If there were ever any doubts that “Fox on 15th Street” was a fitting label for the Washington Post, Patrick Pexton, the paper’s ombudsman removed them with his defense of the Post’s front page piece on Social Security last Sunday. Just to remind readers, the whole premise of that piece, as expressed in its headline, is that Social Security has crossed some “treacherous milestone” because it had gone “cash negative earlier than expected.”
While this assertion was presented in a sensationalistic manner in the Post, as both the headline and the lead, it is actually not true. Social Security has not gone “cash negative” in the sense that the trust fund is still growing. While current benefit payments exceed designated Social Security tax revenue, the income to the system, which includes interest on its holdings of government bonds, still exceeds benefit payments.
In this sense it is simply wrong to say that the system is cash negative. More money is still coming into the system than is going out. Obviously the Post meant to say that benefit payments exceed tax revenue, but tax revenue is only part of the income for the program. It is a serious failure by the Post to ignore the income stream from interest payments, which is compounded by the failure of the ombudsman to recognize this failure.
This is really not something that is arguable — Social Security has a stream of income from the interest on its bonds. The Post and its ombudsman may not like this fact, but it is nonetheless true.
The ombudsman also chose to ignore several misleading or false claims that the Post used to advance its Social Security crisis story. For example, the original piece told readers that “the payroll tax holiday is depriving the system of revenue.” This is not true. Under the law, the Social Security system is fully reimbursed for the money not collected as a result of the payroll tax holiday.
The piece also claimed that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was wrong when he claimed that Social Security was not contributing to the budget deficit. In fact, under the law Social Security has a separate budget that is not part of the on-budget budget. The program can only spend money from its own trust fund, which is money raised through designated taxes or the bonds purchased with this tax revenue. For this reason, it cannot legally contribute to the budget deficit. Presumably the Post and its budget reporter (and its ombudsman) are aware of this fact, but rather than clarifying the issue it chose to take a swipe at Senator Reid for defending Social Security. (The payroll tax holiday put in place for 2010 is arguable an exception to this.)
If the purpose of the piece was to inform readers rather than to raise fears, it might have been useful to put the projected Social Security shortfall in some context so that readers could evaluate the size of the problem. The most recent projections from the Congressional Budget Office put the shortfall over the program’s 75-year planning period at 0.58 percent of GDP (exhibit 5). This is just over one-third of the increase in the size of the annual defense budget since the pre-September 11th period.
Alternatively, the Post could have told readers that the projected shortfall is approximately equal to one-tenth the size of the upward redistribution from the bottom 99 percent to the top 1 percent over the last three decades. These or other comparsions would have been made readers better able to assess the size and implications of Social Security’s long-run problems.
There are many other problems with the article that are not worth repeating here. (Here is the original blogpost.) Clearly the ombudsman was intent on exoneration rather than a serious examination of the issues raised by the piece and its critics.
However what is perhaps most disturbing is how the ombudsman seeks to settle the issue. He tells readers:
“I spent a couple of days last week talking to Social Security experts across the ideological spectrum. Some, mainly those on the left, didn’t like the story, while those on the right did. But some in the middle, like Jonathan Cowan of the Third Way, declared it realistic and on point.”
It is not clear what standing Jonathan Cowan (an English major at Dartmouth college) has to settle this issue other than fitting the Post’s definition of being in the middle. One need not have a PhD in a policy field to take part in public debate, but being in the middle of the political spectrum (by the Post’s standards) does not make one expert on an issue.
And in fact, there are many situations where the truth most definitely does not lie in the middle (e.g. the Civil War). The Post’s ombudsman has substituted finding the middle ground for finding the truth. This might be the way the Post conducts itself, but it is not the way a serious newspaper carries through its business.