Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

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.

A pretty decent account of the dishonesty of President Bush's Social Security 'crisis' fear-mongering from MSNBC.

If you're up on the subject, the details may not surprise you. But the source may.

Here is a graceful and concise summary from Paul Starr of The American Prospect of what Social Security provides for American society and what the president's phase-out option never can.

From The Hill ("Centrists steer clear of Social Security plans") ...

“Republicans need moderate Democrats to be a part of this process to get cover,” the Senate GOP aide said. “If there are no Democrats who are going to come across here, you may have some revolt within the Republicans.”


Any Rhode Islanders out there?

As I've mentioned once or twice in the past I lived in Providence, Rhode Island from 1992 to 1997, loved it, and still have a special fondness for the place. (Strange, but true TPM trivia: When I was a graduate student at Brown in the mid-1990s I did web design to supplement my essentially non-existent income. In 1996, when Sen. Jack Reed (D) first ran for Senate I got his campaign to let me design his campaign website -- for free, of course.)

In any case, this isn't a walk down memory lane. I ask because of that other Rhode Island senator, Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee. Chafee is in our Conscience Caucus because of a statement he made last month about the president's Social Security phase-out bill, and even more because of his demonstrated record of bucking the president on major policy initiatives like the 2001 tax cut bill, which twelve senate Dems voted for. If there was one Senate Republican I'd figure was most likely to go against the president on phasing-out Social Security, it's Lincoln Chafee.

But as near as I can tell he hasn't told his constituents any more about his views on the phase-out bill for the last month or more. Even back then all he said about the it was that "it's the wrong time and I regret that we're looking at this in the context of huge deficits."

I would imagine that either the Projo (aka, the Providence Journal-Bulletin, the major paper in the state) or a few of his million or sp constituents could prevail upon him to provide a little more detail about where he stands on phasing out Social Security and replacing with private investment accounts.

Republicans from the Chafee family have a charmed life in Rhode Island, notwithstanding the state's ocean blue politics. But that's largely because even as the state's politics have diverged so sharply from the national Republican party, Chafee and his late father let Rhode Islanders have it both ways. They have a Republican in Washington; but one that seldom gets much out of step with the state on key issues.

Social Security, though, is a pretty defining issue, and one that I'd expect many of the senator's constituents care a lot about. As I say, I suspect, in the end, Sen. Chafee won't support the president's phase-out plan. But here's the thing: by keeping mum and cagey about his position now, especially during this early, crucial phase of the debate, he may actually doing a lot to make a Social Security phase-out a reality. On the other hand, stating his position early and clearly might go almost as far toward saving Social Security as eventual vote against the president's bill. It could even be more important.