Do reporters respond when the president tells flagrant lies?
(No, it's not a trick question.)
Today the president said: "Most younger people in America think they'll never see a dime [from Social Security]. Probably an exaggeration to a certain extent. But a lot of people who are young, who understand how Social Security works, really do wonder whether they'll see anything."
The president says it's "an exaggeration to a certain extent" to say that younger people today don't think they'll ever get any money from Social Security, despite the fact that they pay over 12% (employees' and employers' contributions combined) out of every paycheck into the program.
I'm thirty-five, though not for much longer. So I hope I don't flatter myself too greatly to include myself among the "younger people" to whom President Bush is referring. So, God willing, I will turn 67 in February 2036.
According to the Trustees, using very pessimistic estimates of future economic growth, Social Security will be able to pay full benefits until 2042. After that, incoming revenue, they say, will be able to pay for at least 70% of my benefits. In other words, I'm good until I'm 73, after which my benefits could drop by as much as 30% if the US economy does really poorly over the next 35 years and no one does anything whatsoever with Social Security until then.
On the other hand, the Congressional Budget Office, under the leadership of former Bush White House senior economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin, says I'll have no problem until 2052, when I'll be 83. After that, they say, there will be a reduction, but again not an overwhelming one.
Bear in mind of course, as we've said again and again, if the US economy just keeps growing at the rate it has for the last hundred years or more, any problems are likely a good deal further out into the future.
So, what does this tell us? According to relatively pessimistic forecasts, two government agencies -- one of which is part of a Republican administration and the other under the oversight of a Republican congress -- say I'll get my full benefits for either the first five years of my retirement or the first fifteen years. After that, if nothing changes at all, I'll probably keep drawing three-quarters of my benefits. And even if I'm only drawing that three-quarters it'll still be more than today's retirees draw even in inflation-adjusted dollars.
This disconnect suggests one of three possibilities.
One is that the president has been briefed on certain highly classified budget projections which show a far more dire situation than the government's non-classified budgeting estimates would have us believe. We'll call this the secret evidence hypothesis.
Another possibility is that President Bush believes that the US government will default on the Treasury notes held by the Social Security Administration. Let's call this the Harken Energy hypothesis.
If it's neither of these we can only conclude that as he has done repeatedly before, this president is deceiving the people he has sworn to serve and defend in order to achieve a policy goal he cannot manage by honest means.
Indeed, it is still more cynical and deliberate than that. The president knows he can't say, "No one will get any benefits after 2030, so help me replace Social Security with private accounts." So, just as he and his associates did during the build up to the Iraq war, he uses paraphrases, work-arounds and slippery repetitons to communicate the intended falsehood while still providing himself with sufficient wiggle room to evade being tagged as a liar.
So here, for instance, he states that young people think they'll never collect Social Security benefits. Then he says that's "probably an exaggeration to a certain extent." And then he goes on to say that it's precisely the young people who are knowledgable about Social Security who think this. The clear implication, the meaning he intends to convey, is that this dire prediction is at least more true than not, when in fact, as we've noted, to the extent we can know anything about the future, it's not even close to being true.
Like I said, do reporters call him on it? Even toss a question to McClellan?
Late Update: According to the LAT, the president told one 27 year old at his Social Security event, "At your age [Social Security] will be bust by the time it comes for you to retire." And then later, "If you're 20 years old, in your mid-20s, and you're beginning to work, I want you to think about a Social Security system that will be flat bust, bankrupt, unless the United States Congress has got the willingness to act now."
It's certainly what he wants them to think. Chief Executive as confidence man.