Social Distortion

McCain clarifies Social Security remarks, remarks remain confusing

Yesterday, we wrote about the media’s strange reluctance to cover John McCain’s recent assessment that the way in which Social Security is funded is “a disgrace.” Today, prompted by McCain’s decision to revisit the comment, The Washington Post and the Associated Press finally make note of the controversy. But, in doing so, they’ve allowed McCain to make a statement that’s flatly untrue, badly distorting the debate over Social Security’s future.

The Post reports:

McCain sought to clarify his remarks yesterday afternoon on the Straight Talk Express. Young people, he said, “are paying so much that they are paying into a system that they won’t receive benefits from on its present track that it’s on — that’s the point.

“…I think it’s terrible to ask people to pay in to a system that they won’t receive benefits from. That’s why we have to fix it.”

(The Associated Press similarly reported McCain’s remarks.)

Note that, on Monday, McCain called it a “disgrace” that “we are paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers in America today”—which, as we wrote yesterday, is almost the very definition of the Social Security program. Yesterday, he said the disgrace was that young workers won’t receive benefits when their time comes—a significant shift that amounts to more than “clarifying.”

But there’s a larger problem with McCain’s new line, one that the press also missed: It isn’t true.

The idea that young workers are paying into a system from which they won’t receive benefits has become conventional wisdom among Washington reporters—thanks, in part, to a concerted PR effort by those seeking to privatize Social Security. But according to Dean Baker, an economist with the liberal-leaning Center for Economic Policy Research, projections by the Congressional Budget Office show that, even if we do nothing, the program can pay every penny thru 2046. After that, a shortfall begins—but the program would still pay just under 80 percent of scheduled benefits. And because they will increase as projected wages rise, benefits would, on average, exceed the amount that a typical retiree receives today, through at least 2080.

We don’t mean to argue that it wouldn’t be a good idea to put the program on sounder footing. Perhaps it would even be worth doing soon, rather than waiting until the shortfall is imminent. But to say, as McCain did, that young workers “are paying into a system that they won’t receive benefits from on its present track” is simply false.

This isn’t just about holding the presidential candidates accountable for their statements on the trail. There are few more important public policy debates than the one over what to do about Social Security. That’s why it’s crucial that, when either side uses arguments that are misleading or inaccurate, reporters take notice and point them out.

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.