The National Debt and Our Children: How Dumb Does Washington Think We Are?

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Dean Baker
Truthout, October 15, 2012

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While much of the country is focused on the presidential race, the Wall Street gang is waging a different battle; they are preparing an assault on Social Security and Medicare. This attack is not exactly secret. There have been a number of pieces on this corporate-backed campaign in the media over the last few months, but the drive is nonetheless taking place behind closed doors.

The corporate honchos are not expecting to convince the public that we should support cuts to Social Security and Medicare. They know this is a hopeless task. Huge majorities of people across the political spectrum strongly support these programs.

Instead they hope that they can use their power of persuasion, coupled with the power of campaign contributions and the power of high-paying jobs for defeated members of Congress, to get Congress to approve large cuts in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other key programs. This is the plan for a grand bargain that the corporate chieftains hope can be struck in the lame duck Congress.   

Most of the media have been happy to cooperate with the corporate chieftains in this plan. There are two main ways in which they have abandoned objectivity to support the plan for cutting Social Security and Medicare.

First they continually run stories about how the deficit and debt are the biggest problems facing the country. They routinely use phrases like “crisis” and other hyperboles to scare their audience about the risks that the debt poses to the country.

The whole notion of a “fiscal cliff” is an invention that implies an urgency that does not exist. There is almost no consequence to not having a deal in place by the end of 2012. The dire projections of recession and rising unemployment assume that we don’t ever get a deal on the budget.

The fixation on the debt certainly cannot be justified by any objective standard. Clearly the most pressing economic problem facing the country is the tens of millions of people who are unemployed or underemployed as result of the collapse of the housing bubble. These people and their families are seeing their lives ruined due to a monumental failure by policymakers.

Furthermore, it is easy to show that the large budget deficits of recent years are entirely the result of the economic collapse. If the economy were back near full employment, the deficits would be relatively small as was the case before the collapse. Yet it is the deficits and debt that dominate news reporting and debate questions, not the overall state of the economy. 

The other way in which the media have been pushing the agenda of the corporate honchos is by refusing to press candidates on their support for the cuts to Social Security that are a likely part of a grand bargain. Does President Obama support reducing Social Security benefits by 3 percent by cutting the annual cost-of-living adjustment? Does he support raising the age of Medicare eligibility to 67? How about your candidates for the Senate or the House?

It’s unlikely that many people know the answers to these questions because the reporters have not been asking them. Yet these policies and other cuts that would likely be part of a grand bargain would have a much more direct impact on most people’s lives that the tax proposals being touting by President Obama and Governor Romney.

To be specific, the reduction in Social Security benefits from the cut in the in the cost-of-living adjustment that is being pushed as part of a grand bargain would have more impact on most future retirees living standards than ending the Bush tax cuts on the richest 2 percent would have on their living standards. While the media have done endless pieces on the impact of this possible tax increase on the wealthy, they have done almost nothing on the impact of cutting the cost-of-living adjustment on the living standards of retirees.

This of course fits the needs of the corporate honchos who are pushing the agenda for cutting Social Security and Medicare. They don’t want these cuts to become an issue before the election because it will make it harder for members of Congress to vote for them.

This is why the reporters covering this election deserve nothing but contempt from the public. It is their job to highlight the issues that will matter to people’s lives, not to help push the agenda of corporate America. But clearly they have decided to do the latter.


Dean Baker is a macroeconomist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He previously worked as a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and an assistant professor at Bucknell University.