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

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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.