"Hmm," writes a blogger. "Liberals need to get off their fainting couches." That can be found an argument for cutting Social Security benefits -- and it comes from a liberal.
Benefit cuts would hurt millions of disabled and elderly people. They would harm our economic growth and wound our social character.
And clear-eyed historians of the future won't just point their fingers at radical right-wingers. They'll also cite collaborators in the Democratic Party and other members of what is still called (with no apparent sense of irony) "the Left."
Today's case study is called "Lieberman vs. Drum."
Cast of Characters
Kevin Drum does a lot of good writing at Mother Jones, and Trudy Lieberman of the Columbia Journalism Review can defend herself. But Drum's attack on Lieberman illustrates an urgent problem: All the signs suggest that Democrats may be preparing for a politically and economically destructive pact to cut Social Security. They must be stopped, not encouraged. That takes facts, not spin.
Lieberman has long been a sharp-eyed chronicler of the media's Social Security errors, which often turn news stories into propaganda for the pseudo-"centrist" push to cut this already ungenerous program.
We've grown accustomed to seeing critics of this false consensus attacked unjustly, often by Democratic icons like Bill Clinton. But it's still surprising to see such an attack in the pages of Mother Jones, the progressive magazine that evolved from the legendary '60s-era publication Ramparts.
Ms. Lieberman's CJR piece,"How the Media Has Shaped the Social Security Debate," seemed to visibly affect coverage of last week's Social Security Trustees Report. Coverage was better, but still weak, as Ms. Lieberman noted in a newer piece. That's what occasioned the attack from Mr. Drum.
I've seen several of Drum's columns on Social Security and they all seem to share some wrong-headed notions. He appears to be under the impression that it's possible to cut a reasonable deal with House Republicans that would "fix" Social Security. He also seems convinced that Republicans would then honorably abstain from any further attacks, leaving the program safe for a generation. Experience suggests otherwise, to say the least.
These are the same misguided assumptions guiding insider Democrats from Barack Obama down. (Sen. Harry Reid has been a stalwart exception.) Their wobbly comments about Social Security helped Republicans run to Democrats' left in 2010, contributing heavily to the Democrats' loss of the House that year.
Here we go again.
Proving the Point
Drum stumbles right out of the gate. His first sentence reads, "Last week the annual report of the Social Security trustees was released, and the news was bad." But the report doesn't contain "news" at all. It holds projections which are based on assumptions. That's not a nitpicker's difference. The projections changed because they expect the economy to be worse, overall, not because there was a real shift in the Social Security Administration's finances.
To say "the news was bad" is to amplify the sense of hysteria being purveyed by the media. It unwittingly proves Lieberman's point.
Although Drum nods to reality in his next sentence -- "Thanks mostly to a weak economy, they now project..." the error's been made. He then quotes from Lieberman's piece -- but selectively, citing only her paragraphs about what she calls "doomsday headlines." (She left out the most misleading set of headlines, in my opinion; they were the ones that said an "aging workforce" was making things worse, as if a wave of births that ended in the early 1960s was somehow a surprising development.)
"Hmmm," Drum then writes. "The Daily News says the trust fund will run dry in 2033... I fail to see anything wrong with any of these explanations." What he doesn't say is that apparently Lieberman didn't see anything wrong, either -- with those particular paragraphs. That's presumably why her subheader read, "An F for the headlines; a C- for the stories." That's a fairly balanced assessment, but Drum's readers at Mother Jones had no way of knowing that unless they clicked on the link.
Did he read the Daily News piece? "Social Security funds worsen," says the headline. The piece itself is fairly reasonable, if narrow in focus. So bad headline, okay content: That's consistent with Lieberman's reporting.
In addition to the false "worsening" headlines and the palpitation-inducing lines like "there won't be much money left for you," Lieberman has other point: Journalists mislead their readers when they say that "Social Security (is) heading for insolvency even faster," as one newspaper headline put it.
These errant journalists a don't explain -- perhaps because they don't realize -- that 'insolvency' isn't being used in the way many people understand the word. In everyday speech it means "broke," "busted, "can't pay the bills." But the Trustees use the word in a technical sense meaning the absence of a surplus.
Lieberman's point is that journalists should explain the difference, and most of them didn't. Drum made the very same point himself just last week -- but then, he wasn't on this particular high horse last week.
He was already sidling up to it, though. As he now says, that's when he "told liberals to get off their fainting couches" over Social Security coverage. (This rhetorical gambit -- mocking someone who has a critique to delver with language like "fainting couches," "hysterical," "pearl-clutching," "panties in a bunch," etc. -- is a cliched blogger move that's beneath the usually thoughtful Drum.)
Drum says that fixing Social Security "isn't a hard problem." His "simple" solution, coincidentally or not, resembles the "Grand Bargain" that's still being pushed by President Obama, Erskine Bowles, Dick Durbin, and a number of other leading Democrats: "very modest and phased-in benefit cuts combined with a very modest and phased-in increase in taxes."
Drum says that "you could pretty easily put together a Democratic coalition" -- that's exactly what worries me -- "that would support a combination of small, phased-in benefit cuts and small, phased-in tax increases" -- he presumably means payroll tax increases, which would only affect wages under the payroll tax cap -- "that would fix Social Security forever."
Forever? There's that wishful thinking again! (Or maybe I'm wrong, and a deal like that would make Grover Norquist and Pete Peterson and the Tea Party go away forever. Wanna put some money on it?)
There's a much simpler solution, endorsed by Ronald Reagan's Chief Actuary and other subject matter experts. Lift the payroll tax cap. That's it: Problem solved. No "phased-in" this or "graduated" that. Better still, no added hardship for lower-income and middle class Americans.
Even better, we could increase the program's benefits, which are among the weakest among developed nations, with added income taxes on the wealthy and/or a financial transactions tax.
But instead of these simple, fair, and balanced solutions, the ones preferred by Drum and by "centrist" Democrats operate within a narrow band of policy possibility, one that assumes this is a middle-class problem that must be solved through taxes of benefits cuts directed at the middle class. It reflects a failure to grasp of this issue's historical, economic, and social context.
As economist L. Josh Bivens and others have observed, the current projected shortfall was created when the wealthiest Americans began capturing far more of the nation's income than they had before. That's a Galtian wealth-grab even Alan Greenspan didn't see coming. And the currently miserable state of the economy was caused by excessive transactional speculation, and by other financial misdeeds on Wall Street.
Abandoning Their Posts
Kevin, along with a number of Democrats, may object to having this position characterized as an "attack" on Social Security. I understand -- but it's nevertheless accurate. When you provide rhetorical ammunition for "modest" benefit cuts -- which in D.C. parlance aren't modest at all -- while mocking the people who see the big picture, it adds up to an attack.
The problem isn't just that the real story on Social Security's finances isn't being told. It's that it's not being told by a lot of Democrats. And that lot of otherwise liberal commentators are reinforcing the confusion. By contrast, Lieberman gets it right. As she says, "Moral of the story: We need to get our economy out of a ditch, and the sooner the better. But you already knew that."
That's the kind of direct, concise, in-plain-English explanation of an economic topic that people once counting on getting from Democrats and liberal commentators.
We interviewed Ms. Lieberman on this weekend's episode of The Breakdown and discussed the fallout from her first CJR piece. We're pretty sure this was the first time Ms. Lieberman, an experienced health and finance journalist who now co-edits the CJR, was asked if she ever saw the obscure 1960s-era horror film Carnival of Souls.