Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

In our public discussion of Social Security, many take it for granted that time (in the sense of years, not months) favors Republicans because the young seem less resistant to privatization than their elders. But there is assumption at the root of this belief that I have never seen adequately examined in public opinion data.

Simply put: Are the young more favorable to privatization because they are currently young? Or does the current generation of Americans in their twenties and early thirties represent the leading edge of a wave of cultural change that will make future Americans less averse to risk and less trusting of government programs?

Perhaps twenty years from now, when these 25 year olds are 45, they'll think more like 45 year olds today. After all, the young tend to have a difficult time really getting their heads around the idea that they too will one day grow old and die. That doesn't mean we're moving toward an immortality society; it means they're young. They'll learn.

Now, I'm sure there must be available time series data that would provide some insight into this question. I'm just not familiar with it. But I came across some information a few days ago that at least suggests some of our assumptions may be wrong.

A few days ago, I noted how a lot of the recent polling information on Social Security is difficult to use because many of the questions are ones the pollsters have just started asking. So we have no point of reference to what people thought in January of this year or January 2004 or in January 2000.

But if you look at the data in the recent New York Times poll you can see a few of the questions were also asked in June 1981.

One of those questions, which the Times pollsters apparently hadn't asked in twenty-four years was: "Would you favor or oppose making the Social Security system voluntary, so that people can choose not to pay Social Security taxes and not to get benefits?"

Last month, 37% favored the idea and 59% opposed it. In late June of '81, 53% favored it and only 41% opposed.

Another question was: "Do you expect to get back more money than you've contributed to Social Security, less money than you contributed, or about the same amount of money?"

Last month, 12% said more, 39% less and 44% said the same. In 1981 it was 15%, 50% and 28%, respectively.

Clearly, in both cases, public opinion was significantly different and in both instances less favorable toward or less confident in Social Security than Americans are today.

On two other questions, there change was minimal. The one question for which the Times has regular data going back to 1981 was: "Do you think the Social Security system will have the money available to provide the benefits you expect for your retirement?"

Last month it was 34% yes and 49% no. In 1981 it was 30% yes and 54%.

Here, as noted, there's less change. But even that cuts against (though we'd have to see the break-out data) the idea that today's youth have less confidence in the system than earlier generations.

Now, one point that's fair to bear in mind is that 1981 was shortly before Social Security did require a major reform (the 1983 Greenspan Commission one) to maintain solvency. So perhaps that fact skews the numbers. But I'm not sure how much it should have affected the question about making Social Security voluntary. And on the 'Do you think Social Security will be there when you retire' question, the Times has fairly regular soundings going back two decades. And the numbers seem fairly stable over time. The 'worst' sample came from 1990 when 60% thought Social Security wouldn't be there for them when they retired. But in not one case did more people answer 'Yes' than 'No'.

If you were in your early 30s in 1981 and you were one of the 54% who said, no, well, you were just wrong. Heck, even the chief phase-out man himself, President Bush, says he'll give you a flat guarantee.

Certainly, there must be more information and analysis available on this question. And I'd be curious to see it. But this limited glimpse increases my skepticism about the prevailing assumptions about youth attitudes toward Social Security and what it foretells for the program's future.

I'm not sure sure whether this counts as a trick question. But what does it mean precisely to have the likes of Rep. Jim McCrery say you're 'unserious'?

McCrery, you'll remember, is the congressman from Shreveport, Lousiana, who first supported phase-out, then rejected it, then recanted his rejection after a trip to the White House where he apparently did a spell in The Chamber. And all in about a week and a half.

More recently, after again embracing privatization, he had his lawyer threaten the Campaign for America's Future and a local cable system with a lawsuit for running an which claimed he supported privatization.

But today, at the first Ways and Means Committee hearing on Social Security, Rep. McCrery told Democrats: "If you want to be serious players, then you will stop this nonsense of saying, 'We won't (accept) personal accounts.'"

That's the best he can do.

It's amazing how many Republicans (and how much of Washington, or at least the titled caste) can't get their collective heads around the idea that Democrats won't vote to replace a portion of Social Security with private accounts.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois: "We're taking this head on. We're prepared to debate the president on this issue. We think his position [on Social Security] is wrong and weak, and if we keep telling the American people our side of the story, we will prevail."


Charlie Jarvis's "test" runs into a hitch: USA Next sued for $25 million for using photo of gay couple's nuptials without permission.

Today Atrios rightly notes the column in this morning's WSJ by Social Security Trustee Thomas Saving. As he points out, the deceptive budgetary calculations and arguments Saving advances are about on the caliber you might expect from a third-rate talk radio yakker. But Atrios's main point is that the Journal, in identifying Saving, somehow left off the part that this Saving is a Trustee. (He does note it in the column itself.)

But there's more.

This morning Saving is a lead panelist at the House Ways and Means Committee's first hearing on Social Security. There of course he's identified as a Trustee.

What they don't say -- and I'll be very curious to hear whether it comes up in the testimony -- is that Saving recently signed on to be the Social Security spokesman for Progress for America, one of the two main money-fronts the White House has pushing privatization.

Late Update: TPM Reader JN points out this highly relevant passage in the Trustees 2004 report: "As Public Trustees we strive to work in a nonpartisan way to ensure the integrity of the process by which these reports are prepared and the credibility of the information they contain."

In what was a sad story, a happy new chapter.

Doris Matsui, widow of longtime California Congressman Robert Matsui, who died on New Year's day after a brief illness, has tonight won a special election to fill his seat. She took just under 72% of the vote.

Matsui, you'll remember, was to have been the House Democrats' point-man in the fight against privatizing Social Security. So far they've honored his memory.

AP: "The heart of President Bush's plan for Social Security, allowing younger workers to create personal accounts in exchange for a lower guaranteed government benefit, is among the least popular elements with the public, Republican pollsters told House GOP leaders Tuesday."