Thursday, October 27, 2005

Budget Deficits and Social Security Red Herings

In my last post I referred to a David Broder op-ed column that referenced a speech by Maya MacGuineas of the New American Foundation, delivered at a DLC conference. In it, Maya argued that in the face of the country's budget problems, Democrats need to step forward with bipartisan-like solutions, such as the willingness to whack Social Security benefits for future retirees.

Among the dumb ideas parroted by the DLC and like-minded "centrists", this the-budget-deficit-means-we-need-to-cut-Social Security line is close to the worst, in both logic and ultimate effect.

Social Security is running a surplus, and has been for the last two decades. Around 2018, annual benefit payouts from the program will begin to exceed incoming payroll taxes, although the program will still have interest payments due from the general budget fund as the result of the lending by Social Security of its annual surpluses to the general budget since the 1980's. And as everyone knows, Social Security's Trust Fund will become exhausted in or around 2042. That's a pretty long time off, and the date is likely to be continually pushed further out as new economic and demographic assumptions are configured into the Social Security actuary's logorithms.

In any event, since 2042 is a long way off, conservatives have tried to make a big whoop to do about the fact that between 2018 and 2042, the federal government will have to pay back what it's borrowed from Social Security, putting a strain on the rest of the budget. In this doomsday scenario, taxes would have to be raised, spending on other programs cut, or more money borrowed.


Before you get suckered into that spin, consider the fact that the current budget deficit is in the neighborhood of $400 billion per year. This means the federal budget is right now in exactly the same situation as it would be in the years between 2018 and 2042, give or take a couple hundred billion dollars. So, if conservatives want to be worried about budget deficits in 2018 and beyond, why aren't they upset about them now? And if conservatives were concerned about the retirement of the baby boomers and the needs of an aging population, then maybe they shouldn't have cut taxes as much as they did, and as much as they would like to do by extending the 2001-2004 tax cuts. So when conservatives talk about the looming fiscal problems set to begin around 2018, tell them that yes, it' s a crisis allright, but it's a budget crisis, not a Social Security crisis.

In short, don't be fooled by this shell game. Republicans are doing the same thing they did in the 1980's--cut marginal tax rates and tax revenue dramatically, increase defense spending, explode the deficit, and then blame Democrats and the social safety net of domestic spending programs for the sudden "budget crisis". And so now people like Maya MacGuineas want us to throw Social Security under the bus, hoping we'll be confused by the shell game the Republicans and organizations like hers have been playing.

Social Security is not the problem. It's the taxes and the defense spending (and the war), stupid.

Hangin' with the Wrong Crowd

There's a bizarre op-ed piece by David Broder in today's Wash Post.

The first distressing note is that Broder has apparently been hanging around the wrong crowd (and has also apparently been drinking from the cup of the group's own version of kool-aid). Here's what he has to say about the DLC:

It is not hard these days to find intelligent critiques of the budget policy and fiscal record of the Bush administration. Conservative and liberal think tanks alike grind out fresh analyses of the risks in the chronic refusal of the Republicans who govern the country to pay the bills they are amassing here and overseas.

Nonpartisan budget groups -- especially those with a historical attachment to budgetary prudence -- have been even tougher on the president and his allies on Capitol Hill for their seeming nonchalance in letting the debt of the federal government climb so rapidly on their watch.

What has been harder to discern is what the opposition Democrats would actually do to remedy the situation that may well confront them if their party comes back to power in the 2008 election. The other day, the thinking branch of the opposition -- centered these days in the Democratic Leadership Council and its allied organizations -- offered at least the start of a response.

First, if the DLC is the "thinking branch" of the Democratic Party, we are all in deep trouble indeed.

But it gets worse.

Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, another of the DLC panelists, said the principle on which Democrats should approach the next campaign is a simple one: "Anything worth doing is worth paying for." Carper said that implies restoring the old budgetary rule of pay-as-you-go for both tax cuts and spending programs -- something Bush and the congressional Republicans have refused to do.

It also implies a greater readiness on the part of Democrats to reexamine the entitlement spending that poses the long-term danger of unsustainable deficits.

This message was spelled out by Maya MacGuineas, a panelist from the New America Foundation and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. As one who has worked with Republican moderates as often as with Democrats, she was particularly insistent that Democrats must ante up for any bipartisan solutions to become possible.

Specifically, the Democrats who have profited politically this year (as in the past) by opposing any change in Social Security must, she said, recognize the necessity of reforming the country's retirement system before it becomes an impossible economic burden on working-age Americans.

MacGuineas urged the Democrats to begin examining ideas she and others have put forward that would not simply reduce future benefits or postpone the age at which retirees could claim them but would instead adapt the whole social insurance concept of the 1930s to the realities of a new millennium.

Her concepts include mandated programs of individual savings for the predictable expenses of child-rearing, education and retirement; social insurance for the costs of catastrophic but unforeseeable medical bills; and some guarantee of safety-net income for people who, through no fault of their own, lose jobs or retirement benefits because of broad economic changes.

Boys and girls, men, women, children, and pets of all ages, what the blog does Social Security have to do with the current exploding budget deficit? More specifically, what does reducing Social Security benefits (and privatizing the program as conservatives have also been seeking) have to do with the gaping budget hole created by the multiple Bush tax cuts (including the proposed elimination of the "death tax") and the unnecessary war in Iraq?

As you consider your answer to that question, pay special attention to the comment from MacGuineas that I put in bold print: mandated programs of individual savings for predictable expenses of retirement. What does this statement mean? It means that Social Security, the nation's premier public retirement program, shouldn't be thought of as insurance in general, or social insurance in particular. No. It should be thought of as a "predictable expense" for which individuals should be responsible for their own damn selves. And what does that mean? It means MacGuineas thinks Social Security could and should be scrapped. That's what MacGuineas thinks Democrats should be buying into and what Democrats should come to the alter of "bipartisan" bargaining prepared to jettisone in order to help rescue the country from the budget and fiscal catastrophe that the Republicans have spent five years creating. Make sense to you? Didn't think so.

Doesn't make sense to Steve Gilliard either:

MacGuineas is a Vichyite fool. Why the hell [sic] would Democrats endorse plans widely rejected as unpopular? No, personal savings plans don't work if you have a crappy job.

Why would the Dems offer a plan before they hold power to enact it?

We don't need any bipartisan solutions. We need a Democratic House and Senate and offering to screw people over on social security is not going to win any votes.

Bush made this mess, let him clean it up as best he can.

Exactly so.

But back to my original question? What does Social Security, Social Security "reform", or entitlement "reform" have to do with the budget mess the Republicans are creating?

It so happens that the Senator has done some thinking on this, and he'll be back later to discuss the odd and pernicious juxtaposition between Social Security and on-budget operating expenses made by conservatives.

The Inmates are Running the Asylum

Myers forced to withdraw due to conservative groups' litmus tests (of course she didn't help her own cause with the incomplete questionaire or the fawning notes to Bush).

In any event, now I guess we'll get one of the wingnut judges the conservatives have been salivating for.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Tuesday Morning Quarterback

But before we talk about football, let's talk about baseball. In particular, the Fox Sports coverage of the first two World Series games. Dear Mr. Fox Sports, DURING the first game on Saturday night you were having an interview with one of the pitching coaches WHILE the game was going on, in the MIDDLE of one of the actual innings. While you were not paying attention to the game that was actually GOING on, one of the White Sox batters preceded to launch a homerun, which the broadcasters were only able to get to after the ball had gone over the fence. Hey, do you think you can actually cover the game and save the interviews for some other time, like during commercials? And then, on Sunday, game two, you didn't get back from commercials soon enough to see another home run. You guys stink.

49'ers 17
Skins 52

Yes yes, I know. The 49'ers are terrible. But the Skins scoring 52 points? I didn't think the Skins were capable of scoring more than 25 against any team. Heck, the Skins couldn't score 30 if they had the field all to themselves.

Broncos 23
Giants 24

Eli Manning with a game winning touchdown pass with 5 seconds left on the clock after the Giants had been down 23-10. One of many close games with outcomes decided at the buzzer.

Cowboys 10
Seahawks 13

Cowboys led 10-3 with 42 seconds left. Seahawks scored a touchdown and then on the following Dallas possession, Drew Bledsoe threw an interception which was run back into field goal position for the Seahawks. Think Bill Parcels is in a good mood?

Brett Favre 20
Vikings 23

Vikings down 17-0 at the half. ESPN radio was preparing a Vikings funeral before Minnesota rallied to win.

Chargers 17
Iggles 20

Iggles saved by blocked punt returned for touchdown.

Ravens 6
Da Bears 10

This was the only Sunday game I saw anything of, and that only the fourth quarter. Not a pretty sight.

Saints 17
Rams 28

Another come from behind game and another fluke play where the Rams recovered a "fumble" and returned it for a touchdown, only replays clearly showed the Saints player was already down when the ball was stripped, but there was more than 2 minutes left on the clock (under two minutes and the officials make the replay challenges) and the Saints were out of timeouts and therefore couldn't challenge. Hey Hasslet, how do you not have any timeouts at the end of the game?

Mo Dowd and Judy

It's a bit late, but for those of you who haven't already seen it, here is the Maureen Dowd op-ed column in the NYT on Judy Miller.

I've always liked Judy Miller. I have often wondered what Waugh or Thackeray would have made of the Fourth Estate's Becky Sharp.

The traits she has that drive many reporters at The Times crazy - her tropism toward powerful men, her frantic intensity and her peculiar mixture of hard work and hauteur - have never bothered me. I enjoy operatic types.

Once when I was covering the first Bush White House, I was in The Times's seat in the crowded White House press room, listening to an administration official's background briefing. Judy had moved on from her tempestuous tenure as a Washington editor to be a reporter based in New York, but she showed up at this national security affairs briefing.

At first she leaned against the wall near where I was sitting, but I noticed that she seemed agitated about something. Midway through the briefing, she came over and whispered to me, "I think I should be sitting in the Times seat."

It was such an outrageous move, I could only laugh. I got up and stood in the back of the room, while Judy claimed what she felt was her rightful power perch.

She never knew when to quit. That was her talent and her flaw. Sorely in need of a tight editorial leash, she was kept on no leash at all, and that has hurt this paper and its trust with readers. She more than earned her sobriquet "Miss Run Amok."

Judy's stories about W.M.D. fit too perfectly with the White House's case for war. She was close to Ahmad Chalabi, the con man who was conning the neocons to knock out Saddam so he could get his hands on Iraq, and I worried that she was playing a leading role in the dangerous echo chamber that Senator Bob Graham, now retired, dubbed "incestuous amplification." Using Iraqi defectors and exiles, Mr. Chalabi planted bogus stories with Judy and other credulous journalists.

Even last April, when I wrote a column critical of Mr. Chalabi, she fired off e-mail to me defending him.

When Bill Keller became executive editor in the summer of 2003, he barred Judy from covering Iraq and W.M.D. issues. But he acknowledged in The Times's Sunday story about Judy's role in the Plame leak case that she had kept "drifting" back. Why did nobody stop this drift?

Judy admitted in the story that she "got it totally wrong" about W.M.D. "If your sources are wrong," she said, "you are wrong." But investigative reporting is not stenography.

The Times's story and Judy's own first-person account had the unfortunate effect of raising more questions. As Bill said yesterday in an e-mail note to the staff, Judy seemed to have "misled" the Washington bureau chief, Phil Taubman, about the extent of her involvement in the Valerie Plame leak case.

She casually revealed that she had agreed to identify her source, Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney's chief of staff, as a "former Hill staffer" because he had once worked on Capitol Hill. The implication was that this bit of deception was a common practice for reporters. It isn't.

She said that she had wanted to write about the Wilson-Plame matter, but that her editor would not allow it. But Managing Editor Jill Abramson, then the Washington bureau chief, denied this, saying that Judy had never broached the subject with her.

It also doesn't seem credible that Judy wouldn't remember a Marvel comics name like "Valerie Flame." Nor does it seem credible that she doesn't know how the name got into her notebook and that, as she wrote, she "did not believe the name came from Mr. Libby."

An Associated Press story yesterday reported that Judy had coughed up the details of an earlier meeting with Mr. Libby only after prosecutors confronted her with a visitor log showing that she had met with him on June 23, 2003. This cagey confusion is what makes people wonder whether her stint in the Alexandria jail was in part a career rehabilitation project.

Judy refused to answer a lot of questions put to her by Times reporters, or show the notes that she shared with the grand jury. I admire Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and Bill Keller for aggressively backing reporters in the cross hairs of a prosecutor. But before turning Judy's case into a First Amendment battle, they should have nailed her to a chair and extracted the entire story of her escapade.

Judy told The Times that she plans to write a book and intends to return to the newsroom, hoping to cover "the same thing I've always covered - threats to our country." If that were to happen, the institution most in danger would be the newspaper in your hands.