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McCain's "Knowledge Gap": It's An Issue

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Mark Weisbrot
AlterNet, July 11, 2008

Senator John McCain's latest gaffe on Social Security is somewhat breathtaking, and ought to be a campaign issue. It indicates that he is not any better informed on major domestic policy issues than he is on foreign policy (which is supposedly his "strength").

Readers whose memory extends beyond the 48-hour news cycle may recall that on March 18, at a press conference in Amman, Jordan, McCain stated that "al-Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran, that's well known. And it's unfortunate."

Senator Joe Lieberman, who was standing next to him, whispered in his ear, causing McCain to immediately issue a correction. The McCain campaign stated that it was just a slip of the tongue, and the Sunday talk shows gave the candidate a pass. But McCain had said the same thing twice before during the same week. It was no slip of the tongue.

How serious of a confusion was this? As is "well-known," the Iranian government is run by Shiites, and Al-Qaeda is Sunni – in fact the Al-Qaeda types tend not to even recognize the Shiites as believers. So this repeated false statement indicates that McCain is missing some very basic knowledge of the region.

Now back to the home front. John McCain said on Monday: "Americans have got to understand that we are paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers in America today. And that’s a disgrace. It’s an absolute disgrace, and it’s got to be fixed."

But this is how Social Security has always been funded, and was set up to do exactly that. The Social Security payroll tax comes out of our paychecks, and pays for people who are retired. When we who are presently working retire, we will get Social Security from the taxes of people who are working. It’s not clear where the disgrace is. The system has worked well for the past 70 years, helping to reduce the poverty rate among the elderly from 35.2 percent in 1959 to 9.4 percent in 2006. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, it will continue paying all promised benefits for the next 38 years without any changes. Only minor changes –less than those implemented in each one of the decades of the 1950s, 60s, 70s, or 80s – will be necessary over the next 75 years to keep it paying all promised benefits indefinitely.

Then there is energy policy, where McCain claims that offshore drilling in environmentally sensitive areas will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and lower gasoline prices. But according to the Energy Information Agency, McCain's proposed drilling would produce too little oil (less the two tenths of one percent of world oil supply) to have a significant effect on oil prices. Not to mention that it would be ten years before we would see any oil at all.

Of course the Obama campaign would want to be careful and polite about criticizing McCain. Obama should not be seen as making fun of McCain for having a lesser education than a guy who was president of the Harvard Law Review and graduated magna cum laude. Or for not being as sharp as he might have been a couple of decades ago.

Indeed, there are plenty of sharp policy wonks on the wrong side of any issue. The President doesn't have to be a master of detail. He has advisors. But he has to at least learn enough from his advisors to be able to make an informed decision. McCain doesn't seem to be able to do this, and his mistakes seem to be more about ideological blindness and political deception than a lack of education.

McCain's nonsense about Al-Qaeda is remarkably similar to one of the major deceptions that got us into Iraq in the first place, when the Bush administration managed to convince the majority of Americans that Saddam Hussein was tied to Al-Qaeda and even to the September 11 terrorist attacks. The gaffe about Social Security is in line with standard right-wing fairy tales about Social Security being some big Ponzi scheme about to go bust. And the off-shore drilling proposal looks like an effort to make it look like some very small efforts to preserve the environment – rather than the long-term failure of U.S. energy policy – are responsible for soaring gasoline prices.

But regardless of motivation, McCain's "knowledge gap" should raise some doubts about whether he is qualified to be President.


Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: The Phony Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 2000), and has written numerous research papers on economic policy. He is also president of Just Foreign Policy.