s column. Or does he? In his next-to-last paragraph, he pens a murky claim—a murky claim which we highlight:

ANDREWS (12/10/04): Senator [Lindsey] Graham said this week that he would consider raising the ceiling on payroll taxes to pay for some of the transition costs.

At the moment, workers stop paying payroll taxes when their income for the year climbs above $87,900, and that ceiling will rise to about $90,000 in 2005. Analysts say raising the ceiling, or eliminating it, could come close to wiping out the projected shortfall in one swoop.

What does Andrews mean by the highlighted sentence? Does he mean that “eliminating the ceiling” on payroll taxes might “wipe out” the transition costs? Or does he mean something different: Does he mean that eliminating the ceiling on payroll taxes might wipe out the long-term Soc Sec shortfall itself? As we saw in Krugman’s column, “analysts” sometimes say that Soc Sec can be made solvent through the next century by fairly modest infusions of new revenue. Does Andrews mean that dumping the ceiling on payroll taxes could wipe out the SS shortfall altogether? We’re no experts, but it seems to us that eliminating the ceiling on payroll taxes would likely do that. (We suspect that eliminating the ceiling would obliterate the transition costs.)

As Krugman noted, SS can be made solvent through the next century with fairly minor infusions of revenue. Such facts, of course, are routinely deep-sixed when “liberal” scribes report on this topic. Did Andrews smuggle this notion into his piece under cover of murk and gloam? Is that what his murky sentence means? We don’t have the slightest idea. Neither do other Times readers.

IT’S SO EASY: While we’re on this general topic, let’s see how Baker and Weisbrot approach it. How easily can Social Security be made solvent? What follows is the kind of analysis that the Bruce Mortons (and the Aaron Browns?) always seem to deep-six. Remember—Baker and Weisbrot were writing in 1999. They refer to the standard, 75-year SS shortfall projection—a projection which, as they note a bit earlier, is based on conservative assumptions about economic growth:

BAKER/WEISBROT (page 24): [E]ven that shortfall, which may never materialize, is hardly anything to worry about. If we were to ignore the problem completely for the next 13 years and then fix it by the most politically drastic means—raising the payroll tax—future generations would not be greatly burdened. For example, an increase on the payroll tax of one-tenth of one percent each year (split between employer and employee), beginning in 2011 and continuing until 2046, would close the gap. This would still leave future generations with an after-tax wage far higher than that of today’s employees. For example, the average worker in 2030 would have an after-tax wage that is 28.7 percent higher than today, in real (inflation-adjusted) terms. Without these payroll tax increases, that employee would have an average wage 30.7 percent higher than his or her counterpart of today.
Baker and Weisbrot discuss raising the rate of the payroll tax, not eliminating the “ceiling” on income to which it applies. But note the general shape of their argument. Krugman noted how easy it is to make SS solvent through the next century. In this passage, Baker and Weisbrot make the same general point. But typically, this type of info is missing-in-action when the “liberal” press corps discusses this topic. Morton knew not to go there last night in crafting his absurd, fake report.

Again, is this what Andrews means in that highlighted sentence? Did he mean that, according to analysts like Baker/Weisbrot and Krugman, the whole solvency problem could disappear with an adjustment in the payroll tax ceiling? Here at THE HOWLER, we simply don’t know—and neither do the Times’ other readers. We do know this: Analyses like that of Baker and Weisbrot are routinely ignored when the Mortons “report.”

SPORTS SECTION: Oh yeah—we said we’d deal with that SEC thing. Scripted pundits love to insist that the SEC is the best football conference. Michael Wilbon has been saying this all week, as have many other pundits. But chauvinistic scripts to the side, the SEC rarely proves it on the field. This year, for example, the SEC has gone 3-4-1 against other BCS programs:

Kentucky beat Indiana, 51-32 (at home)
Florida beat Florida State, 20-13 (at Florida State)
Georgia beat Georgia Tech, 16-13 (at home)
Tennessee lost to Notre Dame, 17-13 (at home)
South Carolina lost to Clemson, 29-7 (at Clemson)
Vanderbilt lost to Rutgers, 37-34 (at home)
Arkansas lost to Texas, 22-20 (at home)
LSU beat Oregon State, 22-21, in OT (at home)
That doesn’t make the SEC weak, but it hardly suggests dominance. Meanwhile, SEC teams lost to a rich assortment of lesser programs this year. Mississippi State even lost (at home) to Maine, which went 4-6 in Division I-AA! And Kentucky managed to lose (at home) to Ohio, whose other three wins were at the expense of VMI, Buffalo, and winless Central Florida (in OT). Yes, Ohio beat hapless Central Florida by one point. But they had no such problem with the SEC. They beat Kentucky, 28-16.

Meanwhile, does Auburn want to play Southern Cal? We’re not sure why. They got to play Southern Cal last year—and got their noses ground into the mud. Magnanimously, the Trojans left their blue-state idyll to crush the Tigers, 23-0. The previous year, they beat them in LA. This year, Auburn took the smart approach. They scheduled three podunks outside the league, then pretended to want Southern Cal.

We hate to be the spoilsports here, but the Sagarin computer has the Pac-10 as the year’s top conference, with the SEC ranked fifth. (In other years, the SEC has done better.) That doesn’t make it so, of course, but we don’t know where the Wilbons get their notions. On Monday, he said the SEC was better than the Big 12 “by far.” Really? The Big 12 went 6-2 against other BCS teams this year. What must the nation’s colleges do to address this persistent red-state chauvinism?