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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press Washington Post Abandons More Journalistic Norms In Push to Cut Social Security and Medicare

Washington Post Abandons More Journalistic Norms In Push to Cut Social Security and Medicare

Friday, 09 November 2012 04:43

The Washington Post is intensifying its push for cuts to Social Security and Medicare apparently hoping for action in the lame duck Congressional session. Today a story in the news section told readers:

"On entitlements, Obama has offered significant changes to Medicare, including letting the eligibility age to rise from 65 to 67."

The passive tense in this sentence might confuse readers. President Obama proposed raising the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67. This is not something that happens absent his effort to stop it, like the rise of the oceans due to global warming. Obama would be the agent of this increase in the age of eligibility. Experienced reporters and editors usually would not make this sort of mistake.

The next sentence tells readers:

"He has also supported applying a less generous measure of inflation to Social Security benefits."

Okay, does everyone know what this means? I suspect that only a small minority of Post readers understands that "applying a less generous measure of inflation" implies a cut in the annual cost of living adjustment of 0.3 percentage points. This cut would be cumulative so that after being retired 10 years a beneficiary would see a cut of approximately 3 percent, after 20 years the cut would 6 percent and after 30 years it would be 9 percent.

Newspapers are supposed to be trying to inform their readers. It is difficult to believe that the Post's terminology in this sentence was its best effort at informing readers of the meaning of this proposal. It is perhaps worth noting that this proposed cut in benefits is hugely unpopular.

At another point the Post discussed the contours of the budget dispute and told readers:

"one of the sticking points remains relevant: Although Democrats wanted to increase the tab [revenue increases] for taxpayers by $800 billion, Republicans wanted at least some of the money to come from economic growth, ...."

A real newspaper would write the second part of this sentence:

"Republicans wanted to claim at least some of the money would come from economic growth"

Undoubtedly both Republicans and Democrats would be happy if the government got additional revenue as a result of more rapid economic growth. The difference is that the Republicans want to score the additional revenue as part of the budget agreement, making assumptions about the impact of lower tax rates on growth that may not be warranted by the evidence. Most Post readers probably would not understand this fact.

Comments (6)Add Comment
Speaker Boehner Can't Cut a Reasonable Deal
written by Robert Salzberg, November 09, 2012 5:26
The most important line from the WaPo article:

"Boehner warned Thursday that higher tax rates couldn’t win House approval."

But the most important line about the upcoming negotiations isn't mentioned in the piece:

" Boehner told Obama, “As long as I’m around here, I’m not going to allow a debt-ceiling increase without doing something serious about the debt.”"

Three things that should drive the upcoming budget negotiations:

1. Democrats won the Presidency and gained seats in the House and Senate and should fight to not cut any budget deal that weakens Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, EITC or other social safety net programs.

2. The current House and likely the new House will never, never, never agree to tax increases so all the temporary tax cuts will have to expire to raise taxes.

3. In a sane world, Boehner would have lost his position as Speaker due to refusing to raise the debt ceiling to pay for spending increases and tax cuts that were passed by the House he presided over.

The debt ceiling will come quickly early next year and it would be a huge mistake for President Obama and Democrats to allow the 'fiscal cliff' to be resolved without also folding in an increase in the debt ceiling that covers whatever additional debt that deal creates.

Republicans has sworn to use the debt ceiling as a renewable bludgeon to force their agenda and Democrats would be idiots to allow that to happen.

Replacing the debt ceiling with legislation that allows the Treasury to borrow as much money as needed for whatever Congress has spent is unlikely without a Democratically controlled House.

A reasonable position is that consequences should not be separated from actions and any and all future legislation that increases the debt should be coupled with a matching increase in the debt ceiling.

written by John, November 09, 2012 9:55
Grammar note

"'On entitlements, Obama has offered significant changes to Medicare, including letting the eligibility age to rise from 65 to 67.'
The passive tense in this sentence might confuse readers. . . ."
There is no "passive tense". In the quote the verb "has offered" is in the present perfect tense, denoting a past action with relevant consequences now. (There is also a past perfect form, "had offered" it would be here, and a future perfect, "will have offered.")
There is a passive voice, in which the recipient or object of an action becomes the subject of the sentence. Here in the passive voice it would be ". . . significant changes to Medicare have been offered . . . by Obama." But the quoted sentence – ". . . Obama has offered . . . " – is in the active voice with standard subject, verb, and object relation.
Your text also makes the "cut" seem more extreme
written by John, November 09, 2012 10:10
(first time visitor to your site...)
I would only point out that your comment "This cut would be cumulative so that after being retired 10 years a beneficiary would see a cut of approximately 3 percent,... " might give the casual reader the wrong impression. The cut only affects COLA increases, right?
You give the impression that someone starting at $1000 per month would be at $970 after ten years. In reality they would be at 1000+20%(guess at inflation # for 10 years)-3%, so let's say $1170. Does that sound right?
written by Bloix, November 09, 2012 1:23
A note from the grammar police:
"letting the elegibilty age rise" is not "passive tense." First of all, there is no such thing as "passive tense." Tense has to do with time- past, present, future.

Passive vs. active is not "tense" - it is what is called "voice." And it has nothing to do whether the sentence is describing something that requires literal activity in the real world. It is a technical description of what is happening grammatically to the words in the sentence.

Active voice means that the grammatical subject of the sentence is explicitly and directly stated. "We ate breakfast." In that sentence, we is the subject: Who ate? We ate. Breakfast is the object. What did we eat? Breafast.

Passive voice means that what would normally be the subject is not directly and explicitly stated and object is turned into the subject. "Breakfast was eaten." What was eaten? Breakfast. Who ate it? Damned if I know.

You can make the subject of an active voice sentence into an indirect object in the passive voice - "Breakfast was eaten by us" - so you can communicate every bit as much information in the passive voice as the active voice, if you want to.

The sentence you quote, "Obama has offered significant changes to Medicare, including letting the eligibility age to rise," is in the active voice.

Who has offered? Obama (subject) has offered. Active voice.

What has he offered? "Letting the elegibility age rise" - object phrase.

In that phrase, "letting" is in the active voice. Who has offered letting? Obama has offered letting.

A passive construction would be, say, "significant changes to Medicare have been offered, including letting the eligibility age rise." Who has offered? Can't tell. That's the beauty (or the sin) of the passive: you can't tell who did the thing that was done. "Mistakes were made." "Everything was done which ought not to have been done, and that which should have been done was not done."

"Letting" is a word that implies passivity. But as a matter of grammar, the sentence is in the active voice.

written by denise, November 09, 2012 2:36
John - of course, we're talking about cuts in real, not nominal dollars. Cuts in real dollars are real cuts.

COLA confusion
written by John, November 16, 2012 9:21
hi, this is the John from 11:10, not the grammar one from 10:55.

I just want to make sure I understand this. Say I start drawing SS in six years at $1500 per month. Under the current system, every year the gov makes an estimate of inflation and boosts my payment by that amount. If there is deflation, my payment doesn't go down.

Under this "... less generous measure of inflation to Social Security benefits" inflation would be discounted by 0.3% to get the boost to my monthly payment.

Just guessing, I'm assuming this COLA has ranged from zero to 4% over the last 20 years? This change would alter the values to zero to 3.7%. My payment would never be less than $1500 real dollars. I would still get a COLA boost in the coming years, just slightly less.

Denise, you say the cuts are in real dollars. So your understanding is that the payments will be reduced over time?

I still contend that the cuts are to the COLA increases, just slightly reducing increases in the future. This article gives the impression that the actual base payments will be reduced, which I think is incorrect.

Not knowing future inflation numbers, it is impossible to say what a 0.3% reduction in COLA does. It could be flat for five years and make no difference. It could be 5% for five years and make a minor difference. It could be 0.5% (reduced to 0.2 actual increase) and make more of a difference.

(ps - I apologize for being dense regarding real vs nominal dollars. I'm not an economist and it has been 30 years since I took one term of basic econ. I do understand inflation happens, and is a major concern over longer time periods. I also understand that many people feel the GOV bends the COLA numbers to not reflect reality. )

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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.