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PORTSIDE  August 2010, Week 2

PORTSIDE August 2010, Week 2

Subject:

Stop CNN's Social Security Scaremongering

From:

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Date:

Wed, 11 Aug 2010 21:54:24 -0400

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Action Alert

Situation Room Scaremongering 
CNN's Social Security Crisis

Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting
August 11, 2010
http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=4134

The August 5 reports from the Social Security and
Medicare trustees declared Social Security's long-term
financial outlook mostly unchanged from the previous
year, and the projections for Medicare were greatly
improved from previous forecasts. But on CNN's
Situation Room, this news amounted to a crisis in
Social Security and a threat to the country.

On the August 5 broadcast, host Wolf Blitzer announced:
"Social Security reaches the final financial tipping
point. The system is now paying out more than it's
taking in. Will Washington do anything anytime soon to
fix this problem?" Blitzer was referring to the fact
that this year Social Security is paying out more in
benefits than it receives in tax revenue--a mostly
meaningless fact, given the system's $2.5 trillion
long-term surplus (CEPR's Social Security Byte,
8/5/10). But Blitzer turned to a single guest, Beltway
fixture and former presidential adviser David Gergen,
to echo his alarmism.

"We're getting disturbing numbers now once again on
Social Security," Blitzer declared. "We seem to be
getting these every few years, and people sort of just
kick this can down the road." Gergen responded that
government debt will "seriously threaten the future of
the country." He acknowledged that the trustees'
reports suggest the programs are "in good shape," but
as a self-described "deficit hawk," he still saw a
crisis looming, since "the government is going to have
to put more and more money into it...and therefore, the
cost to government will go way up and the size of the
national debt is going to continue to go up."

When Gergen says that the government is going to "put
more and more money" into Social Security, he means
that the government is going to start paying back some
of the trillions of dollars it has borrowed from the
Social Security system. He and Blitzer see this as a
crisis; others would see it rather as the deserved and
anticipated return of enormous amounts of wealth to the
working people who contributed to the surplus over the
last three decades, specifically so that it could be
paid back now as the baby boomers begin to retire.

Gergen complained:

The liberals have seized on this new report about
Social Security and Medicare, these reports, and said
we don't need to touch these, they're solvent. Go away,
don't do this. But the deficit hawks are saying, wait a
minute. If you don't deal with Medicare and Social
Security, if you don't reform them, the deficit is
going to go higher and higher. The national debt is
going to reach proportions we can't stand, and it's
going to bring all sorts of problems to the country.

Gergen's conflation of Social Security and Medicare can
only mislead viewers. Social Security over the long
term is expected to consume a constant share of U.S.
GDP, about 6 percent--roughly 1 percentage point more
than it does now. This increase can be paid for with
minor adjustments to the program, such as raising or
eliminating the cap on income subject to Social
Security taxes (currently $87,900). These changes can
be made decades from now, when the trust fund is
finally depleted. Medicare, by contrast, really is
growing unsustainably--because medical costs in general
are growing unsustainably, and need to be brought under
control to avoid general economic collapse. To treat
the two programs as being similar problems completely
obscures the very different solutions each requires.

The August 5 segment does not seem to be an outlier for
the Situation Room. An August 9 report from Lisa
Sylvester, for instance, suggested two possible
approaches to Social Security: raising the retirement
age or increasing the tax rate, which "could hurt small
businesses and low-wage workers." As Sylvester put it,
"There are just no easy answers." But one option that
would be much easier--raising the cap on income subject
to the tax, which would not affect low-wage workers--
went unmentioned.

And on July 16, CNN commentator Jack Cafferty mentioned
that politician have "run out of options on how to pay
for Social Security, which is broke." That statement is
completely false, unless a program with trillions of
dollars in assets, sufficient to fund its obligations
for decades to come, is "broke."

On the August 5 show, Gergen pointed out that this year
will bring plenty of opportunities to talk about Social
Security: "We at CNN and others can really help people
understand what the choices are facing the country
because they are tough choices, very hard choices, and
a lot of Americans are going to be startled by just how
serious some of this is."

If CNN's Situation Room program is serious about
covering Social Security fairly, they need to balance
the views of Cafferty and Gergen with experts like
economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic &
Policy Research, or Nancy Altman from Social Security
Works, who can give viewers an informed, clearer-eyed
assessment of Social Security's finances.

ACTION: Ask CNN's Situation Room to bring on Social
Security experts who would challenge the alarmist views
featured recently on the show. Social Security is an
important subject that deserves balanced reporting.

CONTACT: CNN's The Situation Room [log in to unmask]

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