Apr 16 2013

Social Security Cuts Are Media’s ‘Center’

shields-brooksThe White House plan to cut Social Security benefits has been praised by major media as a brave move towards the “middle” by Obama, as well as an effort to use a more “accurate” measure of inflation. Neither claim is credible.

Part of the White House plan is to change how inflation is calculated, by switching to the “chained consumer price index.” This results in a small reduction in benefits that compounds over time, so the cuts get larger as retirees get older.

Many in the media depicted this as a bold centrist move. An Associated Press dispatch (4/5/13) began:

Seeking an elusive middle ground, President Barack Obama is proposing a 2014 budget that embraces tax increases abhorred by Republicans as well as reductions, loathed by liberals, in the growth of Social Security and other benefit programs.

On NPR‘s Morning Edition (4/8/13), Cokie Roberts explained that while Obama has been shoring up liberal support on other issues–immigration, guns, marriage equality–these budget moves have a different purpose:

This is a move towards the middle, to getting those independent voters who he lost in the last election…by emphasizing deficits, which is something they say they care about.

On the PBS NewsHour‘s “left/right” debate (FAIR Blog, 4/15/13), both sides–conservative David Brooks and ostensible liberal Mark Shields–praised Obama’s proposal, which Brooks called “brave” and Shields dubbed “gutsy.”

Some of the coverage was about political posturing. The Washington Post’s Dan Balz (4/7/13) called the budget a “tactical move” that was “designed to satisfy neither congressional Republicans nor his party’s left flank.” And his colleague at the Post, Dana Milbank (4/9/13), wrote after a liberal protest against the Obama plan that

the progressives’ street protest did Obama a favor. He needs to have the likes of Bernie Sanders against him. It strengthens his hand and helps him negotiate a better deal with Republican leaders, who can now see that liberal backbenchers and interest groups can sometimes be as intransigent as conservatives.

Putting aside the dubious prediction about how Republicans would react (nothing so far suggests Milbank’s theory is correct), who exactly wants to see Social Security and Medicare cuts? Not many people, according to a recent Washington Post poll: Just 17 percent supported cutting Medicare benefits, and 21 percent said the same for Social Security. That finding is hardly unusual; throughout the past few years of budget deadlines and the “fiscal cliff,” the public has never expressed any strong support for cutting Social Security spending to reduce the budget deficit.

The implication in much of the coverage is that both “extremes” will be unhappy–and thus the “middle” will be happy. But it is a middle that exists only in the corporate media’s mind.

If the political logic is not convincing, media have another story: Switching to a different measure of inflation is simply a matter of accuracy. MSNBC‘s Chris Matthews (4/11/13) noted that Obama “would argue it’s a more accurate account of how much inflation there really is,” and a USA Today editorial (4/10/13) put it, “Obama proposes switching to a slightly less generous, and more accurate, formula for calculating inflation.” A New York Times report (4/11/13) claimed:

While many economists say the new formula is more accurate, opponents say it does not adequately reflect the out-of-pocket healthcare expenses that burden older Americans.

That is somewhat confusing; if chained CPI does not account for seniors’ healthcare spending, how would it be “more accurate”? As the Center for Economic & Policy Research (12/12) argued:

There is no basis for assuming that a Chained CPI more accurately measures the rate of inflation experienced by the elderly than the current measure; however, there is no doubt that it will lead to a reduction in benefits.

Corporate media have been part of the long-running disinformation campaign around Social Security’s supposed funding crisis (Extra!, 1/05). Now that the White House is supporting an effort to cut benefits in the name of deficit reduction, it is not surprising that some in the press are cheering those efforts–and portraying them as brave and centrist.