NYT Blurs the Debt Debate

How lonely is the bow-tied Blumenauer?

The New York Times poses an interesting question today: “Is there a strong liberal argument to be made for attacking the federal debt?”

But in trying to answer it—through a sketch of Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.)—the paper goes a bit squishy on some details and lobs some clever observations that just aren’t supported.

I understand that, as profile subjects go, Blumenauer is attractive:

Mr. Blumenauer, a seven-term congressman from Portland, Ore., is nobody’s idea of a centrist. Bow-tied and erudite in the manner of a prep school headmaster, he is known mostly as a champion of bicycle paths and light rail. (He bikes his way around both Washington and Portland and formed the Bicycle Caucus in the House.) The liberal League of Conservation Voters most recently gave him a perfect 100 rating, while the conservative National Taxpayers Union gave him an “F.”

But, setting aside the notion that centrists can’t be bow-tied, brainy and green, there’s something amiss here, or at least something missing.

Readers are told that Democratic party “is drawing ever closer to an internecine, once-in-a-generation war over whether to seriously scale back the federal budget.”

And writer Matt Bai sets Blumenauer up against a coalition of progressive groups like MoveOn.org and the A.F.L.-C.I.O that have joined together in early opposition to any Social Security cuts that might be proposed by the president’s fiscal commission.

But the story goes on to note that Blumenauer, who is portrayed as a lonely voice of reason, “sides with the White House on the notion that Democrats need to do something now about the federal debt, starting with cuts in wasteful federal spending (like some farm subsidies and military outlays) and with changes to cherished entitlement programs.”

And yet there’s no context to help readers understand just how lonely this Oregonian is—no mention of other congressional Democrats, and how many might see the world as he does, or, perhaps, are already staked out in another direction.

It’s also disappointing that, in a piece all about Blumenauer’s view that liberals need to cut some federal spending in order to be able to do the things they really care about, the Times doesn’t press him any harder on just what spending he’d cut.

After all, it’s hard to find a lawmaker who’d support “wasteful federal spending,” and obvious that one pol’s waste is another’s pride and joy.

It was just a couple of days ago that Politico reported on the outlines of the GOP agenda as set forth by Eric Cantor, who stands to become majority leader if his party takes control of the House in November. And guess what’s on his list:

Cantor also says Republicans would focus on spending, ending the automatic federal pay raise and the building of bike paths, which he considers “nice, but certainly shouldn’t be the priority.”

Strange, huh? Who knew that bike paths were such a hot-button issue?

Others have noted another flaw with the piece, and its depiction of the Social Security trust fund.

Here’s Bai’s take on the liberals’ defense of Social Security:

The coalition bases its case on the idea that Social Security is actually in fine fiscal shape, since it has amassed a pile of Treasury Bills — often referred to as i.o.u.’s — in a dedicated trust fund. This is true enough, except that the only way for the government to actually make good on these i.o.u.’s is to issue mountains of new debt or to take the money from elsewhere in the federal budget, or perhaps impose significant tax increases — none of which seem like especially practical options for the long term. So this is sort of like saying that you’re rich because your friend has promised to give you 10 million bucks just as soon as he wins the lottery.

As Dean Baker puts it, that’s “radically at odds with perceptions in financial markets.”

These markets view it as almost inconceiable that the government will not honor its bonds, which is why the interest rate on long-term bonds is near its lowest level in the last 60 years.

Firedoglake cried foul, too:

[S]omeone at the Times must surely know that a frequent canard of the Republican Party and Social Security opponents is to argue that the Social Security Trust Fund, which has a surplus of $2.5 trillion in US Treasury bonds built up since 1983 by higher payroll taxes paid by future retirees, is just worthless paper. And if it’s worthless paper, future beneficiaries will never be able to rely on the $2.5 trillion they paid into the system to help pay the Social Security benefits to which they’re entitled.

The canard was always designed to convince today’s and tomorrow’s elderly that they cannot rely on the US Government honoring its own Treasury bonds — in effect, arguing the US would be so irresponsible as to engage willy nilly in a sovereign debt default, not to mention breaking a sacred promise to its own people. The goal of the canard is to convince Americans they should not count on Social Security, or government in general, to help in their retirement. Give that money to Wall Street instead.

It all goes to underscore what my colleague Ryan Chittum pointed out recently: a lot of readers—and writers, and editors!—really don’t understand the trust fund. There are a few good primers out there, but some more reporting is definitely in order.

The Times piece hints that Blumenauer is making the trust fund argument—“Mr. Blumenauer argues that the program can’t exist on make-believe money”—but it should make his position clear for readers.

There’s something frustrating about the way the story seems to blur the line between cutting wasteful spending and cutting entitlements—suggesting, but not supporting, the idea that there’s a lot of waste in Social Security and other programs.

It’s also frustrating that, given the focus of the piece, there are almost no numbers. What does he think the government could save with those cuts to wasteful spending? How far does that go to solving the problem? And how much does he think needs to come from entitlements?

The NYT story moves on to place Blumenauer within “a tradition of mainstream Democratic thinkers,” and I was intrigued when it referred to a 1976 speech Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine as “one of the more persuasive, if least remembered, speeches in the party’s modern history.”

Muskie argued before the party’s platform committee, in favor of subjecting “most federal programs to periodic review.”

So, who did he persuade?

The party’s liberal activists rejected Mr. Muskie’s argument.

Muskie’s speech was apparently persuasive to Bai. But his readers need a bit more context, and a bit more information, to make up their minds.

Further Reading:

What Is the Social Security Trust Fund, Exactly?

Matt Bai on Juvenile Bloggers, Political Reporters Who Hate Politics, and Why Reporters Shouldn’t Go On Cable

Alan Simpson Does it Again: This time the press pays attention—sort of

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at holly.yeager@gmail.com.