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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Pretty Ugly, Pretty Fast

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2005; 7:56 AM

Prediction: The Social Security debate is going to turn pretty ugly pretty fast.

It's quite civilized at the moment, with reporters and op-ed types jousting over economic assumptions and actuarial rates. But New Year's Day brought a Washington Post report that the coming campaign over Bush's privatization plan will take on the coloration of a full-fledged political war, complete with television ads. Such groups as Progress for America (which spent millions on Bush's reelection), the Club for Growth and the National Association of Manufacturers are planning big-budget campaigns, and the AARP is already spending 5 mil on full-page opposition ads over the next two weeks. Total propaganda spending could easily top $50 million.

_____More Media Notes_____
Tsunami Politics (washingtonpost.com, Jan 4, 2005)
Social Insecurity (washingtonpost.com, Dec 17, 2004)
Open Season on Rummy? (washingtonpost.com, Dec 16, 2004)
On Jailing Reporters (washingtonpost.com, Dec 15, 2004)
Web of Deception (washingtonpost.com, Dec 14, 2004)
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Media Backtalk (Live Online, Dec 13, 2004)
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Perhaps I'm being a tad cynical, but can charges of lying and distortion be far behind? Shots of seniors standing in soup lines while fat-cat bankers count their cash?

This is an argument we very much need to have, for the difficulties of the nation's biggest retirement program have been swept under the rug for way too long by timid politicians who want to punt the problem to their successors. Bush deserves credit for making it part of his campaign, although he never said--and still hasn't--exactly what he would do without cutting benefits or borrowing trillions more. (The deficit, you may recall, is already nearly a half-trillion, meaning that we're living beyond our collective means and sending the bill to future generations.)

Certain to add fuel to the fiery proceedings: This Washington Post report that the Bush private-accounts plan would most likely cut promised benefits by nearly a third in the coming decades through a change in the way these things are calculated. So much for the free-lunch concept. (Supporters would argue that future retirees will get today's level of benefits but not the unsustainable future increases promised by law--a reprise of the 1995 Gingrich-led plan on Medicare that the GOP said wasn't a cut, just slowing the rate of growth.)

The looming battle reminds me of the 1993-94 struggle over Hillarycare, and not just because powerful interest groups helped shoot down the incredibly complicated Clinton plan. Many Republicans took the stance that there was no health care crisis, aided by the fact that most people were satisfied with their medical care. And now many liberals, confronting the Bush proposal to revamp Social Security and create private investment accounts, are saying: Crisis? What crisis?

The battle lines are already hardening, says the Los Angeles Times:

"Two groups of prominent Democratic centrists plan to oppose the centerpiece of President Bush's proposal to restructure Social Security, potentially dimming administration hopes of building bipartisan support for its top domestic priority.

"The Democratic Leadership Council, the party's leading centrist organization, and Third Way, a new group working with moderate Senate Democrats, expect to issue statements soon opposing Bush's push to divert part of the Social Security payroll tax into accounts that individuals could invest in the stock market, officials of the groups say.

"The opposition is significant because both groups have aggressively argued that Democrats should not flatly resist changes to the Social Security program. Also, in the past some of the leading officials associated with the Democratic Leadership Council have backed the type of private investment accounts Bush is promoting."

The first phase will clearly turn on perceptions of whether S.S. is a ticking time bomb that must be defused or a basically sound system that just needs some tinkering. Let's look at what the liberal commentariat is saying, beginning with

Josh Marshall: "As pretty much all the sensible articles on Social Security have made clear, to the extent that we have a problem, it is not a Social Security problem, but an accumulated national debt problem. And this isn't just a looking at one side or the other of the coin issue, but a category difference. . . .

"The United States has a bit over $7 trillion in accumulated national debt. You can say that's been built up over the history of the country. But overwhelmingly it was borrowed over what happens to be the span of my lifetime -- the last thirty-five years -- and especially over the last twenty-five years. ..

"Almost the entirety of President Bush's Social Security phase-out plan comes down to a simple proposition: finding out how not to pay it back.

"Now, admittedly, this is an approach that the president is rather familiar with from his own business career at various failed energy companies. But it is, in so many words, a straight up con -- one of vast scale, and one which virtually no one in the media ever frames in just these terms.

"Before discussing that aspect of the question, consider a hypothetical. Let's say there'd not been a Social Security -- President Bush's dreamworld. We'd still have had the same deficits. The difference would be that we'd have had to borrow from private borrowers in the US and abroad.

"Think we'd just be able to decide not to pay them back? Not likely. The Joneses and the Smiths with their 401ks probably wouldn't like that. And the Japanese and Saudis probably wouldn't like it much either. Of course, defaulting on our entire national debt would also certainly trigger a seismic international financial crisis. So you can probably figure that no one would be a huge fan of it.

"So why does the president figure he can get away without making good on the debt to the folks who pay Social Security taxes, who are overwhelmingly low and middle-income wage earners (since no one pays Social Security tax on investment income or wage and salary income over about $85,000 a year)? Isn't it obvious? Because he thinks they're an easy mark."

Makes you pine for the days of the "lockbox," when Gore and others wanted to stop the government from raiding the Social Security trust fund.

American Prospect Co-Editor Robert Kuttner also challenges the president's premise:

"Bush's entire plan for Social Security privatization rests on the premise that the system is in severe crisis. But a careful look at the numbers suggests that the financial crisis is largely a myth.

"For years, the Social Security trustees have used very conservative assumptions about future rates of economic growth, productivity growth, and growth of the labor force. . . .

"In June, the bipartisan Congressional Budget office used more realistic assumptions about economic growth. CBO puts the first shortfall year at 2052, not 2042, and it projects Social Security's 75-year shortfall at only about four-tenths of one percent of Gross Domestic Product. Currently, that's just over $40 billion a year, or one-fifth of the revenues that the Bush administration gave up in tax cuts for the wealthy.

"Simply restoring pre-Bush tax rates on the richest one percent of Americans could bring the Social Security system into balance indefinitely, without reducing promised payouts by one penny. . . .

"The Bush administration casts the Social Security shortfall in the most dire terms possible, to build support for its privatization scheme. In reality, that scheme will make the modest shortfall far worse, by requiring the government to go another two trillion dollars into debt."

More than one pundit has tied Social Security to Iraq, as Washington Monthly's

Kevin Drum observes:"The Boston Globe, Peter Canellos argues that President Bush's campaign to privatize Social Security is disturbingly similar to his campaign to go to war with Iraq:

"The link between the current economy and a Social Security deficit that will begin to strike benefits in decades is every bit as speculative and theoretical as the link between Hussein and the war on terrorism in late 2002. But few people in the political mainstream would dismiss the idea out of hand, and arguing that Bush's predictions are a bit too dire seems unnecessary to most Democrats at this stage.

"Actually, I'd say that Canellos is both too harsh and too generous toward Bush at the same time.

"He's too harsh because every president tries to sell his programs. The fact that Bush is marshalling his forces and trying to sway public opinion in a multi-month campaign is really nothing out of the ordinary. That's how politics works.

"But he's too generous when he says the Social Security campaign is 'every bit as speculative and theoretical' as the Iraq campaign in 2002. It's actually a lot worse. . . .

"Back in 1998 Social Security was at least arguably in trouble. The estimated time before the system became insolvent had shrunk by a decade, and even though we were still 35 years away from that date it seemed as though taking action might be a prudent idea.

"But in the subsequent five years, what's happened? Unlike Iraq, where our knowledge of what Saddam was up to got murkier, our knowledge of Social Security's solvency has gotten better. The date of insolvency has been pushed forward 13 years, and even that date is based on unnecessarily pessimistic economic forecasts. In other words, the news about Social Security has gotten far, far better in the past five years, but President Bush is yelling 'crisis' even so. It's worse than Iraq."

WashPost columnist Richard Cohen reaches for the same analogy:

"Why do I think that the Social Security crisis -- 'the crisis is now,' President Bush said recently -- is the domestic version of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Could it be that I am hearing the same sense of false urgency? Could it be that the predicted insolvency of the Social Security system is something other than -- yes -- 'a slam-dunk'? I wonder.

"My cynicism -- like yours -- has been earned the hard way. George Bush has a charming tendency to make up his mind first and then seek the evidence for his decision."

Paul Krugman also gets his licks in:

"The people who hustled America into a tax cut to eliminate an imaginary budget surplus and a war to eliminate imaginary weapons are now trying another bum's rush. If they succeed, we will do nothing about the real fiscal threat and will instead dismantle Social Security, a program that is in much better financial shape than the rest of the federal government. . . .

"Let's focus on one piece of those scare tactics: the claim that Social Security faces an imminent crisis. That claim is simply false. Yet much of the press has reported the falsehood as a fact. For example, The Washington Post recently described 2018, when benefit payments are projected to exceed payroll tax revenues, as a 'day of reckoning.'"

But "Social Security has a large and growing trust fund" that will last until at least 2042, says Krugman.

Conservative rebuttals to follow.

The road show is coming, reports the

AP: "To sell the idea of a Social Security overhaul--and private investment accounts--the administration plans to duplicate its successful campaign for tax cuts. At an event planned for Monday, Bush will meet with White House-approved people of varying ages to illustrate how changes to Social Security would affect different generations."

National Review Editor Rich Lowry injects a racial dimension that I hadn't heard before:

"Would liberals support Social Security reform if they thought of it as reparations for blacks?

"The current Social Security system disadvantages blacks for reasons related to their historic mistreatment. Private accounts would go some way toward addressing this legacy of discrimination -- as Democrats typically put it -- but the supposed fiercest advocates of black interests are precisely the ones who will stand in the way.

"There is a direct correlation between economic status and average life span. This means that blacks, who are disproportionately poor, partly for historic reasons, tend to have shorter life spans, especially black males. The average life expectancy of a black male is roughly 68.6. The retirement age of Social Security is set under current law to eventually rise to 67. You do the math -- this cannot be a good deal. . . .

"Opinion polls have shown that roughly 60 percent of blacks support the idea of private Social Security accounts. If only their political advocates could see the light."

The upcoming Gonzales hearings could be, well, torture for the attorney general nominee, as this New York Times piece makes clear:

"Alberto R. Gonzales, the White House counsel, intervened directly with Justice Department lawyers in 2002 to obtain a legal ruling on the extent of the president's authority to permit extreme interrogation practices in the name of national security, current and former administration officials said Tuesday.

"Mr. Gonzales's role in seeking a legal opinion on the definition of torture and the legal limits on the force that could be used on terrorist suspects in captivity is expected to be a central issue in the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings scheduled to begin on Thursday on Mr. Gonzales's nomination to be attorney general.

"The request by Mr. Gonzales produced the much-debated Justice Department memorandum of Aug. 1, 2002, which defined torture narrowly and said that Mr. Bush could circumvent domestic and international prohibitions against torture in the name of national security."

The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, according to this LAT column, were among the news outlets that omitted a key fact from their Susan Sontag obituaries: that she was a lesbian.

Jeff Jarvis uses his Buzz Machine to rap the NYT for this story on blogs. For what it's worth, I didn't think the piece, by the Web-savvy John Schwartz, was bad at all and felt it illuminated how the blogosphere works. But here's

Jarvis's take:"'Myths Run Wild in Blog Tsunami Debate,' says the headline -- but then the guts of the story show that they did not run wild at all. Myths were propagated by one crackpot site and knocked down immediately by the citizens of the Internet. . . .

"This is the equivalent of The Times getting a crackpot letter and declaring that the citizenry has gone nuts en masse. No, The Times uses its judgment and doesn't print that crackpot letter -- just as weblogs use the judgment of citizens to shoot down the crackpots . . . if they are even noticed at all.

"The reporter gets in one sop to blogs:

"In many ways, Web logs shone after the tsunami struck: bloggers in the regions posted compelling descriptions of the devastation, sometimes by text messages sent from their cellphones as they roamed the countryside looking for friends and family members. And blogs were quick to create links to charities so that people could help online.

"But that's not enough. I read a great number of blogs covering the tsunami and I found more compelling stories than I heard on TV or read in The Times; I found a faster response to the news with more information and more first-hand reporting; I found caring people who came together to share information that could save lives; I found quality and no crackpots. But you can always find crackpots ... when you go looking for them.

"In this, The Times is trying to marginalize blogs -- making them look like the domain of nuts -- without realizing that they are only marginalizing their own readers."

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