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31 July 2001

Our current howler (part I): Easier said than is normally done

Synopsis: It just ain’t hard to explain SS. But will the press corps be able to do it?

Sins of Commission
Paul Krugman, The New York Times, 7/23/01

When the IOUs come fully due
Bruce Bartlett, The Washington Times, 7/30/01

It’s amazingly easy to explain the looming Social Security problem. We hate to disappoint those who revel in vast complication. But here’s all it takes to describe the problem which eventually must be resolved:

  1. Based on current projections, payroll taxes will fully pay for Social Security through the year 2015.
  2. In 2016, payroll taxes will bring in slightly less money than is needed to pay all SS benefits.
  3. Each year after 2016, the shortfall will get a little bit larger.
  4. If we want to maintain current benefit levels, either the payroll tax will have to be raised, or general revenues will have to be used.

By any standard, that’s a simple situation. There’s nothing confusing about it. Indeed, you could even explain it to a Larry King pundit! Almost any life-form with knuckles to drag could grasp so simple a matter.

But prepare yourselves for years of confusion; press and pundits are now gearing up for the latest fiscal fandango. During the mid-1990s, we went through years of pundit hell as journalists "explained" the Medicare situation. Hypnotized by semantic distractions of their own making, pundits struggled on Crossfire each night, unable to limn that simple affair. And there’s absolutely no sign—no sign at all—that we’ll get off any easier now.

Where caused the confusion back in 1995? Night after night, week after week, Dems and Rep butted heads about the GOP Medicare proposal. Dems said the GOP was "cutting" the program; Republicans said there were no "cuts," they were just "slowing the rate at which Medicare would grow." The debate went on for two solid years, without a hint of clarification. Let’s just say it—the Washington press corps was simply unable to sort out the brain-dead dispute.

In fact, the Medicare debate was quite easy to explain. In 1995, both parties proposed spending less money in future years than it would cost to maintain the existing program (according to official CBO cost projections). Under the GOP budget proposal, dollar spending on Medicare would have risen, but the level of services would almost surely have dropped. There was nothing complex about the matter; it could have been explained this simply at any point. But the semantic squabbling went on for two years; the press corps just couldn’t resolve it. (For links to previous work, see postscript.)

And that’s how things will work again—unless we fight for clarity. What will create the confusion this time? Competing claims about the SS "trust fund" will lead to endless combat. Here, for example, is Paul Krugman in a recent New York Times column:

KRUGMAN: The Social Security system has been running surpluses since 1983, when the payroll tax was increased in order to build up a trust fund out of which future benefits could be paid. These surpluses could have been invested in stocks or corporate bonds, but it seemed safer and less problematic to buy U.S. government debt instead. The system now has $1.2 trillion in its rapidly growing trust fund.

Nothing in that statement is false. But then, nothing is false in this statement either, by Bruce Barlett in Monday’s WashTimes:

BARTLETT: It has been said many times, but is worth repeating, that the Social Security trust fund bears no resemblance to a private sector trust fund. Its "assets" consist of nothing but nonmarketable Treasury securities—essentially IOUs, promises by the federal government to fund Social Security from general revenues when Social Security payroll taxes are no longer sufficient to pay current Social Security benefits. That date is now estimated to be the year 2016, according to the latest report of the Social Security trustees.

That’s right—the massive confusion that is soon to come will almost always involve that puzzling "trust fund." Writers will argue about whether there is or isn’t such a "fund." And they’ll argue about whether its assets are "real." And they’ll argue about when SS will "run short of money"—in 2016 or in 2038. We’ll hear the same arguments again and again—unless we can make the sideshows stop and focus on solving the problem.

The situation is really quite simple. It’s all laid out in our four simple points. If we want to maintain the current level of benefits, we will have to augment the payroll tax in some way or another. But time that could have been spent on solving that problem will be wasted on something else—we’ll waste our time on trust fund tussles, and we’ll make ourselves nuts in the process.

Next: We wasted time in 1995. Ways to avoid doing so now.

Visit our incomparable archives: On August 20, 1999, we posted three incomparable articles on the 1994-96 Medicare debate. "A tale of three numbers" is brief, to the point; "The Speaker’s new language" knows and tells all. Moderates can go with "Clinton speaks." At any rate, if you want to revisit the Medicare mess, you know what to do. Just click here.


The occasional update (7/31/01)

The human civics lesson: Last night, Chandra Levy’s aunt and uncle, Paul Katz and Linda Zamsky, appeared by phone on Larry King Live. It was their first public interview on their niece’s disappearance. In his first comment, Katz clearly made news:

KATZ: Well, Larry, I guess that the thing that has been nudging and bothering me is that the police department had the knowledge of the affair with Mr. Condit and my niece Chandra from the 15th of May, until the actual time that he stepped forward with the release that Linda made available. And they had this information, and yet, you know, one gets the feeling that it was suppressed, for whatever reason, for such a long period of time and that’s been very frustrating.

When did the family inform police of the affair? This was the first clear-cut statement by a family member about that. And, if Katz’s statement is accurate, it suggests the possibility that the Levys themselves did not immediately inform police of their daughter’s relationship with Condit. By Mrs. Levy’s account, she had known about the affair since mid-April. The Levys first spoke to police on May 5.

But your pundit corps doesn’t want you to know that; they prefer to tell you the dressed-up tale peddled by Lisa DePaulo, Talk magazine’s ardent pseudo-journalist and chief advocate for the Levys. Quite typically, no one asked Katz to clarify what he’d said, and about ten minutes after he made his statement, DePaulo engaged in some light repair work. This was her first comment of the night:

DEPAULO: And I just think that, you know, Paul and Linda, this family has been so stoic in their grief, and might I add, instrumental to the investigation. If—it was after Aunt Linda that came forward with what she knew, that she told the police from Day One, that Condit finally fessed up. The gig was up. Yeah, we had an affair. Crucial pieces of information.

But, if Katz is to be believed, "Aunt Linda" did not come forward on "Day One," and neither, it would seem, did the Levys. DePaulo has repeatedly claimed on King’s program that the police knew about the affair "from Day One." Last night, she continued to make the melodramatic claim even after Katz seemed to say it wasn’t true.

Does any of this matter? It only matters if you’re trying to determine what has actually gone on in this case. But it matters in a different way too; it makes a difference in the hagiography which pseudo-journalists like DePaulo have been peddling. In truth, DePaulo has been functioning like a novelist; she wants to tell a morality tale, and she wants it to work Just One Way. She wants the Levys to be Totally Righteous, and she wants Condit to be a mustachio-twirling villain. Therefore, she doesn’t want you to think that the Levys, like Condit, may have initially withheld what they knew of the sexual affair. When Katz suggests that the Levys did not tell police about the affair, she rushes to clean up the story.

Or maybe the scribe is just clueless. Does anyone understand the facts of this case more poorly than Lisa DePaulo? In the current Newsweek, Michael Isikoff, citing "sources," seeks to shoot down a persistent tale—the tale about a flurry of phone calls from Levy to Condit in the last days before she disappeared. "Was Chandra Levy frantically trying to reach Rep. Gary Condit in the days before she disappeared?" the scribe asks. "A flurry of last-minute calls has been widely reported—but it didn’t happen." According to Isikoff, Levy’s cell-phone records show "no calls at all to any number used by the congressman" during "the crucial last week in April." And "law-enforcement sources say that Levy’s home-phone records also show no phone calls to Condit during this period." One of Isikoff’s sources voiced exasperation with the claim about the flurry of phone calls. "I don’t know where people are getting this stuff," Isikoff quotes a "law-enforcement official" saying.

As anyone who has followed this story would know, the claim about the flurry of phone calls has been widespread in the media. It was widely used to peddle the notion that Levy was pregnant in May. But last night, DePaulo seemed clueless about his matter. Late in the program, she scolded Julian Epstein for an earlier reference to Isikoff’s report. But she showed no sign of understanding the point which Epstein (and Isikoff) were trying to make. And she did—unforgivably—say this:

DEPAULO: Yes, I would like to just correct one of the misstated facts tonight from Julian on the phone records: on Friday afternoon, Dr. and Mrs. Levy made a public statement that they know that the last several calls Chandra received were from Congressman Condit.

EPSTEIN: That’s not what I said, Lisa.

DEPAULO: Let me finish the sentence, Julian, and that is quite different from what Congressman Condit told police, that the last time he spoke to her was Sunday the 29. That is just one of the many discrepancies that are still out there.

Why is DePaulo’s statement unforgivable? Because the Levys had long since withdrawn Friday’s claim about "the last several phone calls." In Saturday’s Newsday, Thomas Frank and Craig Gordon reported the Levys’ retraction:

FRANK AND GORDON: Reached later [on Friday] at his medical office, Robert Levy said he and his wife were not trying to suggest that Condit was the last person to have called their daughter. He said they didn’t know who the last person was and that police had not shared the telephone records with them.

Reached at home, Susan Levy also said she was not sure who made the last calls to her daughter.

In short, the Levys had slightly shot off their mouths; they later acknowledged that they didn’t know what the phone records show. But days later, the egregious DePaulo was still repeating the Levys’ unfounded assertion. For the record, Geraldo Rivera and Norah O’Donnell speculated wildly last night about the Levys’ Friday statement. Like DePaulo, they didn’t know about the Levys’ retraction; like DePaulo, they’re too lazy to do the simple work of checking Lexis-Nexis to get basic facts. By the way, Lexis puts the data at journalists’ fingertips. Just how easy do we have to make it before these people will perform their basic tasks? And how much, again, are these broadcasters paid to engage in such insulting misfeasance?

For all you screaming Mimis out here, let us explain how this shakes. We don’t say any of this to criticize the Levys; we think it’s understandable if they didn’t rush to tell police about the affair, and we think it’s understandable that they occasionally make public statements that go beyond what they really know. (It would be better, of course, if they didn’t.) Nor is this about Gary Condit; THE DAILY HOWLER critiques journalists, not pols. No, this is about Lisa DePaulo, and it’s about a cable show which keeps letting her broadcast spin, hype and disinformation. And for all you weepy wailers out there, let us explain one rule of the road—whatever else journalists are supposed to do, they are not supposed to go on TV and say things that are simply inaccurate. But DePaulo is a "journalist" in name alone; in practice, she behaves like a cheerleader. And so last night, when the more forthright Katz got slightly off-message, she quickly moved to clean up his story. And—completely unforgivably—she kept repeating a serious charge which the Levys themselves had retracted three days earlier. Remember—when you watch the hapless DePaulo at work, you are getting a lesson in human affairs. And you are getting a lesson in why the founders gave us a powerful Bill of Rights. They did it to protect us from the Lisa DePaulos, should they ever acquire state power.

Commentary by Paul Katz, Lisa DePaulo, Julian Epstein
Larry King Live, CNN, 7/30/01

Cops Interview Condit a 4th Time
Thomas Frank and Craig Gordon, Newsday, 7/28/01