Most of us out here in the liberal blogosphere must feel like we’ve been pissing into the wind when it comes to discussing Social Security. I know I do. No matter how many times we insist that Social Security is not welfare (“entitlement”), that it does not add on dime to the deficit, and is not in any immediate danger of going belly up, the mainstream media ignores the truth and repeats the lie that Social Security is in crisis. It is, quite truthfully, baffling to me. The actuarial reports are there for all to see. Minor fixes would fix any long term (and by that I mean decades away) shortfalls, and yet, they persist. Why?
This Columbia Journalism Review interview with Tim Greider discusses the abysmal reporting the press has done on Social Security by first discussing what and why the media gets it wrong and then moves on to what the press needs to be doing going forward.
TL: Let’s go back and put all this in the context of the press coverage of Social Security. What should the press be reporting that they haven’t been?
WG: Opponents of Social Security are deliberately confusing Social Security with Medicare; they are distorting reality. There are simple facts that should be reported: 1) Social Security never contributed a dime to the deficit; 2) Social Security softened the impact of the Reagan deficits by building up a surplus; 3) the federal government borrowed the money and spent it on other things; 4) the federal government has to pay this money back because it really belongs to the working people who paid their FICA deductions every pay day. The elites in both parties know the day is approaching when the federal government has to come up with the trillions it borrowed from the workers. That is the crisis the politicians don’t want to deal with, so they create a phony argument that slyly blames working people for their problem. That’s the propaganda they want the public to believe.
[ . . . ]
TL: Who is representing the public in this debate?
WG: The same people who rallied the public against Social Security privatization in the Bush administration. They have organized again. Some are the same players. Labor is on the barricades. Some righteous members of Congress. But in general the mass media don’t go to those dissenting voices. Instead, they are reporting factual errors as correct opinion.
TL: What do you want the press to do?
WG: I am daring reporters to go and find out the truth about this and report it. I’m not asking them to draw big conclusions or to assert their opinions. Just be honest reporters. It’s so frustrating to see the coverage. I’m not asking reporters to change any minds. I’m just asking them to do some real reporting. I mean, go to the facts—the actuarial records—and talk to a variety of experts. Reporters ring up the same sources and ask them how to think about Social Security.
TL: What does the public understand about what is happening?
WG: Not everyone understands what is happening. But most do. Most people know they have paid money into Social Security all these years and the money belongs to them, not the federal government. This is not welfare. It’s probably the best-understood program in the federal government. In fact, polls indicate in these troubled times the public believes people need increased benefits.
TL: Why hasn’t the press talked about Social Security as social insurance?
WG: My guess is that very few reporters understand what it is, or know that the concept of social insurance originated as a conservative idea—conserving social solidarity. It was first proposed more than one hundred years ago in Germany by Bismarck—not exactly a left-winger. Today’s critics style it as an entitlement program, and therefore reporters think that it’s like welfare. It’s not something the government gives to greedy old people. Alan Simpson has been relentless on this point. The press has picked up on Simpson’s language and made it sound like it’s a hand-out.
TL: A recent Bloomberg poll shows that two-thirds of those polled think the program should be means-tested. Has the press explained what that means?
WG: Social Security is by far the government’s most popular program precisely because it is universal. Everyone pays in; everyone is protected against catastrophe. The danger in means testing is that it really may turn Social Security into a welfare program—alms for the poor—and eventually doom it by destroying the broad political support it enjoys. That’s another aspect for debate the media has glossed over.
TL: Does Bismarck’s notion of social solidarity resonate in this country?
WG: The idea of social solidarity represents the core of our society. The belief that we’re all in this together has been trampled over in the last thirty years by conservative ideology. Good citizens and politicians have been sucked into believing that solidarity is not the issue. Until Americans rediscover the importance of solidarity, we’re going to be screwed up as a society. We will be trapped in brutal class conflicts and arguments over who gets more, who must be thrown over the side in the interest of business efficiency. I believe deeply most Americans do not want this dog-eat-dog brutality, but do not see much chance of changing it.