CommunityThe Bullpen

If Lawmakers Cut Social Security, and Nobody Is There to Hear It…

Every year, usually around March 31, the Social Security trustees give an update on the stability of the program, as well as Medicare and Medicaid. This report has typically been closely watched to assess not only the actuarial imbalance of the programs, or the dates at which the programs would be unable to pay out fully, but also to assess the trend lines, whether the programs are becoming more or less stable.

But this year, we’ve seen no report at all – it was delayed due to uncertainty surrounding the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and no update has been given. Bruce Webb has been waiting for it patiently.

Come mid June I started referencing the new, new updated release date only to be notified by three different knowledgeable sources that word was out that Report Release would be delayed yet again, perhaps until August. And just like with the 2009 Report the explanations advanced were not unreasonable. But none of them were official, to my knowledge no one has at any point officially announced even the fact that the Report would be delayed (and delayed and delayed) beyond its statutory release date, and still less given an official explanation.

I find this odd in the extreme, particularly since Social Security is front and center in the news with the ongoing meetings of the Catfood Commission with their strong suggestions that cuts to Social Security are definitely on the table. You would think that repeated delays in the release of this key Report would at least require SOME explanation and that someone in the media might be asking questions. But no like the proverbial tree falling in the forest no one was close enough to hear the sound.

Joan McCarter looked into this further and got a boilerplate answer about incorporating the impact of the Affordable Care Act, and no timeline for delivery of the report.

This is symptomatic of a larger problem around Social Security in 2010 that contrasts with the attempted Bush privatization in 2005. Unlike five years ago, today you hear virtually no discussion of the very real plans to make changes to the social insurance program, especially from the traditional media. In a must-read piece, Trudy Lieberman explains this near-blackout in coverage:

It has been this way all year, ever since Obama established his deficit commission in January, thus raising the stakes for Social Security. The MSM’s treatment of the program is all the more puzzling since any changes the commission brings forth will be far more important to most Americans than health reform ever was or will be. A vigorous public discussion has yet to take place, and the commentary so far has been framed mostly by one side of the issue—the deficit hawks, privatizers, and Peter G. Peterson acolytes who believe Social Security (and other entitlements) are causing the deficits. (Disclosure: Peterson is a CJR funder.) It’s eerily reminiscent of press coverage of health reform, which locked out any proposals other than the ones being pushed by Washington’s health care cognoscenti.

The Cat Food Commission has operated in virtual secrecy for a couple months; no consumer of major media has been told. The co-chair of the program unleashed a string of lies and misinformation about the program; that shocking display didn’t pierce the media bubble. Now the annual report which is habitually used to determine the state of the program has just vanished, and nobody in the media cares?

To the extent that there’s any coverage at all, it starts from the perspective of Peterson and the deficit hawks, who have had their knives out for Social Security for decades. They allow lazy statements about longer lifespans (that’s not really true for people that reach the age of 65) or percentages of workers relative to the retired (the “there used to be 16 workers for every retiree” talking point is cherry-picked from the year that the program expanded in 1950 to cover more workers) to dominate the discussion. It assumes that the only avenues for long-term actuarial balance are retirement age increases or benefit cuts, when this chart from the Congressional Budget Office clearly shows that the easiest way to ensure stability for the program is to lift the payroll tax cap, which you can do and increase benefits at the low end besides (which you should do, given the lack of adequacy of program benefits and the collapse of defined-benefit pension plans).

The battle to protect and preserve America’s most successful government program is occurring in an information vacuum. Will anyone in the media actually figure out what’s happening before it’s over?

Previous post

FDL Book Salon Welcomes Robert Kuttner, A Presidency in Peril: The Inside Story of Obama's Promise, Wall Street's Power, and the Struggle to Control our Economic Future

Next post

Wingnut Law: Individuals Financially Responsible for Corporate Ooopsies

David Dayen

David Dayen