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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Ruth Marcus Tries to Show Her Beltway Badge of Seriousness

Ruth Marcus shows two things in her commentary today, "Krugman vs. Krugman". First, she hasn't a clue about Social Security financing. Second, she has no problem at all presenting a distorted picture to rationalize her clueless position.

On the Social Security financing issue, the most recent pieces I've seen are by Dean Baker, "The crisis that isn't," and Paul Starr, "Hold that Tax," but there's been so much written that it's hard to believe that anyone who isn't being willfully ignorant could be unaware of the true magnitude of the problem - the system is not headed for disaster, for a crash, or anything like that.

Anyone interested in understanding the financing issues ought to read America's Senior Moment by Paul Krugman. I refer you to this particular piece, from the New York Review of Books and written in 2005, because Ruth Marcus uses quotes from Paul Krugman dated 2001 or earlier to try to show he has been inconsistent on the Social Security financing issue. The subtext is, or course, that he is being dishonest.

But had Ruth Marcus included this quote from Paul Krugman's 2005 piece in her editorial (or quotes from other pieces of the vast amount Krugman has written about Social Security after 2001), it would have changed the interpretation of the quotes she includes in her article. Here, Paul Krugman explains why the future of Social Security was at issue at that time:

Four years ago, I and many other economists urged policymakers to think about the future cost of Social Security benefits, not because we thought there was anything wrong with Social Security itself, but because we regarded the future costs as a compelling reason not to cut taxes even if the overall budget was in surplus.

Keep that quote in mind, i.e. that the worry was that the Bush tax cuts would eat away at the accumulated Social Security surplus, as they did, as you read Ruth Marcus' desperate attempt to justify her doom and gloom about the future of Social Security:

Krugman vs. Krugman, by Ruth Marcus, Commentary, Washington Post: In liberal Democratic circles, the debate over Social Security has taken a dangerous "don't worry, be happy" turn.

The argument has two equally dishonest components. The first is to deny that Social Security faces a daunting financing problem... The second is to mischaracterize the arguments of those who advocate responsible action, accusing them of hyping the system's woes.

One prominent practitioner of this misguided approach is New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. "Inside the Beltway, doomsaying about Social Security -- declaring that the program as we know it can't survive the onslaught of retiring baby boomers -- is regarded as a sort of badge of seriousness, a way of showing how statesmanlike and tough-minded you are," Krugman wrote last week. "In fact, the whole Beltway obsession with the fiscal burden of an aging population is misguided."

Somebody should introduce Paul Krugman to . . . Paul Krugman.

"[A] decade from now the population served by those programs [Social Security and Medicare] will explode. . . . Because of those facts, merely balancing the federal budget would be a deeply irresponsible policy -- because that would leave us unprepared for the demographic deluge, with no alternative once it arrives except to raise taxes and slash benefits." (July 11, 2001)

"Broadly speaking, the next administration . . . will face two big economic tests. One . . . is whether it can stick to a fiscal policy, including a policy toward Social Security, that prepares this country for the demographic deluge." (Nov. 12, 2000)  ...

You get the idea, a lot of the article is just quotes from Krugman from 2001 or earlier (she even reaches back to 1996 at one point) as she tries to turn his concern over the effect tax cuts would have on the surplus, and hence our ability to meet future obligations, into more general concern over a potential crisis in the Social Security program even though that isn't what he was saying (and note the first quote also includes Medicare). The article then discusses whether or not Krugman mischaracterized the positions of politicians and the Washington Post editorial board, and again selectively quotes Krugman and others to try to justify her argument, but that, of course, has nothing at all to do with whether there is a Social Security "crisis". If there is no crisis - and there isn't - then it is being over-hyped. She doesn't think it's being over-hyped, but that's because she misunderstands the nature of the problem.

Not much of an argument - all it does for the most part is compare quotes from Krugman then and now without putting them in context (and leaving out a whole bunch of other quotes between 2001 and now). Even if there weren't an obvious context to Krugman's prior remarks, what if he had changed his mind as the evidence became clearer. What's wrong with that? That is, showing that someone said one thing in the past, and now says something different as they have learned more about the problem does not imply that what is said now is wrong or dishonest. What matters is if the new position is justifiable, and if Ruth Marcus wants to debate Paul Krugman on the correctness of his current postion on Social Security, which is, by the way, consistent with his prior position, all I can say is good luck --  though even the best of luck won't be enough to overcome the reality that she is on the wrong side of this argument.

Update: Here is Paul Krugman's response.

Update: More from Paul Krugman:

A thought about political discourse, by Paul Krugman: A meta-thought inspired by the Social Security craziness:

Faced with a major public issue, such as the future of Social Security, one might think that the crucial thing would be to ascertain the facts. If I say “there is no crisis,” and you think there is, well, produce the evidence that shows that my arithmetic is wrong — not something I once said that you think proves that I’ve changed my mind. Making this a game of gotcha is just childish.

But here’s the thing: this childishness infects a lot of political discourse. Think about what passes for a “tough” question on the Sunday talk shows. It’s not “Senator Bomfog — you say X, but the statistics show that it’s actually Y. How can you explain this discrepancy?” In fact, I’ve never seen that happen. In political reporting, being wrong means, at most, that your claims are “in dispute.”

No, what actually passes for “tough” questioning is “Senator Bomfog, you say X but last year you said Y. Aren’t you flip-flopping?”

Like I said, it’s childish — and destructive.

    Posted by on Wednesday, November 21, 2007 at 12:33 AM in Economics, Politics, Social Security | Permalink  TrackBack (2)  Comments (166)

          

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