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
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
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
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
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
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.