Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Repeating A Conservative Talking Point

It would be easy to ridicule Wolf Blitzer. After 41 years in the news business and 21 at CNN, he should know better. And as an employee of a center or center-right news organization, he does not have the excuse of working at GOP TV to excuse his ignorance.

So what was the Wolfman doing last night in Tampa (transcript of first part of debate, here) repeating a damaging urban myth? Rephrasing a question from a woman identified as belonging to the Tea Party of Pleasanton, Blitzer commented asked Newt Gingrich "How do you do that? How do you protected seniors, balance the budget?"

Fine so far, but then Wolf added "So much of the budget goes to defense and entitlements like Social Security, Medicare."

Except that Social Security is not part of the federal budget and has its own funding mechanism. It does not, and has not, contributed a dime to the budget deficit though, arguably, it has helped alleviate it. When- until last year (as part of the economic downturn- the Social Security trust fund took in more than it paid out, the federal government borrowed from it to set the budget deficit figures artificially low. Alternatively, it enabled congress and the president to lower continually the tax rate.

The myth that Social Security contributes to the deficit frames the national debate and prompts calls to "reform" a system that can pay out all benefits, without "reform" or "strengthening," for 27 more years.

But naivete is barely more forgivable than ignorance (though for a CNN reporter/anchorman, such ignorance is stupefying). On September 9, I blogged

Similarly, the President urged Congress to cut payroll taxes further and to extend the reduction to employers. It is not clear whether the resulting shortfall in Social Security revenues would be completely made up by a transfer of funds from the general budget. If so, Obama's idea is a good one, given that the payroll tax takes proportionately more from the working and middle class than from the wealthy, a decrease thus allowing taxpayers to keep more of their paycheck and stimulating the economy more than would an income tax.

But as Nancy Altman of Social Security works explains

"This could eventually lead to the unraveling of Social Security," says Altman, a co-chair of the advocacy group Social Security Works.

She says it might look like a harmless one-year boost for struggling Americans. But Altman is certain Republicans will try to make the payroll tax cut permanent, which, she says, could lead to trouble for Social Security.

"The Bush tax cuts were supposed to be 10 years," she says. "And we see now that it's very hard once a tax cut is in place to repeal it. The fear is that once this cut is made it becomes permanent and all of a sudden Social Security's shortfall, which is very manageable at this point, would actually double."

When Republicans (who already are thought to be reconsidering their skepticism about extension of the payroll tax cut) get around to making the payroll tax permanent, they will make sure that the money is not replaced by funds from the general budget. That change, possibly sufficiently subtle to pass under the radar of all but Social Security activists, would be made whether with a GOP president or the acquiescence of a Democratic president.

So I was wrong, and Wolf Blitzer is uninformed, about the most popular government program in American history. No doubt he will acknowledge his shortcoming promptly.

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