By Peter McDermott
Call it Martha Raddatz syndrome. It’s the belief held by some media professionals that there’s something broken in Social Security.
Raddatz was criticized for a question she’d posed during the vice-presidential debate by a number of speakers at last month’s annual Gerontological Society of America conference in San Diego.
“Media elites have convinced themselves that there is a crisis in Social Security,” said Eric Kingson, a professor of social work at Syracuse University and co-chair of the advocacy group Social Security Works.
Kingson, who served as a policy advisor on presidential commissions on the issue in the 1980s and ‘90s, said that there is indeed an increasing crisis around adequate funding for retirement in America.
“But they [journalists] focus on the most conservative framing of the crisis,” he said.
In reality, he added, “Social Security is the one bright spot.”
Raddatz asked on Oct. 11: “Let’s talk about Medicare and entitlements. Both Medicare and Social Security are going broke and taking a larger share of the budget in the process. Will benefits for Americans under these programs have to change for the programs to survive? Mr. Ryan.”
Rep. Paul Ryan replied: “Absolutely. Medicare and Social Security are going bankrupt. These are indisputable facts.”
But speakers at the GSA conference, which was attended by 4,000 people, said that while details like the cost-of-payment adjustment might be complex, the fundamentals aren’t. They said the self-funding Social Security is not broken and nor is it going broke. Indeed, the system’s finances are secure through the year 2033. After that, it might only be able to make 75 percent of payments, according to its trustees.
The Los Angeles Times’ Michael Hiltzik, a GSA conference participant and a rare journalist that understands the issue in Kingson’s view, believes even that prediction for 2033 must be looked at critically. “Will this happen? It might, but it might not,” he has written. The trustees themselves warn every year that the forecast is “inherently uncertain.”
Hiltzik asked how come “so much of the 'fiscal cliff' debate in Washington is based on supposedly perfect knowledge of conditions that are 20, or even 70, years away.”
At the GSA conference, he asked his audience to think of unforeseen events that have shaped the economy in the past two decades. In his column, he wrote: “Here's my list: 9/11. The Afghan war. The Iraq war. The housing bubble. The crash of 2000. The crash of 2008. The crash of Lehman Bros. The iPod. The iPhone. The iPad. The founding of Google. Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy. Obamacare.
“What are the chances that another such list will make the U.S. economy in 2033 look utterly different from what we imagine in 2012? I'd say 100 percent,” Hiltzik declared.
In any case, Kingson and other advocates argue that there are a number of ways to deal with the possible shortfall. Restoring the Bush tax cuts on top earners is one; abolishing the salary cap (which next year will be $113,000) is another. All Americans would pay the same rate, he said of the latter proposal.
“Back in 1982, we had a genuine crisis,” Kingson recalled. “Congress acted and put the system on a very good course.”
Generally over the decades, there was a consensus about the issue. “Very good decisions were made by Republicans and Democrats,” he said.
His Social Security Works co-chair Nancy J. Altman once worked as a legislative assistant for Republican Senator John C. Danforth.
“It was a different time,” Kingson said.
Private pensions haven’t kept up since then and the benefits of growth have been redistributed upwards to the richest 1 and 2 percent of the population. Now, when it’s needed more than ever, the Social Security system is under ideological attack from the right, with the goal, Kingson said, “of taking it apart brick by brick.” Despite its huge popularity with American citizens, Social Security is anathema to many conservative ideologues, being a “collectivist” government program. “Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security: that’s the brass ring for them,” the Syracuse University professor said.
In 1983, the conservative Cato Institute’s Stuart Butler and Peter Germanis outlined what they called a “Leninist strategy” to advance the cause of Social Security “reform.” Said Kingson, “It provided a roadmap: Tell people of 55 and over: ‘Be happy, don't worry.’ Tell the younger people that it won't be there for them and that it would be better if it were privatized.”
If it had been privatized 30 years ago, “we would have had a national calamity in 2008,” Kingson said, referring to the financial crash of that year.
Privatization was once an extreme idea, but conservative think tanks have had remarkable success in mainstreaming it. For instance, the media now talks in terms of “entitlement” when referring to a program that American citizens pay for.
Kingson said: “They’ve turned an innocuous 11-letter word into a four-letter word.”
But what some conservative journalists label a “Ponzi scheme” pays out in New York State alone an annual $44.8 billion to 3 million people (16.7 percent of residents). The average annual benefit in the state is $13,641.
In a time when home equity has declined and 401k plans have lost value, the “one system that works is Social Security.”
Kingson said: “It’s not a savings account. It’s social insurance.”
President Franklin Roosevelt said in 1935: “We have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age.”
FDR continued: “The law will flatten out the peaks and valleys of deflation and of inflation.”
“We’ve put strong protections in place and have been able to maintain them over time,” Kingson said. “It’s a solution, not a problem. It’s critical that we strengthen this institution.”
In a phone interview last week, he said: “This is Christmas, but all religions have a similar message. You care for your neighbor and you care for older people, but you also have an obligation to work hard.”
“Social Security is a way that complex societies can put this into effect,” Professor Kingson said.
This story was done as part of the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows Program organized by the Gerontological Foundation of America and New America Media.