Oct 22 2007

Milbank Defends Post Column

Piece blended Social Security, Medicare problems

After FAIR’s October 19 action alert criticized coverage of Social Security in the Washington Post and on ABC News, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank responded to one FAIR activist with this message:

Don’t you think it a bit unfair of “FAIR,” in complaining about my “context,” to ignore the fact that I was writing about the combined impact of Medicare and Social Security?

While most of Milbank’s column (10/16/07) obviously concerned Social Security (the headline “Smile, Smile–You’re on Social Security!” was no accident), he did link the Social Security and Medicare programs in explaining how baby boomers would “begin to bankrupt the nation.” But treating the two as though they are similar does not make Milbank’s argument any more persuasive; in fact, it makes it more deceptive.

As economist Dean Baker has long argued, Social Security is financially sound for the next several decades. Medicare, by comparison, faces a more immediate problem due to rising healthcare costs (CEPR, 9/03). Baker (10/19/06) once critiqued media attempts to link the two programs by noting that reporters could do this with almost any government program; one could write about the coming budget crunch due to the “combined cost of Medicare, Medicaid and maintaining the roads and sidewalks in front of the Washington Post.”

Economist Paul Krugman made a similar point in his New York Times column (3/26/04):

It has become standard practice among privatizers to talk as if there is some program called Socialsecurityandmedicare. They hope to use scary numbers about future medical costs to panic us into abandoning a retirement program that’s actually in pretty good shape. But the deteriorated outlook for Medicare says nothing, one way or another, about either the sustainability of Social Security (no problem) or the desirability of private retirement accounts (a lousy idea).Even on Medicare, don’t panic. It’s not like a private health plan that will go belly up when it runs out of money; it’s just a government program, albeit one supported by a dedicated tax. Nobody thinks America’s highways will be doomed if the gasoline tax, which currently pays for highway maintenance, falls short of the system’s needs — if politicians want to sustain the system, they will. The same is true of Medicare. Rising medical costs are a very big budget issue, but 2019 isn’t a drop-dead date.