Mush Journalism and the Strategic Social Security Lie

Today it’s Social Security. In this San Jose Mercury News story, from the AP, Bush faces tough Social Security battle, Leigh Strope writes a “balanced” article about the battle Great Leader faces saving seniors from the coming “shortfall.” From the story:

“The system is headed toward bankruptcy down the road,” Bush said in his weekly radio address. “If we do not act soon, Social Security will not be there for our children and grandchildren.”

Now we here in the blogosphere all know that this is a flat-out blatant lie. It is a strategic lie, repeated over and over until people think it’s true. After enough repetition of this lie, everyone will say that “we all know” Social Security is going broke. Once enough people are tricked into thinking there is a problem that must be “solved,” along come Republican candidates with “solutions” — namely the current Bush plan to phase out Social Security.

Strope writes, “Creating investment accounts alone will not fix the future shortfall. Cuts in benefits are required, and investments are expected to make up the losses.” WHAT “future shortfall?” The one we all know is coming. The problem with this article is that (as I’ll show below) Strope has to know this is misleading at best, and furthers the Republican plan to phase out Social Security.

Just to be clear, every one of us needs to understand that there is no Social Security “shortfall” at all until 2042. And even that is calculated using an assumption of only 1.6% economic growth until then! Very little is required to fix this. (And if there IS only 1.6% growth, putting Social Seucrity into stocks would be a disaster!)

So, is Strope writing about the 2018 “shortfall” out of ignorance? In another, more informative Strope piece from Dec. 1, Questions, answers about Social Security, Strope writes:

Q: Why are changes needed to Social Security?

A: Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system, with current benefits funded by the 12.4 percent in payroll taxes paid by workers and employers. The large baby boom generation will strain the system, which will start paying out more in benefits than it collects in taxes in 2018, according to the Social Security Board of Trustees. Without any changes, Social Security in 2042 will be able to cover only about 73 percent of benefits owed.

What’s missing here is a clear explanation to the public that this is not in any way a problem with Social Security. The government has been borrowing from Social Security and using the money to give tax cuts to the rich. In 2018 the government stops getting extra money from Social Security and has to find a way to keep paying its bills. AND it has to start paying Social Security back. Social Security has enough “saved up” to last until at least 2042 with no changes at all. The 2018 problem is a problem with the government paying its bills to all creditors. Bush is trying to get out of paying this, and only this creditor back, because the money would have to come from the tax cuts that were given to the rich.

Further on in this piece, Strope does explain this, demonstrating understanding of what the Republicans are up to. So why does Strope keep giving them a pass?

Q: Will raising taxes, raising the retirement age or cutting benefits shore up funding without adding investment accounts?

A: Yes

[. . .]Q: What about money in the Social Security trust fund?

A: The trust fund does not really contain money. Social Security today collects more in taxes than it pays out in benefits. The extra money is used to buy Treasury bonds from the government. The government then spends the money as part of its general revenue.

Starting in 2018, when payroll taxes will not completely cover promised benefits, the bonds will be cashed in, with the government essentially repaying the money it already had spent. That will provide revenue to pay benefits to 2042.

Strope understands that the problem is that the government owes money to Social Security — to retirees — not that Social Security doesn’t have the money! So why doesn’t Strope ever make this clear in these articles? Strope’s job is supposed to be to inform the public. This is the key point that the Republicans are trying to obscure, and Strope continues to play along.

Accurately covering a story like Social Security requires more than knowledge of Social Security and the facts and figures. To cover this story in its complete context requires that the reporter understand that the Republicans are using a strategic lie to promote a hidden agenda of phasing out Social Security. This is not a secret. The Republican think tanks – Heritage, Cato, AEI, etc. – have been writing openly about this for decades. Responsibility to the public and to democracy requires including this information in every single story written.