Social Security, Medicare, and NPR

Has any major news organization done a worse job covering the economic crisis and its fallout than NPR? I was listening yesterday in the car when they broadcast their story about the revised forecast for Social Security and Medicare, and was amazed to hear a reporter claim that the two main factors in the downgraded Social Security projections–a glut of aging boomers and a downsizing of long-term growth expectations–had nothing to do with the recession of the past year.

Obviously you can’t blame the recession for baby boom demographics, but it’s absurd to say that the events of the past year have no bearing on future economic growth. The private debt explosion, coupled with a government “recovery” policy that merely shuffles debt around and encourages doubling down on speculative bets, is going to be a drag on the productive economy for many years to come. And that’s to say nothing of the political pressures arising from the dramatic expansion of public debt. Raids on public spending accounts that benefit those sectors that are not “too big to fail”–chiefly, the public–are inevitable.

The NPR report detailed a couple of possible fixes for the Social Security trust fund: raising the payroll tax that pays its way two more points to 14 percent-plus, or cutting benefits by 13 percent. One other ready option–raising the cap on income subjected to the SS tax above the current $102,000 a year limit–received only the scantest mention at the tail end of the segment. Naturally, the approach that’s least popular with the rich is bound to get the shortest shrift on National Public Radio.

More: NYT and WSJ on the Medicare and Social Security reports.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Glenn Mesaros on 05/13/2009 - 08:58 am.

    What K Street behaviorist came up with this cute title? The “independent” commission that would come up with recommendations on how to gut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid has been dubbed the SAFE Commission—Secure America’s Future Economy. Since Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) reintroduced the measure (H.R. 1557) in March, it has gained 66 cosponsors (24 Democrats, 42 Republicans) in the House. Complementary legislation in the Senate is backed by, among others, Judd Gregg, ranking Republican on the Budget Committee; Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad; Republican George Voinovich; independent Democrat Joseph I. Lieberman; and Republican Lindsey Graham. (For a full list of cosponsors, go to

    The commission would be modeled on the disastrous military base-closing process. Congress would be required to vote up or down on the commission’s recommendations. No amendments.

    “Everything will be put on the table,” said Wolf when he reintroduced the bill. Wolf has been pushing the idea since the spring of 2006. “Entitlement spending. Discretionary spending. Tax policy. We need to look at everything. This is a bold step, but it won’t work if we don’t go into the process saying everything must be looked at and discussed.”

    Among its backers, the austerity commission plan has the support of the Heritage Foundation, the Business Roundtable, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Concord Coalition, the Brookings Institution, and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

    “Without action to reverse the $56 trillion in unfunded obligations from Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and the mounting federal debt now over $11 trillion, the stark reality is that Americans will be forced to pay two and three times the tax liability they have today—and that’s just to cover the mandatory spending and interest on the debt,” Wolf said. “That massive debt load will crowd out other spending, leaving little to nothing to pay for education, medical research, transportation, and any other discretionary spending program you can name.”

    Wolf pointed to a Peter Hart Associates and Public Opinion Strategies poll that set up a Hobson’s choice for Americans. Presented with the hang-or-be-shot option, supposedly some 56% of registered voters said they preferred a bipartisan commission rather than the regular congressional process “to tackle the growing budget deficit and national debt.”

  2. Submitted by Sam Bergman on 05/13/2009 - 07:27 pm.

    Without offering a blanket defense of NPR’s coverage, I would point out that the two hourlong programs This American Life put together to explain the origins and development of the crisis were some of the best economics coverage I’ve heard in my lifetime. (And yes, I realize that TAL is not produced by NPR, but NPR economics correspondent Adam Davidson was one of the two main reporters for the TAL shows, and was spot-on in explaining, for instance, how credit default swaps came to be, why they remained unregulated, and how they had such a devastating effect on the wider economy.)

    Still, you’re definitely right that media coverage of Social Security always seems to be oddly hamhanded…

  3. Submitted by Keith Ford on 05/13/2009 - 09:10 pm.

    Unfortunately, NPR is getting sloppy on All Things Considered and, although I didn’t hear the program Sam Bergman refers to, I’m not surprised to hear that This American Life did a good job. They probably had a script.

    The fault lies, I believe, with the penchant for having one of the ATC anchors “interview” the reporter. The result is ad-libbing by the reporter. Sure they often have a canned piece prepared but then the anchor asks questions and “discusses the story some more, “probing for more depth.

    And that’s where the sloppiness and imprecision creep in. I much prefer the good old days when radio and TV reporters wrote their scripts and presented them, rather than this effort to give more focus to the anchor personalities.

    And if you want to tell me the whole thing is scripted then shame on them for the phoniness and for the sloppiness.

  4. Submitted by William Pappas on 05/13/2009 - 09:30 pm.

    I had similar thoughts two weeks ago when MPR chief economics correspondent Chris Farrell and Louis Johnston, Professor of Economics at St. John’s University led a discussion of how retirement might differ in light of the recession. It was a disgusting portrayal of how closely our country is resembling a third world nation. One bright idea they advanced was that we could all open up “work savings accounts” to be tapped when we are too old to work at our current jobs, too poor to retire and need money to retrain to secure lower wage jobs into our 80’s. Basically they argued that retirement is really a thing of the past and we shoud embrace the work place as our principal social environment anyway, “where we celebrate birthdays and have our most rewarding relationships”.
    They were without a doubt prepping the masses to accept reduced retirement income while accepting that economic policy could never be engineered to help middle class Americans retire with dignity. I was sickend by the discussion.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/18/2009 - 10:22 am.

    Yeah, their economic reporting was the main reason I just couldn’t bring myself to give them money this last pledge drive. In general it’s just weak neo-liberal market driven window dressing.

    They don’t actually cover the economy for the most part, just Wall Street. Farrel isn’t an economist he’s a Wall Street guy, he discusses core issues like inflation reports, wages and salaries, and unemployment only in terms of how he thinks they’re going to affect the “markets”.

    Meanwhile over on Mid Morning Miller’s had a raft of financial advisers that kept telling everyone to keep their money in the market, and not to change their strategies. To the extent people followed this advice they lost 30% of their money. I think MPR’s actions in this regard actually border on fraud.

    Elsewhere they spent the first year of the recession pretty much denying there was a recession, or if there was one it’s not as bad as 1982-83.

    They’ll do individual stories about families or business people but they never connect the dots in terms of public policy, it’s just human interest stuff. Recently they’ve been talking to graduating college student’s, but they don’t step back and examine the over-all public policy decisions that have created the jobless environment these students now find themselves in.

    Now that the recession is undeniable they’ve been covering stats ad nauseum but it’s repetitive and well… boring.

    The only thing worse than their economic reporting is their political reporting which is little more than finding a Dem and a Rep and handing them a microphone.

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