Ohio congressman John Boehner’s recent interview in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review touched on all the red hot stones—health care, BP, Afghanistan, and financial reform legislation, which he likened to “killing an ant with a nuclear weapon.” That remark made the president hopping mad, and it got a lot of press. Boehner’s startling comments about Social Security—explicit and to the point—generated far less media excitement.
In the interview, Boehner announced that paying for the Afghanistan war will require reforming the entitlement system, a point his aides later said he did not make. He also favored increasing the retirement age to seventy for people who have at least twenty years to go until retirement; tying cost-of-living increases to the consumer price index instead of wage inflation, which gives a higher benefit than the CPI; and limiting payments to those who need them. Means-testing, in other words. The congressman explained:
We need to look at the American people and explain to them that we’re broke. If you have substantial non-Social Security income while you’re retired, why are we paying you at a time when we’re broke? We just need to be honest with people.
Indeed we do, and when it comes to Social Security, the MSM, where most Americans still get their news, have been MIA. You could almost say that Social Security has become the MSM’s third rail. For the most part, nobody wants to touch it.
In this case, along with the predictable blogs from the left and right, a sprinkling of MSM picked up Boehner’s comments—Fox News, USA Today, KMOV-TV in St. Louis, which offered viewers a poll to see what they thought of raising the retirement age, and some MSM political blogs, like The Swamp, published by the Chicago Tribune and other Tribune Company papers. There, blogger Mike Memoli briefly mentioned the proposal to raise the retirement age and went on to say “But the “ant” remark has been driving Democrats’ attacks.” In other words, Boehner’s comments about Social Security did not rise to the interest level of ants being nuked, at least in the minds of the media.
It has been this way all year, ever since Obama established his deficit commission in January, thus raising the stakes for Social Security. The MSM’s treatment of the program is all the more puzzling since any changes the commission brings forth will be far more important to most Americans than health reform ever was or will be. A vigorous public discussion has yet to take place, and the commentary so far has been framed mostly by one side of the issue—the deficit hawks, privatizers, and Peter G. Peterson acolytes who believe Social Security (and other entitlements) are causing the deficits. (Disclosure: Peterson is a CJR funder.) It’s eerily reminiscent of press coverage of health reform, which locked out any proposals other than the ones being pushed by Washington’s health care cognoscenti.
So far, framers of the Social Security narrative have focused on its role in federal budget deficits, not on whether Social Security monthly payments, which average about $1380 for a sixty-five-year-old retiring this year, assure an adequate retirement income; why so many Americans are taking benefits at age sixty-two, even though that might hurt them in the long run; or what happens to private 401(k) savings when stock market declines wipe out their value on the eve of retirement. The average amount in a 401(k) plan, fast becoming the bedrock of American retirement, is $71,000. That would yield a grand total of about $444 a month for a sixty-five-year-old man living in New York who annuitizes that sum this year. A woman would get about $411. That’s not much to live on.
A good story in the AARP Bulletin told of two people in their early sixties forced to take Social Security benefits before full benefits kicked in because they had lost their jobs and needed the money. A sixty-three-year-old woman named Jan Gissel said she was certain she couldn’t get another job so “I’m taking my Social Security, but I need more money than that to make it.” Sixty-one-year-old Steve Stanislowsky, whose retirement plans crumbled when he lost his job, will do the same. “I’m very worried about running out of money,” he said.
There has been little exploration of the secrecy that surrounds some of the deficit commission’s work. When Hillary Clinton held similarly secret meetings to craft her health care proposals in 1993-94, the press cried foul, and continued to do so when Clinton ran for president two years ago. The secrecy surrounding her work often passed for context in campaign stories. Even Alan Simpson’s derogatory comments about the “lesser people” didn’t make prime time, and vanished after a few days.