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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press The Problem Is the News Reporting, Not Just Editorials: More From Ezra Klein on Social Security

The Problem Is the News Reporting, Not Just Editorials: More From Ezra Klein on Social Security

Wednesday, 30 March 2011 04:11

Ezra Klein responded to criticisms raised by myself and others of his piece urging liberals to support Social Security reform. Ezra suggests that we over-rate the importance of editorials in shaping public debate.

For myself, I never meant to suggest that the main problem was the anti-Social Security diatribes that are regularly featured in the Washington Post and elsewhere. The problem is that the major news outlets (e.g. the Washington Post, National Public Radio, the Wall Street Journal) allow their editorial position to thoroughly permeate their reporting.

Their news sections are full of pieces that highlight the Social Security crisis and routinely feature prominent people saying the equivalent of "the earth is flat," without the reporter calling readers' attention to the vast body of evidence showing that the earth is not flat. At best, readers are allowed to hear the perspective of an expert saying that the Social Security is not in crisis, but even in this sort of he said/she said story, the flat-earthers typically out-number the reality based commentators.

I don't question that the average American might have more common sense when it comes to Social Security and other key budget issues than the typical reporter with a major news outlet, but I'm not sure that they have that much more. If they hear little other than "Social Security crisis" from the media, not many will have time to do an independent assessment of the projections from the Social Security trustees or Congressional Budget Office to realize that this is nonsense. The polling data showing that the vast majority of people under the age of 50 do not expect to get any Social Security benefit suggests that the flat-earthers are having great success in influencing public opinion.

There are two main reasons why delay improves the prospects for the program. First the influence of the flat earth crew is likely to diminish as the importance of traditional news outlets like the Washington Post fades and the influence of more reality based Internet outlets grows. The Huffington Post now gets twice the web hits as the Washington Post. As this trend continues, the Social Security fear mongers are likely to have less control over public debate. 

The other reason is that the percentage of the population that receives Social Security is rising rapidly as more baby boomers reach retirement age. There is no better way to convince people of the reality of Social Security benefits than to have them actually receive them.

This is the snow on the ground theory of politics, named after the ill-fated re-election campaign of Michael Bilandic. Bilandic was briefly mayor of Chicago following the death of the real Mayor Daley. He lost re-election in large part because he was unprepared to deal with a winter snowstorm, which is a common event in Chicago. When asked why the side streets were still not clear more than a week after the storm, Bilandic insisted that they were clear. Needless to say, Bilandic could not convince voters that the snow in front on their house was not there and lost by a large margin.

In the same vein, even the most well-funded flat earth campaign, supported by an endless barrage of Washington Post and NPR stories, will not convince people that the Social Security checks they get every month are not there. These people and their immediate families can be counted on as strong supporters of the program.

In short, this is an incredibly bad time for doing anything about Social Security which is why the program's enemies are so anxious for "prompt action." The American people might be counted on to do the right thing when they know the truth, but we know that when it comes to Social Security, right now they do not.  

Comments (8)Add Comment
written by zinc, March 30, 2011 6:45
I watched Barney Frank on the Charlie Rose show last week. My perception of Rose as a balanced reporter in a sea of wannabes' was shattered as he badgered Frank with his "Social Security in Crisis" agenda. He seemed to have left the world of interview questioning fairly quickly for the world of stating the elite message. Needless to say, Charlie Rose dropped multiple levels in my estimation.

To Barny Frank's credit, he staunchly repeated, to a testy, badgering Rose, that Social Security was not in crisis and that he would never agree to gutting the program.

I have seen Andrea Mitchell, Alan Greenspan's wife, cloak her elite views on Social Security reform in reporters garb. How can a person be married to Alan Greenspan and making millions be served up as an "honest" reporter ? Give me a break.

Thanks again, Dean.
Alpha Predators Provide Stability - Get Over It
written by izzatzo, March 30, 2011 7:55
In short, this is an incredibly bad time for doing anything about Social Security ...

Oh contraire, this is exactly the time to fix SS. The only time anything gets fixed anymore is in manufactured emergencies.

Prophylactic Economics is dead. Don't fix it if it's not broke, then wait till SS is a disaster like now so it has to be fixed in the emergency room at ten times the regular cost of ongoing preventive care.

How do alpha predators rise to the top of the food chain anyway? They sure as hell don't do it by going after their prey when times are good and the prey are strong enough to compete with them and create instability and uncertainty.
written by Bloix, March 30, 2011 7:56
I suspect that the majority of people that Ezra hangs out with - college-educated 20-somethings - have a strongly held belief that Social Security won't be there for them. They think it's a Ponzi scheme that will run out before they retire. You may remember this from the Washington Post a few years back:

"People my age are as likely to believe in Social Security as they are in Santa Claus."


There is a school of thought that holds that when people believe something that's not correct, they are extraordinarily reluctant ever to admit that they were wrong, and even if you can persuade them, they don't thank you for it. Much better to do something to "fix" the problem, which allows them to change their beliefs without having to admit to themselves that they were wrong. If it's managed properly, they will even be grateful for fix!

I wouldn't be surprised if some motivation like that, whether consciously articulated or not, is driving Ezra's decision to favor reform now.
Missing one point...
written by DCDan, March 30, 2011 9:34

You are all over this issue. But, you are missing one key point.

We are reaching the 'repayment' stage -- where SS will finally start getting checks from the general fund, instead of sending them checks.

By sending checks to the general fund, SS has subsidized federal spending -- which created a huge transfer of wealth upwards over the last 30 years. (SS taxes are flat, and capped. Fed Income taxes are progressive.) SS funds allowed politicians to cut taxes on the rich...

So, another reason that this 'has to be addressed now' is becuase that welath is about to begin being transferred back. Pols/corporate interests are not ready to tax the rich to pay old, poor people benefits they earned!

Keep up the awesome work,
Charlie Rose is a Hack
written by Paul, March 30, 2011 10:25
Rose, a history major, has swallowed Pete Peterson's deficit disaster propaganda hook, line and sinker so Rose is attacking SS, Medicare and all other "entitlements" along with Klein, the poli sci major.

The fact that Keynesian economists, i.e., real economists, disagree with Peterson's propaganda is never discussed by Rose or Klein. This is what passes for "fair and balanced" in the MSM.
The Balandic Effect
written by leo, March 30, 2011 10:28
Was it the snow on the streets or the fact that the city's El system froze up and became unusable? I was there but it was a long time ago
how to "fix" social security without neutering it
written by coberly, March 30, 2011 10:39

Bloix may be on to something. Meanwhile the "liberal response" merely accepts the Peterson framing that SS is broke and offers a "fix" that is exactly what the Petersons say they are afraid of: a huge tax increase (on the rich).

If you reframe the problem... that SS can be "fixed" with a tax increase that amounts to forty cents per week per year... and this is CBO option number three if you do the arithmetic and think carefully... then they have to answer why you would want to cut benefits or raise the retirement age or means test.. or raise the cap... for a problem that amounts to forty cents per week to pay for the longer life expectancy of the people paying the tax.
written by AndrewDover, March 30, 2011 11:25
Look at the trend in public opinion even with the wording below:

f. Reducing guaranteed benefits for future retirees
Support Oppose No opinion
3/13/11 32 66 2
3/13/05 20 75 5

b. Collecting Social Security taxes on all the money a worker earns, rather than taxing only up to about $107,000 of annual income

Support Oppose No opinion
3/13/11 53 43 4
3/13/05* 56 40 4
* “up to the first $90,000…”

The best chance already passed when the republicans won the house.

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.