Jan 1 1988

Social Security, the Candidates and the Media

A curious phenomenon of the presidential campaign has been that the least popular Democratic candidate, Bruce Babbitt, has drawn the most favorable media treatment, while the most popular political demand has received the least favorable media treatment.

The New York Times (1/20/88) noted raves for Babbitt in Time, Newsweek, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the New Republic and Washington Monthly. It also mentioned the Times‘ own front-page analysis of the Democratic candidates’ economic programs, which led off with the assertion that except for Babbitt, they offered “no clear prescriptions” for the deficit problem.

That article, like media coverage generally, was hardest on the most progressive and, according to some polls, the most popular Democrat, Jesse Jackson. It erroneously described Jackson’s quite clear economic program, and sneered that he “suggests he would force wealthy people and giant corporations to pay more taxes, but he does not say how he would do it.” (In fact, Jackson has often said that when you find yourself in a blind alley, you get out the way you got in. Hence, restore taxes on the high rollers and cut military spending. He gives figures, too.)

At least the Times mentioned Jackson. More often, the media ignore him. As for the obscure Babbitt, the Times found no mystery about his attractiveness to the media: It was his call for a national sales tax and a cap on Social Security — “a litmus test for political courage among political reporters,” according to one campaign manager.

Social Security is beyond doubt the most popular government program, with overwhelming support among voters of both parties. Yet it has little support in the mainstream media.

Conservatives have long campaigned to destroy this keystone of the welfare state, with wide success among reporters, but virtually none among voters. Even President Reagan, who moved to slash Social Security in 1981 and was punished severely for it at the polls in 1982, has posed as a defender of the program ever since. He won bipartisan support for major cuts in 1983 only by disguising them as a “rescue” of Social Security from bankruptcy, a hoax accepted by the media with little rebuttal. (The Treasury was in fact heavily in debt to Social Security for military service credits, et al.) Congress came close to imposing a freeze on Social Security pensions this year with frenetic media support, but backed down when millions of anti-freeze petitions poured in.

An example of media conformity on this issue was provided by ABC‘s This Week With David Brinkley (1/17/88). The entire panel agreed that Congress had been cowardly. A guest, Cokie Roberts of National Public Radio, complained that beneficiaries got back all they had paid into Social Security in the first year of retirement, implying that they then became parasites on society.

Nobody contradicted her. The charge has been repeated so often that many people accept it. Some say it takes two years to become a parasite, some two and a half. Philip Longwood, a professional Social Security basher, puts it at 19 months. This ignores the employers’ matching share and 50 years or so of inflation and interest on the money paid in.

Above all, it ignores that Social Security is an insurance program. If Ms. Roberts’ house burned down, she no doubt would seek to recover more than the premiums she had paid in for home insurance. She would not ask of her insurer that it keep more than prudent reserves. Since Social Security has never missed a payment and its reserves have been growing excessively, its premiums would appear to have been more than adequate.

Other falsehoods commonly accepted as fact by the media:

  • Social Security contributes to the budget deficit. Said Leonard Silk in his New York Times column (1/27/88): “[The deficit] is overwhelmingly a consequence of American military outlay and entitlement programs such as Social Security…together with the nation’s unwillingness to pay the taxes needed to finance the expenditures.” For the record, Social Security taxes have increased, and the program has never cost the Treasury a cent. In fact, it is a source of cheap credit to the Treasury, which acts as its banker and takes the float. It is not properly a part of the budget at all; it was blended in by LBJ to conceal the full cost of the Vietnam war. Officially, it’s out of the budget again, but is blended in for propaganda purposes, to minimize the Reagan deficit
  • “It hardly seems fair to ask more sacrifice from the working poor to maintain the living standards of the retired rich” (NYT editorial, 8/11/82). In 1984, Social Security accounted for 38 percent of the income of all the elderly, and virtually all of the income for one-quarter of the elderly. The government estimated that 14 percent of the elderly were then poor, but another 36 percent would come under the poverty level if not for Social Security.
  • The Cost-Of-Living-Adjustment (COLA) is a ripoff of active workers by the elderly. A COLA means more to the young than to the old, since each annual adjustment is based on prior levels. Thus, the six-month freeze in 1983 cost the average retiree $84 that year, but the loss had been compounded to $126 for 1987 and in theory will expand forever.

The 1983 Social Security “rescue” bill, as the headlines called it, also raised payroll taxes, advanced the retirement age for the young and middle-aged from 65 to 67 and in other ways insured that young people would pay more and get less. The perpetrators of the measure then turned this inequity into an argument against Social Security. (See William Buckley’s column in the New York Daily News , 11/87.)

The anti-Social Security lobby unsmilingly calls itself Americans for Generational Equity. While there is no evidence of a groundswell against Social Security among the young, it has fallen almost entirely to organizations of the elderly to save what is after all the chief pension resource of young Americans.

The only Republican Presidential candidate to respond to the deep popular attachment to Social Security has been Jack Kemp. In a desperate bid to stay in the race, he showed commercials in Iowa reminding voters that George Bush and Bob Dole had both voted to freeze the COLA. Newsweek‘s Eleanor Clift, as a guest on the McLaughlin Group (1/24/88), commented with contempt that Kemp was just “pandering to the elderly.” Nobody disagreed.

There is much more to the debate about Social Security. But so far there has been virtually no debate in the mainstream media.