has embarrassed itself with a lead story on Social Security by cultural
critic Thomas Frank, who appears neither to know much about the
subject nor to care enough to find out.
The tone of
the piece can be gleaned from a bon mot in Frank's second paragraph.
Contrasting the domestic politics of the Bush administration to
that of FDR's, he writes, "Freedom from Want my ass, runs the
slogan this time around. Bring want back! " At no point
in the eight-page essay is Frank willing to concede that maybe proponents
of a reform of Social Security based on private investment might
sincerely believe that such reform would be good for the vast majority
of the country. Reform is portrayed, instead, as a plot to enrich
Wall Street brokers and force the poor to work instead of retiring.
In graph three,
Frank has President Bush's Social Security commission "declar[ing]"
that the program "just might run into problems some thirty-seven
years in the future." This characterization, in addition
to betraying Frank's weakness for italics, is simply untrue. The
commission believes that the program will run into trouble long
before then, when the benefits it pays out begin to exceed the revenues
it brings in. The 37-year figure assumes that Social Security will
be able to draw on a trust fund that reform proponents regard as,
in crucial respects, mythical. Frank disagrees with their view,
but that doesn't excuse his distortion of it.
the reformers' view of the trust fund later, but he entirely fails
to grapple with it. The trust fund accumulates government bonds,
which are promises the government has to redeem. The point that
reformers make is not that it is impossible for the government to
make good on those promises although it will be difficult
but that the existence of the trust fund does nothing, by
itself, to make it easier to make good on them. If Frank rejects
the reformers' approach, he should explain what combination of tax
increases, higher debt, benefit cuts, and cuts in other government
programs he would use to finance the repayment of those bonds. Instead,
he writes that "the real solution to this puzzle is refreshingly
simple and straightforward: abolish this wretched commission at
once and send the privatizers the way of Alf Landon." His recommendation,
in other words, is for us all to join him in sticking our heads
in the sand.
Frank makes one suggestion: Increase wages, so that more taxes come
into the program. If we could wave a magic wand and increase wages,
it would certainly be worth doing (Frank apparently believes that
low wages are a capitalist plot to keep workers on their toes.)
It would not, however, bring the program into balance since the
benefits it pays out are also tied to wages.
It is difficult
to take a public-policy analyst seriously who makes casual references
to "the free-market superstition" and cannot even bring
himself to concede that welfare reform-excuse us, welfare "reform"-has
worked. Social Security has been actuarially bankrupt for a long
time. Frank's piece in Harper's is more evidence that its
defenders are intellectually bankrupt as well.
(For a previous
example of Harper's myth-making,
click here. For David Skinner's dissection of its editor's views
on the war,
Jonathan Alter of Newsweek is taking conservatives to task
for not repudiating
Jerry Falwell. The fact of the matter is that on the day Falwell's
notorious post-9/11 remarks were reported, National Review Online
published two criticisms. One
of them called Falwell and Pat Robertson "heartless bastards."
said that "civilized people should not let [Falwell, among
others] into their homes." On The Weekly Standard's
website, Tod Lindberg invited Falwell to leave public life. The
Wall Street Journal was scathing, too.
It would be
one thing if Alter were to acknowledge this reaction, and the almost
total absence of any defense of Falwell by conservatives, and say
that it's not enough. (Maybe we should also be burning him in effigy
or something?) To simply ignore it is, well, par for the course
with Jonathan Alter.