Sep 17 2010

Amitabh Pal on French austerity protests, Hye Jin Rho on Social Security


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This week on CounterSpin: As French protestors take to the streets against proposed austerity measures, the U.S. media have taken sides. Expressing scorn for spoiled French workers; and cheering the grown up, responsible attitudes of those, like French President Sarkozy who seek to cut promised retirement benefits. How are these same battles covered back home in the U.S.? We’ll talk to Amitabh Pal, columnist and managing editor of the Progressive magazine.

Also on CounterSpin today: When pundits talk about solutions to the country’s long-term debt and deficit problems, one apparently simple solution is to raise the retirement age. Sure that means we’d all have to work a little longer, but as many a pundit will tell you, it’s about time people started sacrificing. But who would be most affected by this policy? Hye Jin Rho of the Center for Economic & Policy Research will join us to talk about that.

All that’s coming up, but first we’ll take a look back at the week’s press.

—The debate over the expiring Bush tax cuts would seem to be a perfect opportunity for corporate media to fact check what politicians are saying about the subject. But when ABC World News reporter Jonathan Karl tried to do that on September 8, the results were a mess.

The outlines of this debate are clear enough: the White House wants to extend tax cuts to the vast majority of Americans, while allowing the cuts in the topmost income brackets to expire. Republicans say that increase on the wealthy is really a tax hike for small businesses.

But instead of setting the record straight, Karl proceeded to mangle the facts. He introduced two small business owners; one said he’d lose 20 to 40,000 dollars, the other saying he would be out $120,000. Karl didn’t point out that if this was true, these small businessmen have enormous take-home salaries: somewhere between 700,000 and 1.1 million dollars for the first one, and almost 3 million dollars for the second.

Jonathan Karl finally acknowledged some facts in his fact check report: that only a tiny minority of small business owners—2.5 percent, he says, citing the Tax Policy Center—would be affected at all by this tax increase. But then, striving to undercut the only informative part of his report, Karl said this:

So, 2.5 percent affected. We asked the Tax Policy Center how many businesses that is. Their answer? 894,000 small businesses that would see their taxes go up. A small percentage, but a large number of small businesses. Jonathan Karl, ABC News, Washington.

Actually, no—that’s the number of individuals who would pay more and also report business income of any kind. If Karl’s figures were correct, there’d be something like 36 million small businesses in this country. ABC‘s fact check report needs a fact check of its own.

—After Hurricane Katrina, prominent media figures promised to pay better attention to stories about poverty and racism. As FAIR documented in 2007, that promise didn’t amount to much; three years of nightly network newscasts (from September, 2003 through October of 2006) provided just 58 stories about poverty—fewer stories than were dedicated to Michael Jackson’s legal problems. Jackson stories were even more popular on the network news shows in the year after Katrina.

But one of the few times of the year that corporate journalists deign to discuss poverty is in September, when the government figures are published. Well it’s that time again, so on September 12, ABC World News devoted a short rip-and-read report to the subject. According to anchor Dan Harris,

170,000 families were in homeless shelters in 2009. That’s a 30 percent increase in two years. Meanwhile, the Census Bureau is expected to announce this week that as many as 15 percent of American families lived in poverty last year, up from 13.2 percent.

But don’t think ABC lavished an entire 60 word story on the powerless. No. Harris revealed what ABC News saw as the take away to the poverty report, introducing the news as “some new economic numbers that could prove troubling for Democrats trying to hold onto power in Congress.” Thus, even in a report about dramatically increasing poverty in U.S., poverty is reportable primarily inasmuch as it affects the powerful, forget the poor.

—One long-running criticism of public television is that there’s little public about it. There are investment and money shows, for example, but relatively little dealing with working people or labor issues. The Nightly Business Report airs on many PBS affiliates. But who exactly owns the show has become somewhat murky. Back in August it was revealed that the show was being sold by Miami public TV station WPBT to a private concern headed up by someone named Mykalai Kontilai, whose Resumé includes managing a mixed martial arts fighter. So a private company was buying a public TV show, and that private company says it’s going to attract additional corporate sponsors for that ostensibly public television broadcast.

But it gets worse, according to a recent report in the newspaper Current. No one involved in the deal will say how much the new owners paid for the show. They also won’t say who put up the money, telling Current that the funding was “provided almost entirely by a New York based institutional investor.” So what is arguably the main business show on public television is now owned by a private company, but we’re not sure who paid the bill. And PBS tells Current that they weren’t part of the negotiations, and are merely the distributor of the show. Now that happens to be true; but over the years PBS has taken a keen interest in who’s funding particular programming—but usually those rules are in play for shows that PBS might be nervous about associating themselves with—in other words, the kind of programming PBS was intended to distribute and to promote. The lesson here seems to be that who owns the business show on PBS is none of your business.

—With the midterm elections only a few weeks away, there is no shortage of commentary on where the Democrats and the Obama administration went wrong. Most corporate media pundits seem to think the problem was that the White House went too far left and tried to do too many things. New York Times reporter Matt Bai isn’t quite making that case in his September 9 piece, but he does advance the idea that the public was cool to some White House policies. After explaining that some big infrastructure projects are only going to be done by government, Bai wrote, “little was achieved by way of investing in 21st-century infrastructure, largely because the public never seemed open to the idea of huge new spending.”

So big public works projects don’t happen because the public doesn’t like the idea of spending more on infrastructure? Was there a referendum on this? Bloomberg had a poll on this last year; as they put it in their lead sentence, “Americans want their government to create jobs through spending on public works, investments in alternative energy or skills training for the jobless.” The poll found that 2/3 of Americans supported infrastructure spending—perhaps aware of the fact that such projects would create jobs. We’re not sure where the idea that there is deep-seated public opposition to roads and bridges comes from, but it doesn’t seem to exist among the public.

—And finally, Corporate media are now making excuses for having handed a national spotlight to a Florida pastor who planned to burn copies of the Koran, with “the 24-hour news cycle made us do it” among the most tired. Another part of the news cycle—covering something trivial wall-to-wall, and then doing “Are we covering this too much?” debates—is equally obnoxious.

A commenter to FAIR’s blog, Tom Gardner, recalled an analogous incident, handled differently. As he wrote:

Back in the 1980s, I went down to the state capitol steps in Montgomery, Alabama to cover for my newspaper an event that was billed by the press release as a “rally and press conference.” It turned out to be a one-man show by an out-of-town Ku Kluxer who was trying to get publicity for his newly published racist hate screed.”

Well, Gardner noted that the only people who showed up were local reporters. Sensing that they were being used by a racist attention-seeker, the reporters made a decision:

As the s.o.b. began to spout, the TV guys folded up their gear, the radio folks hit the off button, and I pocketed my notebook. We all turned on our heels and walked away, hearing the desperate pleas of the ignored racist, first pleading for us to come back and then calling us the usual names.

It’s another reminder that journalistic judgment would seem to be a use-it-or-lose-it proposition.


CounterSpin: Earlier this month, more than a million French citizens took to the streets to protest austerity measures being pushed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, including one measure which would raise the age of eligibility for a retirement pension from 60 to 62. More demonstrations followed the September 15 passage of the pension measure by the lower body of France’s legislature, the National Assembly. While U.S. corporate journalists have met Sarkozy’s austerity measures with cheers, they have treated the French resistance to them with derision and mockery. An Associated Press lead on September 15, for instance, mocked the notion that raising the retirement age was a serious issue, reporting that “France’s National Assembly voted to delay retirement until the ripe old age of 62.”

Joining us now to talk about France and what it’s battle over austerity measures means, is Amitabh Pal, columnist and managing editor at the Progressive magazine. His column about France, “French Strike Shows Resistance to Austerity,” is available online at

Amitabh, welcome back to CounterSpin!

AP: Thank you for having me.

CS: Let’s begin with what’s going on in France, and the parallels here at home too.

AP: Yes, you know, one thing I do want to point out, and even in better media coverage of the protests there, this is missing: the raising of the retirement age from 60 to 62 is for partial benefits; for full benefits, it’s from 65 to 67. Even I had to rely on this, for this, on Richard Wolff, the economist, rather than any mainstream media coverage.

CS: Yes. But what’s going on in general? Because the retirement pension isn’t the only measure; there’s a whole package of austerity measures, and sort of a whole spirit that French workers are too entitled, too spoiled, and that they’re perhaps at the root of economic problems and faltering budgets.

AP: Yes, governments throughout Europe are using the global economic crisis to pass a series of measures which are aimed at reducing government; basically targeting government employees, and balancing the budget on their backs, rather than targeting the people who are really responsible and going after the people who are really responsible for this global economic crisis—and that’s the financial sector, Wall Street, or its equivalent in these countries.

CS: So, what are some of the parallels here at home. What’s the battle over here?

AP: Well, the battle over here is in many ways quite similar. President Obama, of course, and this has been in the news, has set up a bipartisan commission to “take a look” at Social Security and Medicare. And one of the co-chairs is former Republican Senator Alan Simpson, who has made no secret of his derision and his mockery of Social Security. He’s a really odd choice to head the commission. And we’re in for some horrible recommendations, and then of course it’s up to President Obama whether he acts on those recommendations or not. In parallel, there’s been this push to basically reduce benefits, lay off state employees all over the country, and many in the media are cheering. It’s not just right-wing types like Mortimer Zuckerman or Paul Gigot at the Wall Street Journal; even the New York Times, just a month ago, had this piece that implied that there’s going to be a class war—not between the rest of the population and Wall Street, but between so-called pampered government employees and the rest of the population, because those people working in the private sector have nowhere near the same type of benefits that people in the public sector have.

CS: Well, I saw a recent discussion on the NewsHour, in which they had two people talking about the French resistance to the austerity movement, and they both agreed that these sorts of measures had to be put in place to reassure bond markets. Isn’t that an important thing to do?

AP: Yeah, isn’t that amazing? The bond market—the way it is fetishized, and the way it’s held as sacrosanct. You know you have to do everything to please the financial sector, the bond market. Well, they’re people responsible, basically, for all the misery and suffering that’s occuring not only in Europe, not only in the United States, but the world over.

CS: Speaking of France and the austerity movement here and the U.S. press coverage of that, there’s nothing new about current coverage.

AP: Not at all. Not at all. At least since the 1990s, France especially, and Europe in general—the social market economy, social democracy that’s in place in Europe—has been constantly an object of ridicule by the New York Times, by Time magazine, by Washington Post. Two particular culprits have been Roger Cohen of the New York Times and Steven Pearlstein at the Washington Post. Steven Hill at the New America Foundation has come out with a new book, which I would recommend to anyone interested in Europe, called Europe’s Promise, and that has a great catalog of all the snickering and the snide remarks that have constantly been there in the U.S. media targeting Europe at least since the 1990s.

CS: You know, in the United States, the media prides itself on being objective, except in extreme cases—like in the case of the Associated Press referring, in its lede, to France raising the age for pensions to the ripe-old age of 62. Can you comment on when it’s okay to suspend that otherwise objective ideal?

AP: Well, I mean, partly, as Steven Hill points out, partly due to misplaced nationalism or patriotism and partly due to a deep-seated and deep-held belief in the notion that the U.S. economy and the U.S. free-market style of economics is so much superior to even the European social democracy, there’s been this notion that that’s the route that Europe needs to go. Of course this was even much more pronounced than even two years ago, and of course, we all know what happened two years back, and then the global phase, and even to a certain extent at least American faith in the complete perfection of U.S.-style free market economics was shattered. So until 2005 or 2006 it was even worse, but even now, there is this belief that the U.S.-style free market economics model is much better than the European model.

CS: President Obama’s deficit commission, sometimes derisively referred to as the cat food commission—it’s report is due out right, strategically, right after the November elections. Should people in the United States be preparing to take to the streets?

AP: Oh absolutely. As I said, you know, it’s co-chaired by Alan Simpson. The other co-chair Erskine Bowles is very much a DOC-type, Democrat, a Clintonite. I think we all should be worried. The real question is so far why haven’t there been more protests—France-style, Greece-style? England—the trade unions are preparing for massive demonstrations already against the new David Cameron-led government. I’m still waiting for when the United States will be having the same style massive street demonstrations against the Social Security recommendations, against Wall Street, against layoffs and cutbacks in benefits and salaries of state employees—all of that hasn’t happened yet.

CS: I wonder if one of the reasons for less populist opposition to these policies in the United States isn’t the media. We’ve been speaking with Amitabh Pal, columnist and managing editor of the Progressive magazine.

Thanks again for joining us on CounterSpin today, Amitabh Pal.

AP: Well, thank you so much for having me.


CounterSpin: When politicians and pundits are discussing policy options, you’re likely to hear that this or that idea is “on the table.” When it comes to media discussions about the federal budget deficit or the crisis in entitlement spending, there’s one easy fix that seems to be on everyone’s table: raising the Social Security retirement age. The U.S. media shakes it collective head in astonishment at France and their cushy retirement policies. When they focus attention back home, the message is much the same really: if we want to do something about the troubled finances of Medicare and Social Security, then we need people to work longer. It’s hardly a debatable position among policy elites and TV commentators. But who, exactly, is likely to feel the impact of this supposedly quick and easy fix?

A recent paper from the Center for Economic & Policy Research provides some answers; the report was written by Hye Jin Rho; she’s a Research Assistant at CEPR.

Hye Jin Rho, welcome to CounterSpin.

Hye Jin Rho: Hi, thanks for having me.

CS: I guess we could start with a positive media example—the New York Times report on September 12 that noted that workers who have physically demanding jobs are largely missing from this discussion about retirement. The paper cited your research to flesh out this argument. So tell us what in a nutshell your research is trying to establish—who are the workers who are being asked, or really told, that they’re going to need to put in a few more years before they can retire?

HR: Definitely, it was good that the New York Times had mentioned it because I think we are missing a huge important chunk of the debate, which actually focuses on the people who are in physically demanding jobs. A lot of the proponents of raising the retirement age these days are saying that because we are living longer, and because we all work in front of the computers now, we should raise the retirement age. And somehow this has been a growing consensus that this will actually, you know, improve the Social Security solvency and it will reduce the national long-term budget deficit. But it’s actually kind of striking to see the numbers of the workers who are still in physically demanding jobs. It might sound logical and reasonable to think that we are just living longer, and we can raise the retirement age, but it’s usually misrepresentative of the picture of the working conditions of older workers. So our study shows that in 2009 for the population of older workers who are 58 or older, 6.5 millions workers are physically demanding jobs. This is about a third of the older working population. And about 5 million workers were in difficult working conditions, that’s about a fourth of that population. Then we have 8.5 million people who are working in either physically demanding jobs or in jobs with difficult working conditions. So it’s a huge number. In particular it’s important to note that in 2009, in the physically demanding jobs and jobs that had difficult working conditions, were more likely to be held by men, minority workers, the least educated, immigrants, and the lowest wage workers. So it’s a very unequal distribution across different kinds of demographic groups.

CS: I think one of the interesting things: when you look at the totals it’s striking because you see how many workers we’re talking about here, and the demographic profile is rather striking. One of the things, and you mentioned this in passing, and it’s probably worth underlining: there is this idea that we’re all just living longer. When one Republican politician suggested we need to raise the retirement age to 70 recently, the Washington Post editorial page cheered this as a “common-sense outburst.” Are we all living longer right now? Is that actually true?

HR: Well it’s actually not true. We are in some sense, on average, we might be living longer, but in actuality studies have found that there’s a strong correlation between life expectancy and income. So the higher income you have, you’re living longer; the lower income people, not so much. The Center for Economic and Policy Research also has a study that looks over the different patterns in the rise in life expectancy over the past hundred years. There has been over 20 years of increase in average life expectancy over the last century, but it’s crucial to look at the composition of that increase. More than half of that increase is due to the increase in the survival rates of children, so there has been a huge improvement of the life expectancy at birth for children. So a forth has taken place during people’s actual working years. So they are making a lot more contributions to Social Security during that extra life time that they have for work, and those are more than enough to compensate for the rise in the life expectancy. So once they make it to the age of 65, the increase in the life expectancy at the age of 65 is less than five years. It’s a actually a hugely misleading statement to say that because all of us are living longer we should raise the retirement age.

CS: The conclusion of your report points out sort of the practical implication of this for a worker in one of these physically demanding jobs. It does seem logical that a worker in that kind of job would be forced to take or would have to take early retirement because the retirement age would be pushed back and thus, by taking early retirement, they would get reduced benefits. Is that sort of the point of this—to get people to opt out of the system earlier than they should, so that they will get less money in return?

HR: Right. Employment in these jobs is a major cause of early labor market exit among older workers. And if they are forced out of the labor force unwillingly, that means they are actually forced to take the benefit cuts. And if you raise the retirement age, it also means that it’s a benefit cut of about 15 percent if the retirement age is raised to 70. For these workers, if they are thinking that they want to move into a less physically strenuous jobs so that they have more income later in their lives, it’s actually becoming more and more difficult for them to get new jobs—because they are more likely to face age discrimination and shortcomings in job training than in the past. So they are really left with no option but to leave the workforce before they hit the normal retirement age. Raising it to 70—it’s already scheduled to be increased from 66 to 67, from 2017 to 2022—so further increase in retirement age even before knowing the impact of what our retirement age increase would do to our older workers, it actually seems like a very dangerous concept to me.

CS: Ruth Marcus at the Washington Post wrote a column this summer criticizing Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO president. He had this meeting with the editors of the Washington Post, and they brought up the idea of raising the retirement age, and he spoke out against the idea. As Marcus tells it, one of the editors gestured to his or her colleagues and said, well if we need to keep working a few extra years, isn’t that better for the system? It’s only one anecdote, but it does sort of remind us that maybe there’re folks in the media who don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about other types of workers when they’re talking about everyone working until they’re 70. Not everyone has a job where they sit at a table and look at a computer screen.

HR: That’s actually not a practical way of thinking about this whole issue. We really need to think about those who will be affected the most—those in the physically demanding jobs, largely minority workers and less educated, low-wage earners.

CS: We’ve been speaking with Hye Jin Rho. She is a Research Assistant at the Center for Economic & Policy Research. Her paper “Hard Work? Patterns in Physically Demanding Labor Among Older Workers” can be read at their website, which is

Hye Jin Rho, thanks for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

HR: Thank you very much.


—”French Strike Shows Resistance to Austerity,” by Amitabh Pal (Progressive, 9/8/10)

—”Patterns in Physically Demanding Labor Among Older Workers,” by Hye Jin Rho (CEPR, 8/10/10)