Imagine there was a private pension fund that consistently lost
money for workers, giving them a negative rate of return on their
investment when they retired. The media would, without question,
inform workers of this fund's terrible record and tell them of
better places to put their money.
But when the pension fund is the government's Social Security
system, the reporting is quite different. When a federal commission
came out this month with recommendations for reforming Social
Security, the networks were more concerned with what reforms might
mean for Social Security than for workers.
ABC's Michel McQueen, on the January 6 World News Tonight,
explained that the 13 council members split into three factions. One
would keep Social Security as is and invest 40 percent in the stock
market; one would allow workers to invest up to half of the money
now collected in payroll taxes in the stock market themselves; and a
third would move the retirement age to 67 and allow workers to
invest with less money and fewer choices.
McQueen ran a soundbite from Gloria Johnson of the advisory
council, who opposes allowing workers to invest their own money:
"Most workers and their families want little more than a safe
pension that they can depend on without too much worry. So, we
should throw them into the pit and let them scrap with the wolves?"
McQueen didn't quote anyone taking issue with Johnson's
interpretation of workers' desires.
Ray Brady, on the same night's CBS Evening News, was
most interested in the political dynamics of the story: "Wall Street
quietly has been pouring millions of dollars into the fight to put
Social Security money into the stock market, and the unions are
readying a massive campaign to stop it, so the fight to save Social
Security may take years." NBC Nightly News didn't even do a
full story on the commission's report, opting for an anchor read.
These networks missed an important angle to the Social Security
story: Is even a solvent Social Security system, as currently
designed, a good bargain for workers? Many economists -- none of
whom were interviewed by the networks the day the panel came out
with recommendations -- think it isn't. "Critics of privatization of
Social Security place too much emphasis on the financial health of
Social Security," says Arthur Hall of the Tax Foundation. "There's
another side of the coin: Social Security is a terrible investment
plan for retiring baby boomers, and it will only get worse if taxes
are raised or benefits are cut."
According to Hall, for many years recipients received far more
from Social Security than they paid into the program. But workers
who financed those generous benefits will receive less, Hall says,
because of reforms that have increased payroll taxes and reduced
benefits to keep the system solvent. Hall calculates that most baby
boomers will receive a negative rate of return on the payroll taxes
they and their employers pay, and could garner far better returns
through private annuities. (See table.)
Reporters should hold Social Security to the same standard they
would a private program and ask: Is it really good for workers?