Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

The following is an experiment. But one with very real and important issues on the line.

As you have perhaps noticed, in the last couple months TPM has devoted the great majority of its resources to following the crucial debate over the future of Social Security. But from time to time some TPM readers have noted that this has left other issues before Congress all but ignored -- the recent class-action bill, the bankruptcy bill and many others.

A few -- more than a few, actually -- believe that Social Security privatization is actually nothing more than a stalking horse to throw Democrats off the scent while President Bush pushes through a host of terrible bills all but unnoticed. That is a profoundly misguided view. Both sides, I think, recognize the centrality and importance of the debate over Social Security -- both in terms of policy and politics. And if the White House isn't doing well right now -- believe me, they did not expect to find themselves in this position.

But just because Social Security deserves all the attention its getting doesn't mean a lot of other important issues aren't getting eclipsed -- especially on this site.

Now, in some other post I will discuss my reasons and thinking behind TPM's focus on Social Security. But for the moment there's one other piece of legislation getting rushed through Congress that really deserves a closer look and much more scrutiny than it's getting: the Bankruptcy bill.

I'm not knowledgable enough about the subject to discuss it intelligently or usefully. And even if I did, my focus on Social Security would give it short shrift. So back to our experiment ...

Professor Elizabeth Warren is an expert in bankruptcy law at Harvard Law School. And I've agreed to set her and three of her students at the law school up with a limited-duration blog here at TPM to follow the bankruptcy bill much as I am tracking the Social Security debate.

The four of them probably won't approach the task just as I might. And I should point out that I've given them complete editorial freedom to express their views of the on-going debate. So while it's quite fair to infer my general agreement with their position, they may very well state particular views or positions that I don't agree with -- which is absolutely fine and just as I'd want it.

A bit later in the spring, if all goes according to plan, we're going to be rolling out an expanded version of TPM -- or actually an adjunct site -- that will make it possible to comment on posts, for readers to have a place to meet and post their own views and to have experiments along the lines of this one we're starting tonight. But in this case the resources (Professor Warren and her students) and the need (the little-discussed Bankruptcy bill) came together in a way that I thought it made sense not to wait.

As I said earlier, I'm no expert on this topic. And I'm looking forward to learning more from what these folks have to say. The relatively little I do know makes me pretty sure there's at least a lot in this legislation that doesn't serve the public interest. And people whose opinions I trust all think it is a classic gift to a powerful special interest at the expense of ordinary Americans. There are many things I've treasured about this site in the almost four and a half years I've been producing it. One thing it allows me to do is to give others a platform to make a case that needs to be heard. So that's what I'm doing here.

Click here to see what they're doing.

So there you have it.

Private accounts, at best, do nothing to make Social Security solvent. Yet, according to his Treasury Secretary John Snow, President Bush considers private accounts "an absolutely essential part" of the changes he wants to make.

He's committed to phase-out; not solvency.

Yes, I know it sounds stark and dramatic. But it's true.


"The president's committed to these personal accounts. I'm committed to them. They've got to be part of any solution, because without them, we can't offer the promise of fixing and preserving Social Security and the purpose of Social Security for younger people."

He won't even consider a plan to extend and assure solvency; it has to be phase-out. So what is there to talk about?

But let's go beyond that. The president is traveling all across the county, hitting every marginal Republican district he can find, to sell his plan.

But what plan?

Before anyone takes him seriously, doesn't he have to disclose the size of the benefit cuts he wants?

He's like Nixon; he's got a secret plan to end Social Security.

The more he sinks the more he lies. In fact, I'm not even sure 'lying' quite does it justice. He just makes it up as he goes along now.

With apologies for re-covering old territory, for upwards of a decade there's been a debate, largely between Republicans and Democrats, over private accounts carved out of Social Security or 'add-on' accounts, accounts in addition to Social Security.

The add-on terminology has become close to universal in large part because it accurately describes what is being discussed.

Indeed, as recently as yesterday, Secretary Snow said that while the president greatly prefered private accounts as part of Social Security and believed that they would eventually become law, he was willing to put add-ons on the table if Democrats would negotiate.

Here's how the Times described what Snow had to say ...

Mr. Snow said the administration wanted to encourage the development of as many ideas as possible and that it was open to looking at personal accounts that would supplement Social Security rather than, as in the plan President Bush has proposed, replace a portion of the traditional government-paid benefit.

Mr. Snow made it clear that Mr. Bush would prefer his approach, which is built on diverting a portion of a worker's payroll tax into a private investment account, and he predicted that the president's plan would win out in the end. And Mr. Snow cited what he said were shortcomings with the supplemental approach, which would require workers to make contributions into private accounts in addition to paying the existing payroll tax.

But his willingness to consider the alternative, known as an add-on account, suggested that the administration was intent on retaining as much flexibility as possible to overcome the political and substantive obstacles that have slowed Mr. Bush's drive to overhaul Social Security.

On the same day, the Post helpfully pointed out that though Snow was sent out to signal willingness to compromise, the president was only doing this to lure Democrats to the table ...

Snow told reporters that Bush also has not ruled out embracing a plan backed by many Democrats to create government-subsidized personal savings accounts outside the existing system. White House officials are privately telling Republicans that Bush is opposed to the idea but does not want to say so because it would appear he is not willing to compromise.

But that was yesterday.

Now, realizing that the add-on terminology is less toxic than his Social Security privatization policy, the president has decided that privatization really is an add-on after all.

From the Bamboozlepalooza event in New Jersey ...

This is a retirement account we're talking about. But it's your money, and the interest off that money goes to supplement the Social Security check that you're going to get from the federal government. See, personal accounts is an add-on to that which the government is going to pay you. It doesn't replace the Social Security system. It is a part of making -- getting a better rate of return, though, so -- to come closer to the promises made. That's important to know.

Now we would be remiss if we did not note that the Times article covering the day's events adopted what can only be called a singularly generous approach to the president's word games ...

Despite widespread evidence that the public is wary of changes to the benefits system, Mr. Bush did not retreat from his plan to divert some payroll taxes into individual accounts. Instead he shifted his language a bit to emphasize the parts of Social Security that would stay the same, describing the popular program as a "safety net" and borrowing a term for the types of accounts some Democrats have favored, "add-on" accounts outside the Social Security benefit system, to now describe his version of private accounts.

Where to start?

In a case where A and B are fundamentally different and you take the term for A and apply it to B, that is not usually known as 'borrowing'. I'm not sure whether 'lying' or 'deceiving' or something else altogether is a better term for it. But this isn't borrowing. It's simply an effort to mislead.

There's a clearer way for any newspaper to describe what happened: President Bush misidentified his proposal as an add-on to Social Security.

That covers the whole thing.

Simply look at the president's proposal, as the White House itself explains it, and you will see that the accounts are funded by diverted Social Security payroll taxes. And those who chose private accounts have their guaranteed benefit cut by an amount that is supposed to be roughly equivalent to what their account might be expected to make under favorable conditions. Under any version of the English language we're familiar with, that's not an add-on to Social Security. That comes out of Social Security.

Until today of course when the meaning of all the words changed.

Admittedly, these word games are nothing new. And perhaps men of destiny define words rather than being defined or constrained by them. But just as you cannot have a constructive discussion about strengthening Social Security with someone who wants to phase it out, you also cannot have an honest or meaningful discussion about anything with someone who on a daily basis changes the meaning of the words being discussed.

According to Reuters, President Bush is shifting tactics.

He's stopped <$NoAd$>talking up the glories of private accounts and started hitting on what he claims is Social Security's looming bankruptcy.

But surely no one has less credibility on this issue than him since he's been crying wolf about this for almost thirty years.

Remember what he was saying in 1978...

[Social Security] will be bust in 10 years unless there are some changes ... The ideal solution would be for Social Security to be made sound and people given the chance to invest the money the way they feel.

This is a hanging curveball for anyone who wants to whack it out of the park.

Hundreds gather in South Bend to protest the Count, the president and their plan to phase-out Social Security ...

Hundreds of protestors gathered outside the Joyce Center, starting as early at 10 AM Friday morning, to protest the president's Social Security reform plan. Some were students and others were community members of all ages, races and backgrounds. A few protestors drove from as far away as Indianapolis.

Soon, on the scene accounts from TPM Readers.

Are things going so badly on phase-out that the president is threatening to do "something drastic"?

Seems so.

Just off the wire from Bloomberg ...

President George W. Bush, facing a decline in public support for private Social Security accounts, said "something drastic has to happen" to fix the retirement safety net that has served workers for decades.

Without changes to the system, younger taxpayers won't be able to collect Social Security after paying into it for years, Bush told a crowd today in Westfield, New Jersey. "If we act now, we can do it in a way that saves the system for younger workers," he said.

What a small-minded bully this man is. <$Ad$>When the public begins to turn against him all he can think to do is up the antics and the melodrama. "Something drastic has to happen." What a thing for a president to say? Think about it. Something drastic? FDR was right about more than just Social Security. Also with, The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. And it's good to remember that now because fear is the only thing this man has to peddle.

A new National Journal poll just out finds that disapproval of the president on Social Security risen to 61% from 52% in January.

And along those lines Bloomberg also tells us more about Rep. Mike Ferguson (R) of New Jersey, the president's host today in Westfield. Ferguson is another first-tier Social Security bamboozler who's repeatedly tried to hoodwink his constituents in just the same way as Rep. Heather Wilson or New Mexico.

And now we see, on the very day President Bush is in town, he's trying to slither away from his support for phasing out Social Security.

"The congressman still has a lot of questions that he's looking to get answered about the plans and proposals that are being talked about to strengthen Social Security," his spokesperson Abby Bird tells Bloomberg. He thinks private accounts maybe "part of the solution," but not the sole answer.

It's too late, isn't it? Ferguson's for phase-out and he has been for years. There's nothing left to figure out about it. The least he could do is be a stand-up guy about it like Santorum and say what he believes in even when the tide is turning against him.