Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Ketchum, the PR firm the Department of Education hired to hire Armstrong Williams to shill for the No Child Left Behind Act, pins the blame on Williams.

"[Williams] has said numerous times that he should've disclosed and we agree with that," says Lorraine Thelian, Ketchum's senior partner in charge of North American operations. "We would assume that the commentator pundit/would disclose. That's an assumption that you make ... Whatever he did once that contract was put together, he did on his own."

The San Francisco Chronicle says phase-out lobbyists have their eyes on three members of the Faction ...

Democrats have responded that Bush is manufacturing a crisis where none exists.

But lobbyists point to a handful of potential Democratic compromisers who have not ruled out private accounts, including Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., Rep. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn.

See the rest of the piece here.

We'll be talking shortly about some very disappointing events today on Meet the Press. But for now, a reading suggestion.

If you're following or care about the Social Security debate, you really must read the article by Roger Lowenstein in today's New York Times Magazine. It is probably the best single piece of journalism I've read on the subject -- mixing clarifying statistical and historical information with elegant description and context.

Along the way the author touches on a number of points that are commonly either ignored or distorted. For instance, you'll remember that Tim Russert today noted that in 1997 the Social Security actuaries predicated that the Trust Fund would run out in 2029.

Now they say it will run out in 2042, thirteen years later. As we've noted again and again, the forecasting assumptions upon which the predictions are based are fairly pessimistic. So it's not surprising that each time the SSA actuaries revisit their estimates they've pushed them further out into the future since each time there's a little more data that has come in that isn't as feeble as they'd predicated.

Another point. You know how back when Social Security was created most people didn't live much longer than 65 years, so the program just isn't designed for the world we're now living in?

Well, this just turns out to be a canard. As Lowenstein relates, when the actuaries sat down to design Social Security only 5.4% of Americans were over 65. But contrary to the understanding of Tim Russert and other Beltway mandarins, the founders weren't fools. They knew lifespans would increase.

When they designed the program they estimated that by 1990 -- more than fifty years later -- the number would increase to 12.65%. In fact, when 1990 rolled around, the percentage was 12.45. In other words, they knew almost exactly what the demographic profile of the retired population would be. And they designed the system accordingly.

One thing they couldn't know about quite so accurately were the effects of the baby-boom and the subsequent decline in birth-rates. But those are the factors that were taken into account by 1983 Social Security Commission that raised payrool taxes and began raising the retirement age.

So for instance you have Sen. Bill Frist today, with about as much knowledge as taste, saying that in 2008 Social Security will be hit by a "huge demographic tidal wave."

But Frist must be in a time warp. Because in 1983 we knew all about the baby-boom generation and that is precisely why they decided to build up a surplus in the Social Security Trust Fund and raise the retirement age in phased stages. We've already done the reform for that.

And what happens when Social Security starts drawing on the Trust Fund? Will the world stop turning on its axis? "Since 1970 there have been 11 years in which Social Security has operated at a deficit; each time, it redeemed bonds from the trust fund without a fuss." So, I guess the answer is, no.

Then there's one other point the author brings up toward the end of the piece -- and it's a point we should all be focusing on, with regards to the seemingly arcane and abstract distinction between wage and inflation indexing of benefits.

"If the index was changed," he writes, benefits "would be pegged to a fixed portion of a previous generation's income. If this standard had been in force since the beginning, retirees today would be living like those in the 1940's ... which would mean $300 a month in today's dollars, as opposed to roughly $1,200 a month."

That puts it in perspective. The benefit cuts President Bush is talking about would slowly grind Social Security away into nothing, not a foundation for retirement security but an all-but-meaningless subsidy that wouldn't keep many retirees off the streets.

President Bush figures that as long as current retirees are assured that their checks will keep coming in for the next decade or two, that they really don't care what sort of America their young grandchildren will be living in half a century or more from now. In other words, he looks at them and sees himself. But I think America is better than that. And if the facts can speak with as big a megaphone as the president's lies, then I think we'll see that.

But don't stop with my summary, read the Times Magazine piece itself.

A good Star-Tribune editorial on the lies the White House is telling about how Social Security is "unfair" to African-Americans. For several reasons, quite the opposite is true.

In a subsequent post, we'll discuss yet another way the president's argument about Social Security and African-Americans is dishonest.

People are rightly abuzz about the report today in the New York Times that the White House is using the Social Security Administration itself to begin a major public relations offensive in favor of partially phasing out Social Security and replacing it with private accounts.

We have a packet of documents here from the SSA Communications office, which we'll be sharing with you. But one of the action points, if that's the lingo these folks use, is this one from a February 2004 message memo "on the Long-Term Challenges Facing Social Security."

Under the heading that says "reform" is a "presidential priority" one of the items reads: "Modernization must include individually controlled, voluntary personal retirement accounts to augment Social Security."

Sounds like the word's really gone down that they have to support the president's phase-out plan.

And why is it exactly that President Bush's phase-out agenda is incorporated as part of the official talking points for SSA?

We've just posted the document to the TPM Document Collection and you can read it by clicking here.

Has Stephen Hess, government affairs mandarin and resident quote-meister at Brookings, gotten out of the office recently? Read a paper? Chatted with a Democrat?

Here's what he told the Baton Rouge Advocate about the future of Social Security: "Nobody denies that it's a serious question and future train wreck. The debate itself is worthy."

Nobody denies it's a future "train wreck"? If I'm not mistaken, whether Social Security is headed for a budgetary "train wreck" is precisely what's being argued about right now.

An "accountability moment."

From the Post ...

President Bush said the public's decision to reelect him was a ratification of his approach toward Iraq and that there was no reason to hold any administration officials accountable for mistakes or misjudgments in prewar planning or managing the violent <$NoAd$>aftermath.

"We had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 elections," Bush said in an interview with The Washington Post. "The American people listened to different assessments made about what was taking place in Iraq, and they looked at the two candidates, and chose me."

George W. Bush, bringing 'cheap grace' out of the seminaries and into the White House.

Downright <$NoAd$> criminal.

Just out from the Times ...

Over the objections of many of its own employees, the Social Security Administration is gearing up for a major effort to publicize the financial problems of Social Security and to convince the public that private accounts are needed as part of any solution.

The agency's plans are set forth in internal documents, including a "tactical plan" for communications and marketing of the idea that Social Security faces dire financial problems requiring immediate action.

Social Security officials say the agency is carrying out its mission to educate the public, including more than 47 million beneficiaries, and to support the agenda of President Bush.

But agency employees have complained to Social Security officials that they are being conscripted into a political battle over the future of the program. They question the accuracy of recent statements by the agency, and they say that money from the Social Security trust fund should not be used for such advocacy.

They transgress every limit, every rule. Now the Armstrong Williams episode turns out to have been just a blip on the radar, a faint premonition. Your payroll taxes and the whole edifice of the Social Security Administration is being joined to Karl Rove's outside astroturf groups pushing the Social Security phase-out. Or, I guess you could say that your payroll taxes are being used to cheat you out of what you've spent the last decade or two or three paying them for.

Gives a whole new meaning to raiding the Trust Fund.

The White House is intent on making this into a fight about what the country is. So the battle is joined.

Here's the page the Social Security Administration says to use if you have a complaint.

How does Senator McCain feel about this? Congressman Leach? Senators Chafee and Specter and Snowe?

One more thought: As we've tried to show in the last few days, when you dig down into the Social Security Administration website you find a wealth of information which directly contradicts the lies coming out of the White House. How much longer you figure that stuff's going to stay there? Perhaps some handy folks should start doing some quick site archiving. Call it the Memory Hole Project.

The latest from TPM False Equivalence Watch (TM).

Today from CBS News ...

Is there a Social Security crisis? Mr. Bush says yes, the Democrats say no. They say the system as is can deliver the promised benefits until at least 2042. And they say minor revenue increases and benefits made soon can safeguard Social Security for much longer. They say the "crisis" is made up so the administration can start experimenting with private Social Security accounts.

And THAT, the Democrats say, is a crisis. They believe the administration’s proposal to offer optional, voluntary private accounts would start an inexorable avalanche on the slippery slope of privatizing Social Security, of taking away government guaranteed payments to old people. They think it’s an evil plot by evil-doers. A crisis. That’s their crisis-mongering.

On the facts, the Democrats are right to say that Social Security doesn’t pose an immediate crisis. But in defining the issues supporting an aging population so narrowly, the Democrats are every bit as disingenuous as the administration. When you put Social Security on top of Medicare, on top of rising medical costs and in the context of a shrinking workforce and expanding elderly population, you have something pretty close to a crisis. But it’s not one either party is talking much about.

Nice try.

Let's address two points. If President Bush is whipping up a phony crisis, as he did during the lead up to Iraq, to shred the social safety net which has made poverty among the elderly close to a thing of the past and provides financial security in the face <$Ad$> of premature death, disability and other blows of fate at other points in life, that's a bad thing that should be fought at every opportunity. Opposing it simply cannot be put on the same moral footing as perpetrating it.

On the other hand, if the Democrats are wrong, and there really is a dire crisis, which they are ignoring for political reasons, then they're in the wrong.

The point is that you cannot duck the moral question by ignoring the factual question, which is what the author seems intent on doing in this case, thus creating the standard 'they all do it' moral equivalence.

Then there's the issue of Medicare and spiralling health care costs. The funding challenges facing Medicare really are far more acute than those facing Social Security. But they are also qualitatively different. For all the demographic challenges facing Social Security, the costs it is meant to cover are fundamentally stable -- factored against inflation. What are they? Rents, food, the basic costs of living, etc. It is in the case of health care where, for all the arguments about frivolous lawsuits or greedy drug companies, we face the basic 'problem' of an expanding array life-saving and life-extending technologies that cost money.

But Medicare and health care costs are a different and in many respects distinct issue. The fact that the president lies about Social Security while ignoring the more pressing challenges facing Medicare should be marked against him, not the Democrats.

And in any case, what sense does it make to pillory those who deny Social Security is in crisis just because when you combine it together with a bunch of other issues, which are in some ways related, all of them together may almost constitute a crisis? This is rather like saying, Iraq is no crisis. But when you combine Iraq with North Korea and Iran, non-state-terrorism, a possible global resource shortage in the next century and global warming, all together it's pretty close to a crisis.

Maybe so. But who cares? It's a non-sequitur. The president has forced a debate on Social Security -- not the long-term fiscal outlook of the country or rising health care costs. And while Social Security, as a major government expense, is related to both, the program's structure -- which is what President Bush wants changed -- is distinct from each. And if all that weren't enough the president's proposals don't address this broader array of problems -- at least not anymore than abolishing Social Security clears up problems tied to its funding.

It is almost as if the author cannot get himself to bite the factual bullet of who's crisis mongering and who's not. So he cobbles together another crisis to make up for the insufficiencies of the one the president is flogging in order to find one the Democrats are ignoring, even though this debate and changes to this program are what the president is forcing on the country.