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If Ezra Klein Really Wants to End the “Entitlement Scare,” He Should Do It

Ezra Klein responds to my post on Peter Orszag, addressing a quote from Ben Stein’s Politico interview with Orszag this morning:

Orszag’s long-running project – something that has made him the Left’s favorite Cabinet member – has been replacing talk of an “entitlement crisis” with his argument that Social Security requires only modest tax hikes and benefit cuts, while Medicare and Medicaid have much more dramatic fiscal woes. 

Ezra says I’m wrong to interpret this to mean that Orszag thinks "Social Security requires only modest tax hikes and benefit cuts":

Hamsher focuses on the bolded portion. But that gets the importance of the quote backwards. The point of Orszag’s argument is not how you fix Social Security. It’s to stop talking about an entitlement crisis. To read a clearer exposition of this argument, see this old Paul Krugman post. "Social Security fades to insignificance in any realistic discussion of entitlements problems," he says.


If there’s an "entitlements problem" that requires an "entitlements commission" then that will cut Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. If there’s no "entitlements problem" and instead a health reform problem and some small questions about a politically electric program, then what you get is health reform — which is also a way to slow Medicaid and Medicare growth without resorting to cuts — and an end to the fear-mongering on Social Security. Orszag is one of the good guys here.

Orszag’s not running for prom king here so whether he’s "one of the good guys" is not really relevant. He has been presenting his plan to cut Social Security benefits as part of the White House’s efforts on "fiscal responsibility," according to people who have directly participated in those presentations.  I granted anonymity in this instance in accordance with the rules followed by the New York Times, because I trusted where the information was coming from, I thought it was important to get out, and there was a valid reason (not wanting to jeopardize relationships with the administration) for requesting it.

Now Orszag confirms that reporting by doing an interview where he says he thinks Social Security requires benefit cuts.  Ezra says my conclusion is "an effort to read the tea leaves to suggest that the Obama administration has a secret plan to cut Social Security benefits."  I don’t know what the "secret" part is.

He then goes on to tell us that what Orszag really means is that he has no intention to cut Social Security, what he really wants to do is deal with the broad question of Medicare and Medicaid as part of healthcare reform.  Fair enough.  But Ezra wrote a post this morning quoting anonymous administration officials on the subject wherein he granted them anonymity for no legitimate journalistic reason I can tell, because they did nothing other than give administration spin.  Nobody legitimately speaking on behalf of the administration should fear retribution for doing so.  Ezra transcribed this exchange with no pushback or critical scrutiny, something Glenn Greenwald has been taking Mark Ambinder to task for.  If Ezra’s got great sources in the administration, why is he venturing guesses about what Orszag intends?  Why doesn’t he go and ask them, point blank — is cutting Social Security benefits off the table? 

There’s a big summit on "fiscal responsibility" happening on Tuesday that nobody knows almost anything about.  Yesterday numerous sources in the health care policy world confirmed that the administration told them (again off the record)  that Pete Peterson and Laura Tyson would be keynote speakers, and now both are saying they won’t be speaking.  According to the WSJ Obama told the Blue Dogs they had his permission to pursue legislation to create a panel whose recommendations on "long term deficit strains" would be subject to an up-or-down vote of Congress, and after Congressional leadership pitched a fit, that seems to be off the table too.  But what are they going to talk about at this summit, and who is invited?

On a conference call today arranged by Campaign for America’s Future that included Roger Hickey, Jamie Galbraith, Nancy Altman and Dean Baker, Roger said that several of them had been told they might be invited to the summit, but no formal invitation had been issued yet (though Pete Peterson has his invitation).  And while they had initially been told that the summit would address Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (which Ezra claims Orszag is desperately trying to separate), now they’re hearing from administration sources that nobody is sure.

"It may well be that the plan has been modified" said Galbraith, who was up on the Hill several weeks ago and says the assumption was that the underlying economic problems would be over quite quickly so by the time the summit occurred they could move on to other questions (which is pretty much what Digby says). 

"But the administration is getting a reality check, it’s got bigger fish to fry" said Jamie.  "These problems are simply not the result of the Bush treasury bobbling the ball. We’re seeing a true meltdown." 

Last week people spent days trying to project meaning into Timothy Geithner’s vague testimony before Congress, and anonymous administration sources used Mark Ambinder to tell us what the plan really was.  This week we find out Geithner had no plan. It seems to be a pattern, and it’s sad to see Ezra participating.  It may be that in the wake of the horrified response Orszag got from Congressional leadership that any ideas about "fixing" Social Security have been abandoned — these things seem to be changing by the minute.  But if Ezra has valuable sources within the administration willing to speak to him about what the White House intends, there are a lot of people right now who would like to know.  He should be using them to find out solid information on that front rather than float anonymous spin and then speculate about the meaning.

Update:  Isaiah Poole has a recording of the call with Hickey, Galbraith, Altman and Baker up at Campaign for America’s Future.

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Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher

Jane is the founder of Her work has also appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet and The American Prospect. She’s the author of the best selling book Killer Instinct and has produced such films Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. She lives in Washington DC.
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