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30 October 2000

Our current howler (part I): See George reform

Synopsis: Do you understand George's SS proposal? Here at THE HOWLER, we don't have a clue—thanks to some Dick-and-Jane coverage.

Two Visions, Both Quiet on Tough Choices
Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post, 10/24/00

If It Ain't Broke
John Berry, The Washington Post, 10/29/00

Hurrah! At the end of Glenn Kessler's overview about Social Security, the following passage appeared:

KESSLER: Without saying so directly, Gore would have the country wait to see if the anticipated crisis in Social Security really exists. It is not a far-fetched notion. Predictions of the program's insolvency are based on assumptions that some believe are too conservative; fiddle with the assumptions and the problem is pushed several generations into the future, if not longer.

That was Kessler's penultimate paragraph. But in the business section of yesterday's Post, John Berry went a bit farther:

BERRY: In their most recent report, the [Social Security] trustees still foresaw growth averaging that same 2.1 percent for the coming decade, even though many economists and government policymakers believe the U.S. economy has the capacity to grow 3.5 percent to 4 percent a year for years to come.

If the economy grows at 3 or 4 percent instead of 2.1, all current projections of the SS crisis pretty much go down the drain.

Why did we cheer to see Kessler's paragraph? Here's why: Governor Bush has made a major proposal for reforming this important program. But in general, the press corps' efforts to examine all this have come straight from the Dick and Jane reader. When the Bush proposal was announced this summer, there was a flurry of reports and columns. But the reporting generally presented a few basic spins, and then the subject dropped off the screen, almost never to be heard from again.

Does Governor Bush have a good idea? We don't have the foggiest notion. Neither, almost surely, do you, unless you bring specialized knowledge to this hazy "debate." In our view, no one could possibly judge Bush's proposal based on the withered discussion that has occurred. Our pundits have spent a lot of time gossiping about whether Al Still Likes Bill. By contrast, they have spent almost no time at all discussing this seminal area.

What have we heard about the Bush proposition? And what are the things which we haven't yet heard?

  1. We've heard Bush say that even a safe investment gets you more than 2%. And we've seen dozens of columns pointing out that this is a wholly irrelevant point. But we've never seen a single scribe ask Bush why he keeps on repeating it.
  2. In real time, we heard a hundred scribes declare that Bush was "bold" for making his proposal. But we asked John Zogby a question, and the Z-man responded: Bush's proposal, in the way Bush made it (stressing the right to stay in the current system), has been polling favorably for the last four or five years. This produced a comic situation quite typical of the way this campaign has been scripted: Almost universally, the press said Gore was "pandering" for taking a stance that lost 2-1 in the polls.
  3. We've heard that other countries (Chile?) have tried similar systems. Have you seen anything at all about their experience? We haven't, although we've heard lots of talk about who does and doesn't wear earth tones.
  4. We've heard there are six actual plans, employing Bush's principles, that have actually been proposed in the Congress. Have you seen a survey of those plans? We haven't. Perhaps talk of the surveys got drowned out by the chatter about mispronounced words.
  5. Not long after Bush made his proposition, the press corps decided to call it a "plan." Since Bush didn't actually put forward a plan, does anyone know why they did that?

Does Governor Bush's proposition make sense? At THE HOWLER, we don't have a clue. If the proposal pointed the way to a better system, we think it would be worth spending some bucks. (If the plan is sound, that trillion dollars invested now would come back to future retirees.) But the Dick-and-Jane coverage of this proposal has been on the order of "See George reform." We cheered when Kessler's penultimate posting widened the debate just a hair.

We don't think there's a regular lay person out there who can sensibly judge what the governor has said. Ceci Connolly and Bernie Kalb can marvel all they like about the press corps' issue coverage. But a panel of pundits on Larry King Live couldn't offer one word about the hopefuls' drug plans (see today's HOWLINGS). We think that we can safely say one thing: The same comical fumbling would have occurred if Larry had asked about this.

Tomorrow: Something else you don't understand—the state of the Texas schools.