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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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Tuesday, October 10, 2000

Volume 8, Number 20

No Post-Debate Scrutiny of Goreís Social Security Claims

The media rightly donít like it when police engage in so-called "racial profiling" ó randomly hassling people because they match some pre-conceived stereotype. But thereís some evidence that when it comes to presidential debates, the network truth cops engage in their own version of profiling, combing through the claims of conservative politicians while paying less notice to liberal assertions that probably "sound right" to their ears.

After the vice presidential debate on October 5, Lisa Myers, captain of NBCís "Truth Squad," gave Republican candidate Dick Cheney a roughing up for his claim that "Fifty million American taxpayers out there get no advantages at all out of the Gore tax proposal, whereas under the Bush plan, everybody who pays taxes will, in fact, get tax relief."

Myers admitted that it was unclear how many American taxpayers (30 million? 50 million?) were shut out by the Gore plan, but said "Cheney was wrong when he says Bush cuts taxes for everyone who pays taxes. In fact, millions of low-income Americans who pay payroll taxes, but don't earn enough to owe federal income taxes, get no help from Bush."

Myers was technically right but, itís a minor point. Both Bush and Gore have proposed adjustments to the federal income tax code: Bush offering across-the-board rate reductions; Gore offering a potpourri of credits for various classes of taxpayers. While Cheney failed to specify that the focus of his comments was the income tax (he should have said, "everybody who pays income taxes will, in fact, get tax relief"), it is doubtful that many citizens were misled.

Contrast that with a claim that Vice President Gore made during the presidential debate that was held two days earlier. Moderator Jim Lehrer told him that, "many experts, including Federal Reserve Chairman Greenspan, Vice President Gore, say that it will be impossible for either of you, essentially, to keep the system viable on its own during the coming baby boomer retirement onslaught without either reducing benefits or increasing taxes. Do you disagree?"

"I do disagree," Gore responded, "because if we can keep our prosperity going, if we can continue balancing the budget and paying down the debt, then the strong economy keeps generating surpluses. And hereís what I would do, hereís my plan: I will keep Social Security in a lockbox, and that pays down the national debt and the interest savings I would put right back into Social Security. That extends the life of Social Security for 55 years."

Denying that the Social Security system requires reforms more fundamental than shuffling interest payments into a "lockbox" if it is to be viable half a century from now is far more important than whether references to "taxes" means income taxes or all federal taxes. Before the campaign started, network reporters themselves knew reform was necessary. As correspondent Jerry Bowen explained on the CBS Evening News on December 8, 1998: "Itís a problem of fewer and fewer workers paying into the system as the countryís 76 million baby boomers move into retirement."

Additionally, claiming that surpluses could both be spent and saved at the same time is even more egregious. "If you take the Social Security surplus each year and use it to pay down the national debt, youíre not exactly keeping Social Security funds in a lockbox," explained Peter Ferrara, a Social Security expert at George Mason University. No network reporter pounced on Goreís comments following the first presidential debate, however.

All year, in fact, the Vice Presidentís Social Security proposals havenít gotten much scrutiny from the media, partly because theyíve been presented as offering the least change from the status quo. But given the demographic shifts that are inevitable as the 21st century rolls along, that may actually make it the more radical alternative. As Ferrara wrote in an October 6 essay for the Cato Institute, the Gore prescription "would just transfer several trillion in general revenues into Social Security to cover its financing gaps. This is effectively a multitrillion-dollar income tax increase to bail out the program, above what income taxes would otherwise be."

There arenít a lot of issues that can credibly claim to be more important than the long-term future of Social Security, and the networks have all taken their measure of George Bushís plan to let workers use a portion of their payroll taxes to begin building private savings accounts. But with the presidential election just four weeks away, the networks have yet to provide a comparable examination Al Goreís plans, and the campaign clock continues to tick down the seconds until Election Day.

ó Rich Noyes


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