1 August 2001
Our current howler (part II): Myers light
Synopsis: There are a million ways to misstate the problem. If history actually serves as a guide, Lisa Myers will find every one.
Commentary by Lisa Myers
Nightly News, NBC, 7/24/01
There are a million ways to get SS wrong. Here, for example, was Lisa Myers, discussing last weeks report by the presidents commission:
MYERS: Today, the political rhetoric matches the summer heat. Protesters outside, the commission inside, warning that the nations retirement program is underfinanced by more than 25 percent and will begin going broke in only 15 years. Their interim report declares the system broken. "Unless we move boldly and quickly, the promise of Social Security to future retirees cannot be met without benefit cuts, tax increases or massive borrowing."
But will Social Security ever "go broke?" That simply isnt going to happen, and the presidents commission didnt say otherwise. Lets roll ahead to 2038, when even Democrats say that the SS "trust fund" will be exhausted (if current projections prove accurate). Even in that year, the payroll tax will still provide roughly 75 percent of the money needed to maintain current SS benefit levels. (If we want to retain those benefit levels, well have to dig up the extra dough.) Under those circumstances, the program will surely be underfunded, but just as surely, it will not have "gone broke." Yepthere are a million ways to misstate this problem. And if history serves as any sort of a guide, by the time this whole fine mess is finished, Lisa Myers will have found every one.
"Going broke" is a nifty metaphor, but it doesnt quite fit this occasion. But then, we couldnt help chuckling at other parts of Myers report last Tuesday night. Having described the commissions gloomy view, she then described the upbeat opposition. "Critics attack todays report as biased, misleading," Myers reported, "saying while the system begins to run a deficit in 15 years, it has enough reserve to stay solvent for 37 years." As weve told youthose who say that there is a real "trust fund" say the problem begins in 2038. Those who say that the trust fund is hooey refer to the year 2016. There are major, respected budget bigfeet found within each of the rival camps. And thats why we just had to laugh when Myers resolved their dispute:
MYERS: Whos right? An independent expert says the commission is right on the facts.
ROBERT BIXBY (Concord Coalition): The commission has done a very good job of letting out the problem with the current system.
Conflict resolution has never been easier! Comically, Myers simply ruled that the commission was "right on the facts," and proved it by quoting "an independent expert." Of course, Myers could also have quoted an "independent expert" who would have stated the opposite view. But so it goes when the Chandra Network slums on an actual problem.
Thats rightif history is any sort of a guide, this matter could really get messy. Our pundits are always a little bit peeved when they arent discussing Gary Condits sex exploits, and they have surely proved, beyond any doubt, their ability to botch fiscal stories. For two solid years in the mid-1990s, the press corps fumbled the Medicare debate, proving itself completely unable to sort out that much-mangled mess. Andjust as Chandra reminds scribes of their once-darling Monicaso too the looming Social Security debate begins to smell a bit like that mess, in which Dems and Reps spent two solid years in semantic combat which the press corps just couldnt straighten out.
What exactly is a "semantic" debate? In a semantic debate, the relevant facts are completely transparent; instead of arguing about relevant facts, combatants argue about preferred ways to describe them. In the mid-90s Medicare mess, there was never any dispute about the relevant factsbut Dems and Reps battled for two solid years, and the Washington press corps, hapless as always, was unable to clarify their dispute. A similar battle is shaping up nowand this time, the stakes are much, much higher. Do you really think that Lisa Myers is going to be able to sort this one out? If we want to have a sensible debate, well have to provide clarity by ourselves.
Next: What exactly is a "semantic" debate? A profile of semantic confusion.
The occasional update (8/1/01)
Maybe Bill Gates favors privatization: Oops. Lets reexamine one part of Myers report:
MYERS (7/24): Today, the political rhetoric matches the summer heat. Protesters outside, the commission inside, warning that the nations retirement program is underfinanced by more than 25 percent and will begin going broke in only 15 years. Their interim report declares the system broken. "Unless we move boldly and quickly, the promise of Social Security to future retirees cannot be met without benefit cuts, tax increases or massive borrowing."
Slick, slick, slick! In fact, the commissions interim report, released on July 19, had included the statement, "the system is broken." That interim report was assembled by staff. But on July 24, the full commission specifically decided to drop that statement from its final report. William Welch, in USA Today the next morning:
WELCH (7/25): At the urging of its co-chairman, Richard Parsons, chief operating officer of AOL Time Warner, the panel dropped a sentence declaring, "The system is broken." Parsons said the statement was ambiguous and could suggest that full benefits will not be paid to current retirees or soon-to-retire workers.
Welchs story was headlined, "Panel backs off claim Social Security is "broken." Bob Schieffer noted the same change in his July 24 report on the CBS Evening News: "By the end of this day of arguing, the commission chairman, Parsons, backed down and said the commission had gone too far when it said the Social Security system was broken."
But Myersdeclaring the pessimists "right on the facts"decided to feature a gloomy statement the commission had specifically chosen to drop. Do you really think that Myers is going to clarify the debate on this serious subject?
Panel backs off claim Social Security is "broken"
William Welch, USA Today, 7/25/01
Commentary by Bob Schieffer
CBS Evening News, CBS, 7/24/01