NPR Plays Ebenezer Scrooge

Another lopsided Social Security story

It was really hard to tell whether NPR’s Morning Edition segment yesterday—part of the program’s “Ghosts of Debts Past, Present and Future” series—was an editorial or a news story. It was about as blurry as the visions of old Ebenezer Scrooge himself. Reporters used the Scrooge conceit to peer into the future, presenting two scenarios for dealing with the deficit problem. Both scenarios pretty much gave NPR’s editorial slant, which is that we need to cut a lot of spending, as per the deficit commission’s recommendations. It also neglected to mention that a lot of people disagree with its dire vision of the future.

One scenario is downright scary. Former Congressional Budget Office Director Robert Reischauer says the crisis could come in eighteen months or eighteen years, noting “when countries get into trouble, the waters are relatively calm until the wind comes up. The wind comes up very rapidly, the storm develops and the ship sinks a few days later.” Then deficit commission co-chair Alan Simpson offered his equally spooky message.

It won’t be the old slippery slope crap that we read about. It’ll be very swift and very dramatic, like in Greece or Ireland or Portugal or Spain or wherever. I don’t know where this is going, but I tell you, it won’t take long.

If Simpson doesn’t know where it’s going, then where is he leading the country? Is the U.S. economy as weak as the economies of Ireland, Portugal, Greece, or Spain? A bit of context would have helped.

Next we learn that if lenders suddenly lost patience with the U.S., interest rates would rise for the government and all the rest of us, making it more difficult to buy a house, run a business, or send our kids to college. Another voice would have helped here too. He or she might have said that investors here and elsewhere are still willing to hold U.S. bonds, and despite low interest rates at the moment they are willing to make the trade-off for what they believe is the security of those bonds. He or she might also have said we are in the midst of an ideological battle that’s been going on for decades about how much government should provide for its citizens. Instead NPR presented Reischauer again, asking how we would feel when the IMF (International Monetary Fund) says it will provide a loan, but “we want to see your taxes go up by a quarter” and want cuts in entitlement spending and the defense budget.

By now listeners were probably scared to death. The NPR narrator continued: “There would be nothing left over for extras or investments in long-range opportunities. This is the frightening picture of a deadbeat nation.”

Then came the bright vision of the future in NPR’s crystal ball. Congress would go along with the deficit commission’s plan for cutting the deficit. It would cut defense spending and future Social Security payments. And it would increase tax revenues not by raising tax rates but by eliminating some “very popular deductions.” I really wanted to know whether NPR was advocating that my Social Security payments would be cut fifteen or twenty years from now, after I had been receiving them for awhile. And did NPR mean that deductions for mortgage interest should go? If that were the case, then what would that do to the housing market—which, as we know, has been in the tank for some time now? Would that make it harder for families to buy even before sky-high interest rates predicted under the scary scenario materialize?

It would have been nice to hear someone talk about these things, as well as other options for cutting the deficit, like repealing the Bush-era tax cuts or lifting the cap on wages subject to the Social Security payroll tax. Was the omission of these topics an acknowledgement that they are really, really unpopular in some circles and are not considered viable options?

Other voices could have helped out here. Laced through the segment were comparisons to household budgets, clearly an analogy listeners could relate to. There was a comment from an economist named Diane Lim Rogers, who writes a blog called She said: “countries, like households, are better off when their budget is under control.” Her other credentials, please. Some Social Security experts question the analogy to household finances. Yale political science professor emeritus Theodore Marmor told CJR that “the analogy to personal finances, when addressing Social Security (or government altogether) is a motherlode of nonsense.” It is inappropriate to equate individuals and their own budget problems with the U.S. government, he said, because governments can tax; people can’t. Governments can reduce the level of benefits, or adjust who receives them. Private citizens can’t do that either.

NPR concluded: “So far, lawmakers have shown more fear than faith,” and it will be up to the public to decide whether forestalling a “future debt crunch” is worth the tough choices now. Yes, the public will ultimately decide—but they need good, complete, and factual information to make their decisions. That, as Campaign Desk continues to point out, has been lacking from the media so far.

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: , , , ,