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Krugman vs. Krugman

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, November 21, 2007

In liberal Democratic circles, the debate over Social Security has taken a dangerous "don't worry, be happy" turn.

The argument has two equally dishonest components. The first is to deny that Social Security faces a daunting financing problem -- one that will be much easier to fix (and less onerous for the low-income retirees that the head-in-the-sanders purport to care about) sooner rather than later. The second is to mischaracterize the arguments of those who advocate responsible action, accusing them of hyping the system's woes.

One prominent practitioner of this misguided approach is New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. "Inside the Beltway, doomsaying about Social Security -- declaring that the program as we know it can't survive the onslaught of retiring baby boomers -- is regarded as a sort of badge of seriousness, a way of showing how statesmanlike and tough-minded you are," Krugman wrote last week. "In fact, the whole Beltway obsession with the fiscal burden of an aging population is misguided."

Somebody should introduce Paul Krugman to . . . Paul Krugman.

"[A] decade from now the population served by those programs [Social Security and Medicare] will explode. . . . Because of those facts, merely balancing the federal budget would be a deeply irresponsible policy -- because that would leave us unprepared for the demographic deluge, with no alternative once it arrives except to raise taxes and slash benefits." (July 11, 2001)

"Broadly speaking, the next administration . . . will face two big economic tests. One . . . is whether it can stick to a fiscal policy, including a policy toward Social Security, that prepares this country for the demographic deluge." (Nov. 12, 2000)

"The reason Social Security is in trouble is that the system has a large 'hole' -- basically a hidden debt -- because previous generations of retirees were paid benefits out of the contributions of younger workers . . . a multitrillion-dollar debt that somebody has to pay." (Oct. 1, 2000)

"[B]ecause the baby boomers' contributions were used to provide generous benefits to earlier generations, there isn't enough money in the system to pay the benefits promised to the boomers themselves." (June 21, 2000)

In addition to this fiscal amnesia, Krugman misrepresents responsible voices in the debate.

First, he quoted a new paper by Congressional Budget Office Director Peter Orszag and CBO analyst Philip Ellis. Notwithstanding "all the attention paid to demographic challenges," they conclude, "our country's financial health will in fact be determined primarily by the growth rate of per capita health care costs."

True, but Krugman omits any mention of Orszag's latest book, inconveniently titled "Saving Social Security." Orszag and co-author Peter Diamond wrote that "Social Security's projected financial difficulties are real and that addressing those difficulties sooner rather than later would make sensible reforms easier and more likely."

Krugman then takes on The Post for an October editorial that, in his skewed retelling, castigated Hillary Clinton"for, um, not being panicky about Social Security."

I write for the Post editorial page, including sometimes on Social Security, and, um, the editorial said nothing about panicking. It quoted one Bill Clinton, circa 1998, saying: "Every single year we avoid resolving this, it will get harder and harder and harder."

The brunt of Krugman's ire is directed at Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama for daring to suggest an increase in the amount of income subject to Social Security payroll taxes -- and using the "c" word (crisis) in an interview with National Journal's Linda Douglass. Krugman says the Illinois senator is being "played for a fool" by raising concerns about Social Security and criticizing Hillary Clinton for ducking the issue.

Hard to square with Krugman of 1996, who praised "sensible proposals" to "slow the growth in benefit levels, gradually raise the retirement age . . . and -- last but not least -- raise taxes moderately now, rather than massively later."

I acknowledge: Medicare is a bigger problem than Social Security. It's also harder to solve, both because it is more complicated and because it involves the larger question of rising health-care costs. That doesn't argue for ignoring Social Security but for tackling it first.

Also, Social Security's problems may not be as large as projected if economic growth is better than anticipated. Likewise, my salary might increase faster than I expect in the next 20 years. Yet that doesn't mean I should stop saving for retirement.

"Where is the crisis? Just over the horizon, that's where. . . . Responsible adults are supposed to plan more than seven years ahead. Yet if you think even briefly about what the Federal budget will look like in 20 years, you immediately realize that we are drifting inexorably toward crisis; if you think 30 years ahead, you wonder whether the Republic can be saved."

Another Beltway doomsayer? No, Paul Krugman, responsible adult.

Subscribe to the podcast of this column athttp://www.washingtonpost.com/podcast. The writer's e-mail address ismarcusr@washpost.com.

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