Weisbrot to WaPo Ombudsman: Article on Social Security Contributed to Ignorance Over Trust Fund

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CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot sent the letter below on Nov. 5 to Washington Post Ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton regarding Pexton's defense of a story published on Oct. 29 that portrayed Social Security as "cash negative."

Dear Patrick,

In your defense of Lori Montgomery's article, you wrote that you "spent a couple of days last week talking to Social Security experts across the ideological spectrum."  I'm betting you didn't talk to any actual experts who have spent some time defending Social Security against the misleading claims that have been part of the almost daily assaults on the system for the past 20 years. 

If you had, you might have learned that the overwhelmingly most often repeated piece of verbal and accounting trickery used by right-wing opponents of Social Security is this one, from Montgomery's article:

"The $2.6 trillion Social Security trust fund will provide little relief. The government has borrowed every cent and now must raise taxes, cut spending or borrow more heavily from outside investors to keep benefit checks flowing."

Of course the fact that Social Security has loaned its surplus funds to the Treasury, instead of investing it somewhere else, is irrelevant to the program's finances.  But millions of Americans believe that the "trust fund provides no relief", and it is because of massive public ignorance — not the relatively small projected shortfall in Social Secuity's finances over the next 75 years, which will surely be taken care of long before 2036 — that the majority of the public thinks that they will not see their benefits.  The Post article contributed to that ignorance.

I don't know Lori Montgomery, but my guess is that she didn't write this kind of article — which contains a number of other misleading statements and inaccuracies that you did not address (see Dean Baker's post on Beat the Press ) — because she doesn't like Social Security or is trying to undermine it.  My guess, from talking to journalists for many years about this subject, is that she talked to people with a certain political agenda and got suckered.  Too bad for her, the Post, and the public.

Best,

Mark Weisbrot