This past Sunday, The Washington Post published a troubling front-page article about Social Security's financial status and its future. The article repeated widely held misconceptions and used biased language to create the impression of a system in crisis.
In response, a number of progressive leaders have spoken out on blogs and in statements provided to Media Matters.
Two separate Washington Post articles today make dubious assertions about public polling findings relating to deficit reduction. Peter Wallsten and Perry Bacon, Jr. write, "Polls have shown that Americans see government spending and deficits as top-tier concerns." And Lori Montgomery writes: "Polls show rising concern about deficits but little appetite among voters for cutting specific programs."
Neither article actually referred to any specific polling data, which may be because polls consistently show that the public ranks deficit reduction much lower than other priorities. The most recent polling on priorities found on PollingReport.com is a January 15-19 CBS News/New York Times poll that found 43 percent of Americans think the most important thing for Congress to focus on is job creation; only 14 percent said the budget deficit. The most recent Gallup poll on the top problems facing this country found that 29 percent of Americans think unemployment is the nation's most important problem and another 26 percent think the economy generally is; only 12 percent told Gallup the deficit is the most important problem.
And what of the Washington Post's own polling? The last time a Washington Post poll asked respondents to rank the deficit against other issues in terms of importance was last October, when the paper asked people to name the most important issue in determining their vote. Thirty-nine percent of registered voters said the economy was most important, 18 percent said health care, 12 percent said "the way DC work[s]," 8 percent said taxes, and only 6 percent said the budget deficit. Six.
Wallsten and Bacon also write: "Polls also indicate that Obama needs to boost his budget-cutting credentials, with just 43 percent of Americans approving of his handling of the federal budget deficit in a January Washington Post-ABC News poll."* But that same poll found that more Americans trust Obama to handle the deficit than Republicans, so it's odd for the Post to single Obama out as needing to "boost his budget-cutting credentials." (Not to mention the fact that the Post conflates deficits and budget-cutting.) Finally, the poll data the Post cites does not establish a "need" for Obama to "boost his budget-cutting credentials" -- not when Obama's overall approval rating in the poll is a solid 54 percent, and not when polling consistently shows the public cares more about other issues.
* This line does not appear in the online version of the article, though it did appear in the version that ran on page A-1 of the paper's suburban edition, which is accessible via Nexis.
The Washington Post tells readers that there's a consensus among budget experts in favor of cuts to Social Security and Medicare:
Many Democrats and Republicans say they are open to major changes to Social Security and Medicare, possibly including raising the retirement age and limiting Medicare benefits to those who need them most.
While spending on the recession - including the bank bailouts and economic stimulus package - fueled voter anger during the 2010 campaign season, budget analysts across the political spectrum agree that popular Medicare and Social Security programs will have to be overhauled to truly cure the nation's ills.
That isn't true, as Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research notes:
For example, a book that was co-authored by Peter Orszag, who had been President Obama's director of the Office of Managament and Budget, and Peter Diamong, a Nobel Laureatte and Obama nominee to Fed, suggests relatively modest changes to Social Security. In fact, virtually all budget analysts across the political spectrum agree that the shortfall in the Social Security program is relatively minor.
Indeed, according to the Congressional Budget Office, Social Security would be fine for the next 75 years if we simply removed the cap on income subjected to payroll taxes. No "overhaul" or increase in the retirement age or benefit cuts necessary.
As for Medicare, "budget analysts" like Gene Sperling (currently the head of the National Economic Council) have argued that "the per-person costs of Medicare are rising because health-care costs for our entire society are rising … the most effective way to control the spiraling costs of Medicare and Medicaid is not taking a meat-axe to these programs, but finding ways to lower health-care cost inflation." Baker has repeatedly argued that Medicare would be easily affordable and "we would be facing huge long-run budget surpluses, not deficits" if per-person health care costs were brought in line with those in other countries.
In pretending that there is unanimity among budget analysts about the need to cut Medicare and Social Security benefits, the Post tells us more about its own blind spots than about the budget.
Shouldn't an article about Republican pledges to reduce the budget deficit that mentions in its lede the GOP's desire to repeal last year's health care reform legislation mention that doing so would increase the deficit?
Of course it should. The real question: Is anyone awake at the Washington Post?
In the past week, the Post has run at least seven articles mentioning the House GOP's plan to vote to repeal health care reform without mentioning that doing so would increase the deficit. Here's a particularly egregious example:
One urgent concern for lawmakers in both parties is the country's bleak fiscal outlook, stemming from heavy government spending and ballooning retirement costs. House Republican leaders said that immediately after the health-care vote they will debate spending cuts, targeting specific programs such as public television.
Immediately after asserting that Republicans are urgently concerned about the nation's bleak fiscal outlook, the Post notes that Republicans are trying to repeal health care reform -- but doesn't mention that doing so would worsen the nation's fiscal outlook. Incredible. (Note also that the Post asserts that the bleak fiscal outlook stems "from heavy government spending" -- no mention of the revenue side of the equation. The Post's framing plays along with the false conservative claims that only spending counts towards deficits, and only spending reductions should be considered to reduce them.)
The ever-credulous Washington Post reports:
On Saturday, the Senate rejected two Democratic proposals for extending the Bush-era tax cuts, which the Republicans prefer to call "tax rates," because they have been in effect for so long.
No, that probably isn't why Republicans prefer not to use the phrasing "Bush tax cuts." It's far more likely that Republicans prefer to call them "tax rates" because they think that phrasing is likely to be more popular. There is simply no basis for the Washington Post to assign a noble motive to the Republicans. They should stick to reporting what Republicans say and do and leave the mind-reading to the professionals.
This is not a trivial matter: The Post has demonstrated a pattern of unjustified faith that Republicans believe what they claim to believe. And assigning noble or innocuous motives to Republicans who are suddenly trying to change the terminology used in the debate over controversial policy is reminiscent of the Post going along with the GOP's efforts to re-brand Social Security privatization as "personal accounts."
One other thing about the Post's tax-cut article: You won't find the word "deficit" anywhere in it. That's because, as I've noted in the past, the phrase "deficit tax-cutting" doesn't appear in news reports the way "deficit spending" does. Just another subtle way the media puts its thumb on the scale in favor of conservative policies.
Does the Washington Post know what "consensus" means? Today's Post features a deeply flawed article by Lori Montgomery hyping the supposedly broad support for the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan. Under the headline "Consensus is forming on what steps to take in cutting the deficit," Montgomery writes "a surprisingly broad consensus is forming around the actions required to stabilize borrowing and ease fears of a European-style debt crisis in the United States." Montgomery adds:
"[T]he plan unveiled this month by co-chairmen Erskine B. Bowles, a chief of staff in the Clinton White House, and Alan K. Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, has been respectfully received with a few exceptions by both parties. Its major elements are also winning support from a striking line-up of commentators."
So, everyone's on board? Well, not quite: "Organized labor and other liberal activists say the changes would prove devastating to the elderly, particularly janitors, waitresses and other blue-collar workers … some powerful Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), have rejected benefit cuts … Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said the commission's proposal to slice $100 billion out of the Pentagon budget in 2015 would be 'catastrophic' … Republicans such as Rep. Dave Camp (Mich.), a commission member who is in line to chair the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, say they cannot support any plan that raises federal revenues much beyond the historic average of about 19 percent of gross domestic product. The Bowles-Simpson plan would collect as much as 21 percent of GDP." Oh, and the public doesn't prioritize deficit-cutting in the first place and is adamantly opposed to Simpson-Bowles proposals like cutting Social Security benefits.
So the "consensus" in favor of the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan does not include organized labor, the Speaker of the House, the Secretary of Defense, the presumptive chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, or the American people. That's an interesting definition of "consensus."
While exaggerating support for the proposal, Montgomery allowed Alan Simpson to lash out at critics of his proposal, without quoting any in response. In fact, the entire article quotes only one word of substantive opposition to the Simpson-Bowles plan. I guess part of pretending there's "consensus" support for the plan is omitting substantive criticism of it. Also not mentioned: Criticism by Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, among others, who argued that the Simpson-Bowles plan is "regressive" and "redistributes income upward." (Instead, the Post asserts that "fiscal experts say the Bowles-Simpson plan would be more gradual and less draconian than critics suggest.") Also not mentioned: Rep. Jan Shakowsky, a member of the fiscal commission who strongly disagrees with the Simpson-Bowles approach and who has produced her own dept-reduction plan.
Finally, it's worth noting that Montgomery's article kicks things off with a clear and unambiguous falsehood:
After an election dominated by vague demands for less debt and smaller government, the sacrifices necessary to achieve those goals are coming into sharp focus. Big cuts at the Pentagon. Higher taxes, including those on home ownership and health care. Smaller Social Security checks and higher Medicare premiums.
Smaller Social Security checks are not "necessary" to reduce the debt or the size of government. That is simply false, and the Post should retract the claim. (You needn't take my word for it: You can head on over to the New York Times' budget calculator and see for yourself. And that tool is skewed against progressive policies.)
[House GOP Leader John] Boehner's comments, made on the CBS program "Face the Nation," altered the landscape of the tax debate by suggesting that Republicans might not obstruct Democratic efforts to raise taxes on the top earners - a move advocated by Obama and many other Democrats as necessary to lowering the record deficit.
There are no "Democratic efforts to raise taxes on the top earners." Indeed, no such effort is necessary: If nothing is done, tax rates will increase as scheduled under laws enacted during the Bush administration. Many Democrats are trying to cut taxes for everyone who earns less than $200,000 a year, but they aren't making an "effort" to raise taxes on anyone. Republicans cannot obstruct Democratic efforts to raise taxes on the wealthy, because there is nothing to obstruct. They can, however, obstruct Democratic efforts to cut taxes for the middle class. But I'm sure the GOP is thrilled that their options are being spun this way by the Post.
Later in the same article:
As part of the small-business debate this week, the Senate is to return briefly to the contentious issue of health care. An amendment offered by Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) would repeal a portion of the new health-care law that threatens to impose onerous new tax requirements on business owners.
Why is a Washington Post news article -- not an opinion column -- describing provisions of the health care law as "onerous"?
Yesterday, the White House indicated its support for extending tax cuts for the overwhelming majority of Americans, while allowing the scheduled expiration of cuts for a tiny number of the very wealthiest -- the top two percent of earners.
So, of course, the Washington Post's article about the President's plan led with the expiration of tax cuts that directly affect almost nobody. The first three paragraphs of today's Post article headlined "Obama to unveil more stimulus, tax breaks for business" are not about more stimulus and tax breaks, as the headline suggests -- they are, instead, about President Obama's preference for allowing the Bush tax cuts for families with incomes above $250,000 a year to expire as scheduled.
The first mention of the President's desire to extend tax cuts for everyone else comes in a fourth-paragraph quote of a White House spokesperson. And the "more stimulus, tax breaks" mentioned in the Post headline? They don't appear until the sixth paragraph, and aren't detailed until the end of the article.
The Post has frequently behaved as though the only tax policies that matter are those that affect very nearly nobody, as I detailed last year.
A little later in today's Post article comes this largely pointless sentence:
[S]ome Democrats questioned whether voters would be able to distinguish between the new proposals - which the White House vows will not increase the nation's soaring budget deficit - and last year's $814 billion stimulus package, which voters tend to think increased deficits without improving the economy. [Emphasis added]
OK … but did last year's stimulus package increase deficits "without improving the economy"? Nope. According to the Congressional Budget Office, unemployment would be as much as 1.8 percentage points higher had the stimulus not happened. The Council of Economic Advisers says the stimulus raised GDP by at least 2.7 percent in the second quarter of 2010. And independent analysts agree: the stimulus improved the economy, though not as much as a larger stimulus would have done, and more is needed.
But the Post never mentioned that. It just "reported" that "voters tend to think" the stimulus "increased deficits without improving the economy." What, exactly, is the goal of a newspaper that tells readers only the falsehoods they already believe, omitting what is true? Whatever the goal, the effect is obvious: It reinforces false beliefs.
Here's the lede from today's Washington Post article about President Obama's budget:
The $3.8 trillion budget blueprint President Obama is submitting to Congress on Monday calls for billions of dollars in new spending to combat persistently high unemployment and bolster a battered middle class. But it also would slash funding for hundreds of programs and raise taxes on banks and the wealthy to help rein in soaring budget deficits.
To reduce deficits, he would impose new fees on some of the nation's largest banks and permit a range of tax cuts to expire for families earning more than $250,000 a year, in addition to freezing non-security spending for three years.
The budget includes $1.4 trillion in new taxes over the next decade, including the expiration of Bush administration tax breaks that benefit families making more than $250,000 a year.
Not once does the Post indicate that the "new taxes" and "raise[d] taxes" in the form of the expiration of the Bush tax breaks for families earning more than $250,000 a year are exactly what are provided for under current law -- a built-in feature of Bush's tax cut package. Portraying the decision to allow tax cuts to expire as scheduled as a tax increase -- or, worse, "new taxes" -- fundamentally skews tax policy debates in favor of conservatives, as I explained last year:
What makes all of this even more absurd is that the increase in the top tax rates probably shouldn't be considered a tax hike in the first place. Obama's tax rate proposal merely allows the Bush tax cuts to expire as they were designed. See, when the Republican Congress passed, and President Bush signed, the tax cuts in 2001, they decided not to make them permanent, scheduling them to expire in 2010. Obama's proposal simply allows that to happen for the top rates -- it makes no change to what is already going to happen under current law.
If the expiration, on schedule, of tax cuts that were always scheduled to expire is described as a policy of raising taxes, that makes a mockery of the entire tax policy debate of the past decade. It rigs tax debates in favor of Republicans, who find it easier to argue for tax cuts for the wealthy if they can argue that the cuts won't cost very much -- by making them "temporary" -- but who then get to argue that the scheduled expiration that they included in order to make the cuts look affordable would constitute a tax increase. The GOP gets to have it both ways, describing tax cuts as temporary when it helps them, and pretending they were intended to be permanent when it helps them. It's no great surprise Republicans want to have it both ways -- but that doesn't mean the media should go along.
Later in today's Washington Post article:
The new budget projects that the deficit will increase by $8.5 trillion over the next decade, a slight improvement over the $9 trillion, 10-year increase that the White House projected in August. Still, the deficit spending would drive borrowing from private sources to more than 68 percent of the economy by the end of next year, and to 77 percent of the economy by 2020.
I doubt many people flinched at the phrase "deficit spending" -- it has been a common element of news reports about the budget for years. But when was the last time you saw the phrase "deficit tax-cutting" in a news report? You have probably never seen it. It should be obvious that when the media employs a derisive short-hand phrase to describe spending during a time of deficits, but does not do so for tax cuts, that has a distorting effect on the public discourse.
Indeed, the Post carries the Republicans water, making their attacks on spending for them:
But Republicans are more likely to highlight the fact that a jobs bill would drive this year's budget deficit even higher than the record $1.4 trillion recorded in 2009.
Incredibly, the Post goes on to quote Republicans denouncing Obama's "fiscal discipline" and calling for further tax cuts -- without once indicating that those tax cuts would be "deficit tax cuts," or noting that they would open Republicans up to criticism for policies that would increase the deficit. The Washington Post apparently thinks only Democrats can be criticized for increasing the deficit -- and only through spending, not tax cuts.
A Washington Post article claimed that "[o]f the three candidates, budget analysts said [Sen. John] McCain has been most aggressive at identifying ways to reduce spending." While the article noted that "McCain's proposals come nowhere near generating the sums necessary to meet the costs," it did not note that, in addition to his proposals to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, those "costs" include the war in Iraq, for which, unlike Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, McCain does not support a timetable for withdrawal.