A Good Social Security Story—At Last

Reuters shows it can be done

Last week Reuters sent out a fine piece by Emily Kaiser that helped readers understand what the Social Security fight is all about by giving them enough context and history to get the gist of the debate—if it can be called that—and moving beyond the one-sided framing that has characterized almost all of the reportage over the past fifteen months. The story went well beyond what is meant these days by “he said/ she said” balance.

Kaiser dug into the Social Security archives and brought into her narrative, beginning her story this way:

In 1983, a civil servant named Robert Ball worked a political miracle: he convinced Republican Ronald Reagan to raise taxes and Democrat Tip O’Neill to accept trims to Social Security.

The system was in crisis then—months away from being unable to pay benefits—when Ball came to the rescue, helping to fashion the compromise that resulted in a gradual increase in the age for full benefits from sixty-five to sixty-seven. Ball had spent most of his career in Social Security, serving as commissioner under three presidents and as a member of the Greenspan commission that got kudos for saving the program. He knew his stuff. “Everyone gives Alan Greenspan the credit, but Robert Ball was a great public servant and deserves much of the credit,” Obama’s budget director, Jack Lew, told Kaiser. “He’s one of my heroes.”

Kaiser brought many voices into her story, which gave it texture. After setting up the piece with historical context reaching back to the deliberations of the Greenspan Commission, establising the parallels with the
Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission, and noting the lack of a Ball-like figure today, Kaiser tackled the rhetoric which has dominated most of the discussion around Social Security—whether a trust fund exists, or whether, as Nebraska senator Mike Johanns asserts, “it’s just paper.” She gave good space to the arguments of Eric Kingson and Nancy Altman, co-directors of Social Security Works, a group that opposes cutting benefits and privatizing the program. Kingson, who served on the staff of the Greenspan Commission, said Johanns’s “just paper” argument calls into question the value of every Treasury bond held by every pension fund, bank, or foreign government.

Kaiser also presented the arguments of Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, who told Reuters that there may be some social obligation to ensure seniors don’t fall into poverty, “but I don’t think there is any societal obligation to provide simple retirement benefits. That’s something that the private sector is fully capable of providing.” Kaiser missed here, failing to offer background on Tanner and Cato. Tanner directed Cato’s Project on Social Security Privatization in the mid-1990s. That project sent William Shipman, a principal at State Street Global Advisers, an asset management business that would benefit from Social Security privatization, and Jose Pinera, the ex-labor minister of Chile, which had privatized its retirement system, around the country preaching the virtues of privatization.

At the end, Kaiser kicked her story back to Ball. His son explained that his father would not have approved of the recommendations to cut benefits. A few months before he died in 2008, Ball wrote in The Washington Post: “What was right in 1983—-a balanced package of benefit cuts and tax increases as part, roughly half, of the final agreement—would be wrong today.”

Coincidentally, over the weekend I was cleaning files and came across a letter Ball had sent me in December 2004 when Social Security was also under attack. He wanted to share his proposal for bringing Social Security into balance over the next seventy-five years and for adding a new system of supplemental savings accounts to counter the privatization efforts of George W. Bush. Ball also included what he called “A note on the misleading use of accurate statistics.” Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it? He was talking about the shifting ratio of workers to retirees, a point Kaiser made in her piece, implying that was part of the problem. Said Ball:

The plain fact of the matter is that Social Security faces an eminently avoidable long-range funding shortfall, not an inevitable collapse brought about by unmanageable changes in the historic ratio of workers to beneficiaries. Those who advance that argument are using an accurate statistic to make a highly inaccurate charge.

Ball was always accessible to reporters looking for background and understanding. I was flattered to be on his mailing list. Journalists have heroes, too.

For more from Trudy Lieberman on Social Security and entitlement reform, click here.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , , , ,