links for 2007-11-28
Zimbabwe Inflation 'Incalculable'

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Yet Another Ruth Marcus/Washington Post Edition)

This morning Ruth Marcus writes:

Social Security: Five Myths and a Slur: [The claim that] "Social Security is only a big deal to people who hate the program and want to see it destroyed -- or to their ignorant dupes"... is worse than a myth. It's a slur -- on responsible people, Democrats and Republicans, who may differ about the Social Security cure but agree on the diagnosis and on the need for treatment.

This reads like a lame reply to what Clive Crook wrote last week at the Atlantic:

On an important point, [Democrats] are right: no great fiscal crisis lies in wait for social security... tweaks will be enough to deal with it.... A fiscal crisis is indeed looming over the next few decades – but its cause is Medicare, not social security. For the US, the real fiscal enemy is not the ageing of the population, but the relentless rise in healthcare costs.... [Any exclusive] focus on social security reform [is] both ill-conceived and, no doubt, deliberately misleading...

Indeed, today Ruth Marcus gives a lot of ground, no longer hiding from her readers the fact that:

The [Social Security] shortfall is small, and it's a lot smaller than the Medicare shortfall.... Social Security isn't the biggest budgetary challenge...

Indeed, by my count Social Security needs to take a number and get in line, being only the fifth-most serious budgetary shortfall, behind:

  • Medicare hospitalization
  • Medicaid
  • Medicare drug benefit
  • The Bush 2001 and 2003 tax cuts

But because Ruth Marcus lacks the ovaries to state that Social Security is only fifth in magnitude of our budgetary shortfalls, Dean Baker is still unhappy:

Beat the Press Archive | The American Prospect: A couple of quick points are in order. To claim unanimity of forecasts agree with SS trustees is simply false. The trustees assume that productivity growth will be markedly slower over the longterm horizon than its post-war average. They also assume that immigration will slow sharply from its rate over the last decade. Both assumptions make the projections for the program look considerably worse. One need only step over to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office's website to find more positive projections on these variables...

The second key point to keep in mind is that the idea that taking steps earlier rather than later makes things easier means that it is better to either raise taxes on a cohort that has seen 30 years of wage stagnation or to cut their retirement benefits, even though most have accumulated little for retirement other than their SS.... Only the Post would argue that it's better to raise taxes and/or cut benefits on much poorer workers today than to risk the possibility that we may have to raise taxes or cut benefits on the much wealthier workers of the future...

And Paul Krugman is still--rightly--contemptuous:

The Social Security obsession, again: By any reasonable standard, Social Security is at most a second-tier policy issue.... The Social Security trustees estimate the 75-year financial shortfall of the program at 0.7% of GDP. That compares with a general fund deficit – the federal deficit outside of Social Security – of 3.3% of GDP last year (that is, not even taking into account future demands on Medicare and Medicaid.) Social Security, in other words, is in much better financial shape than the rest of the government.

Another illuminating comparison is to look at the sources of projected growth in entitlements spending. The last Congressional Budget Office long-term budget projection had Social Security spending rising from 4.2 percent of GDP now to 6.4 percent by 2050, a 2.2 percentage point increase – and Social Security, remember, is currently running a surplus to prepare for that eventuality. Meanwhile, Medicare and Medicaid spending are projected to rise from 4.5 percent of GDP to 12.6 percent, three times the Social Security increase – with negligible pre-funding. As a result, Social Security fades to insignificance in any realistic discussion of entitlements problems....

If you’re seriously worried about America’s long-run fiscal prospects, then, you should talk a lot about the general fund deficit and the problem of rising health care costs, and hardly at all about Social Security. But that’s not how it works in DC these days.

How obsessed are Beltway types with what is really a minor problem? Here are two snapshots:

First, from commenter “Low-Tech Cyclist” at Brad DeLong’s place:

The WaPo has a subset of its unsigned editorials where it comments on what it calls “the ideas primary.”

Five of the last seven Ideas Primary editorials have been on the Social Security ‘crisis.’ There have been 15 editorials in this series. One has been on global warming - the greatest crisis of our era - and two have been on our greatest domestic crisis, the lack of universal health care and the upcoming crisis in the Medicare trust fund.

Second, from Jon Chait:

One of the oddities of the entitlement hysterics is that they are far more obsessed with the minor problems of Social Security than with the massive problems of Medicare. Indeed, if you look closely at their dire proclamations, they inevitably follow the same pattern: They begin with an ominous summation about entitlements–thus lumping together Medicare with Social Security–then swiftly proceed to demand that Social Security be shored up forthwith.

Russert’s recent harangue at the Democratic presidential debate was a classic example. He began by warning of the crisis faced by “Social Security and Medicare” but proceeded to ask no fewer than 14 questions about Social Security, and zero about Medicare. It’s as if he began fulminating against crime in the greater New York area and then immediately began demanding a large new police deployment in Chappaqua.

Look, I know this is very embarrassing to those who have been walking around thinking that hyping the Social Security issue makes them Very Serious People. But the facts are the facts – and the Beltway obsession with Social Security reflects ideology and fashion, not the real problems facing America.