The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release
Contact: Steve Rendall,,Tel: 212-633-6700 x13

Situation Room Scaremongering: CNN's Social Security crisis


August 5 reports from the Social Security and Medicare trustees declared
Social Security's long-term financial outlook mostly unchanged from the
previous year, and the projections for Medicare were greatly improved
from previous forecasts. But on CNN's Situation Room, this news amounted to a crisis in Social Security and a threat to the country.

On the August 5 broadcast,
host Wolf Blitzer announced: "Social Security reaches the final
financial tipping point. The system is now paying out more than it's
taking in. Will Washington do anything anytime soon to fix this
problem?" Blitzer was referring to the fact that this year Social
Security is paying out more in benefits than it receives in tax
revenue--a mostly meaningless fact, given the system's $2.5 trillion
long-term surplus (CEPR's Social Security Byte, 8/5/10). But Blitzer turned to a single guest, Beltway fixture and former presidential adviser David Gergen, to echo his alarmism.

"We're getting disturbing numbers now once again on
Social Security," Blitzer declared. "We seem to be getting these every
few years, and people sort of just kick this can down the road." Gergen
responded that government debt will "seriously threaten the future of
the country." He acknowledged that the trustees' reports suggest the
programs are "in good shape," but as a self-described "deficit hawk," he
still saw a crisis looming, since "the government is going to have to
put more and more money into it...and therefore, the cost to government
will go way up and the size of the national debt is going to continue to
go up."

When Gergen says that the government is going to
"put more and more money" into Social Security, he means that the
government is going to start paying back some of the trillions of
dollars it has borrowed from the Social Security system. He and Blitzer
see this as a crisis; others would see it rather as the deserved and
anticipated return of enormous amounts of wealth to the working people
who contributed to the surplus over the last three decades, specifically
so that it could be paid back now as the baby boomers begin to retire.

Gergen complained:

The liberals have
seized on this new report about Social Security and Medicare, these
reports, and said we don't need to touch these, they're solvent. Go
away, don't do this. But the deficit hawks are saying, wait a minute. If
you don't deal with Medicare and Social Security, if you don't reform
them, the deficit is going to go higher and higher. The national debt is
going to reach proportions we can't stand, and it's going to bring all
sorts of problems to the country.

Gergen's conflation of Social Security and Medicare
can only mislead viewers. Social Security over the long term is expected
to consume a constant share of U.S. GDP, about 6 percent--roughly 1
percentage point more than it does now. This increase can be paid for
with minor adjustments to the program, such as raising or eliminating
the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes (currently $87,900).
These changes can be made decades from now, when the trust fund is
finally depleted. Medicare, by contrast, really is growing
unsustainably--because medical costs in general are growing
unsustainably, and need to be brought under control to avoid general
economic collapse. To treat the two programs as being similar problems
completely obscures the very different solutions each requires.

The August 5 segment does not seem to be an outlier for the Situation Room. An August 9 report
from Lisa Sylvester, for instance, suggested two possible approaches to
Social Security: raising the retirement age or increasing the tax rate,
which "could hurt small businesses and low-wage workers." As Sylvester
put it, "There are just no easy answers." But one option that would be
much easier--raising the cap on income subject to the tax, which would
not affect low-wage workers--went unmentioned.

And on July 16, CNN commentator Jack Cafferty
mentioned that politician have "run out of options on how to pay for
Social Security, which is broke." That statement is completely false,
unless a program with trillions of dollars in assets, sufficient to fund
its obligations for decades to come, is "broke."

On the August 5 show, Gergen pointed out that this
year will bring plenty of opportunities to talk about Social Security:
"We at CNN and others can really help people understand what the
choices are facing the country because they are tough choices, very hard
choices, and a lot of Americans are going to be startled by just how
serious some of this is."

If CNN's Situation Room program is
serious about covering Social Security fairly, they need to balance the
views of Cafferty and Gergen with experts like economist Dean Baker of
the Center for Economic & Policy Research, or Nancy Altman from Social Security Works, who can give viewers an informed, clearer-eyed assessment of Social Security's finances.

Ask CNN's Situation Room to bring on
Social Security experts who would challenge the alarmist views featured
recently on the show. Social Security is an important subject that
deserves balanced reporting.


CNN's The Situation Room

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