Monday, February 14, 2011

The crippled debate over phasing out Social Security among our political and media elite

Sleepy Mark Shields managed to recover a bit on the PBS Newshour Political Wrap of 02/11/2011 from what he did on the previous week's segment. Or rather, from what he didn't do. He and moderator Jim Lehrer let David "Bobo" Brooks get away with a typical anti-Social Security whopper about how cutting Social Security is vital to be Serious about cutting the federal deficit. This is the more recent segment. Social Security comes up in this one just after the 6:30 mark.

Here was Bobo's take on Social Security from the 02/04/2011 segment:

DAVID BROOKS: Eric Cantor has told me, he's told a million people, we are not shutting down the government.

And they are going to walk into the debt-ceiling fight knowing they are going to compromise. They will compromise. My problem is, which Mark just referenced, what are we going to cut? Because neither party has the guts to cut Medicare and Social Security and defense -- well, maybe defense, but not the big entitlements.

We're going to cut all the little things that, one, don't make any difference to the deficit, and do actually -- programs that actually work. So, early childhood education will probably get a whack. Funding for the sainted Corporation for Public Broadcasting will probably get a whack.

And all these things, National Science Foundation...
MARK SHIELDS: National Institute of Health.

DAVID BROOKS: National Institutes for Health. These are great programs that probably have bipartisan support, most of them. They are going to get a whack, because we don't have the guts to tackle the things that actually would make a difference to the deficit. [my emphasis]
Here's how Lehrer and Sleep Mark responded (or not) to Bobo's Social Security hooey:

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?
MARK SHIELDS: I do. I do. I think Democrats are willing to take on defense. But there is no question that they are circling, and it's Alphonse and Gaston: You go first on the entitlements.
And that's really it.

But I do feel a sense that there is kind of a revitalization of the Simpson-Bowles, I mean, that all of a sudden, people are saying, well, maybe that wasn't the answer, but damn it, they did at least confront and engage it.

DAVID BROOKS: And there's a movement on Capitol Hill led by Mark Warner of -- and Saxby Chambliss, Democrat and Republican, to get some senators and say, let's get serious about this. We are going to have some tax increases. We're going to have some entitlement cuts.

And, of course, both are getting some pressure from their own party. But there is some building momentum. And I hope all the people who want to save great programs, like early childhood education and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, don't just plead, oh, don't cut me, don't cut me, actually say, cut that. We're going to get together, and we're going to say, you cut entitlements and save that, because, if you don't tackle the entitlements issue, all these good programs are going to get the shaft.

Mark's sleepy reference to "Simpson-Bowles" is, of course, the Catfood Commission, where everyone could agree on cutting Social Security but not enough on everything else to put out an official report.

I actually think that the Feb. 4 version was more reflective of their actual attitudes. Probably the single biggest disconnect right now between the general public, on the one hand, and our political and media elites is over Social Security. There is a stunningly broad consensus among the official Serious People that Grandma should be eating catfood and that obsolete New Deal Social Security program has to go. On Feb. 4, Mark was groggy enough to totally agree with Bobo's Catfood Commission position.

They evidently were embarrassed enough by the criticism they got, including in the comments to the website on the Feb. 4 segment, to go through the motions of doing some actual reporting on the subject on Feb. 11. This was actually kind of a do-over of that part of the previous week's discussion:

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I mean, the leadership and people like Paul Ryan are plenty conservative, and they want to scale back government, but they say cutting in the middle of a year just is problematic.

And a lot of the freshman said, we are going to cut $85 billion, or we're going to cut $100 billion, or whatever it is going to be. We're going to do some more serious cuts.

My big concern is that they are really unwilling to take on the stuff that seriously is contributing to the debt, which is Medicare, Social Security -- especially Medicare. And they are cutting all the stuff actually that people kind of like and that they -- and they're -- so they are going to end up cutting kind of effective programs that will have no long-term fiscal benefit.

And this is really the challenge the Republicans face. Are they going to cut all the stuff that is popular, and not solve the debt, which they talk about? And, right now, they are heading down that direction.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see a serious division here?

MARK SHIELDS: I do. Just -- I'm glad David made the point. I mean, Social Security is self-financing. I mean, it is not -- I mean, it -- there is a -- there is a funding problem with the baby boomers, no question about it.

But that -- when we talk about entitlements, I mean, the reality is that it is solvent. And, in fact, it's bankrolled the federal government, if you look at the borrowing from Social Security. [my emphasis]
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