The Times Takes a Pass on Social Security Realities

One suggestion for propping up Social Security that’s bandied about by liberals today is, in addition to a general rise in taxes, complete opposition to the GOP’s familiar, and sensible, call to abolish the estate tax. You could make a cogent argument for such a measure, I suppose, by claiming that it affects such a tiny proportion of the country’s population, the very wealthy, and not look like a complete fool. However, as I’ve noted before, when an influential newspaper like the New York Times—not as powerful as even 10 years ago, but it takes time to completely demolish a monolith—editorializes about the need to pilfer money from a person’s heirs, it ought to disclose its own interests.

The business side of the Times keeps much of its financial interests private—who wouldn’t?—but anyone who believes that the company doesn’t have a battery of attorneys whose duty it is to find corporate tax loopholes and draw up extensive estate planning, so that no part of the Times empire has to be sold to meet tax obligations is either naive or just as hypocritical.

The Times is also decades behind the times when it broaches the topic of Bush’s call for a frank discussion of Social Security reform. On Feb. 6, the paper editorialized: “Mr. Bush is expending tremendous energy to sell his plan—daily impairing his own credibility and shredding whatever confidence remains in the country’s fiscal outlook. Members of Congress would do him—and their constituents—a favor by reining him in and moving on to more pressing matters.”

And what “pressing matters” would those be? Maybe a return to campaign finance “reform,” the hobbyhorse of the exiled Howell Raines which the paper covered as furiously in 2002 as cable tv dissects the trials of celebrity killers and perverts. Never mind that the national elections of 2004 shattered all fundraising records despite the successful McCain-Feingold legislation.

In any case, if one read only the Times—and there is, believe it or not, a sub-species that does just that—you’d think that unemployment was 20 percent rather than 5.2 percent, the Dow was crashing and toddlers were selling apples on the streets on Manhattan and Chicago.

As for Bush “impairing his credibility,” the Times braintrust is again refusing to acknowledge reality. No matter what your opinions are of the president, only the most foolish would fail to acknowledge that he’s currently at the zenith of his tenure in office, after not only winning reelection (despite the most partisan elite media attacks in recent memory), strengthening GOP control of Congress, and being vindicated by holding the Iraqi elections as scheduled (against the Times’ admonitions).

It remains to be seen how successful Bush is in his zeal to modernize Social Security—probably mixed results—but unlike past presidents, he’s made the issue the top domestic debate of the day. Time’s Joe Klein, writing in the current issue, acknowledged as much, and he’s hardly a Bush partisan. He said of the Democrats’ refusal to engage: “[Harry] Reid’s claim that George W. Bush would reduce Social Security benefits 40% was hogwash. The President has merely stated the obvious, that reductions will be necessary. Reid also made the absurd comparison between Bush’s very conservative investment-account proposal and Las Vegas gaming tables.”

That puts Klein in at least mild agreement with Newsweek (and Washington Post) columnist George Will, who wrote on the same topic this week. Will lashed out at Reid’s hyperbolic comment that Bush’s SS plan is like playing roulette in his home state of Nevada. Will goes on: “Roulette is a game without any element of skill. By comparing the investment of some Social Security funds in stocks and bonds to gambling on roulette, Reid is saying that the risks and rewards of America’s capital markets, which are the foundation of the nation’s economic rationality and prosperity, are as random as the caroms of the ball in a roulette wheel. This, from a national leader, is amazing.”

But not surprising. Current polls aren’t very encouraging for the prospect of Bush getting much of what he wants on Social Security reform, but that’ll probably change. Democratic comparisons of his effort to Hillary Clinton’s nationalized health care boondoggle in ‘93-‘94 don’t apply; the Clintons’ plan was initially very popular. In contrast, Bush is starting at almost zero, but given his superb political skills, I suspect that’ll change. The Washington Post’s editorial page editor Fred Hiatt is the latest to say, wait a minute, Bush might not be nuts after all. On Feb. 7, he wrote, in criticizing the Democrats funk, “In fact, though, Bush is offering younger voters something that seems quite appealing: a personal savings account that they will control, a 401(k) plan in every pot.”

It’s not likely the Times will soon follow suit, but as the year progresses, the paper could, one hopes, find itself marginalized on this issue, reduced to echoing the opinions of low-circulation, left-wing magazines.

One of the more obnoxious slogans of the 1960s was the ubiquitous “America, Love It or Leave It!”

It could be that I preferred “Draft Beer, not Students,” “Make Love, Not War” and “Clean for Gene” given my teenage predilections, but even so, this pre-Hannity catcall still seems the last resort of a simpleton. I thought Robert Redford was right on!—as long as we’re time traveling—a week ago when the wealthy environmentalist denied reports that he’d move to ancestral Ireland if Bush were reelected last fall. Redford said something to the effect that he was an American, loved the country and would rather stay engaged in the political debates of the day.

Not everyone shares the opinion that Redford is less despicable than Teddy Kennedy, Barbara Boxer, Barbra Streisand and Ward Churchill, for example, but I think he’s fairly benign. On Feb. 7, David Yeagley, writing for the conservative, linked Redford with free-spending, Nazi-analogy slap-happy George Soros, saying that the actor took $4.2 million from Soros three years ago to promote films dedicated to “social justice and social change.” With so many other self-righteous, financially independent celebrities clogging political culture, Redford doesn’t even make the Top 25.

On the other hand, it would be intellectually honest if the current Bush-bashing opinion-makers would recuse themselves from commenting on issues they know little about. One example is the large number of Beltway-based pundits, editors, television oracles and elected officials who bleat in unison about public education—in a figurative (at least in the media) payoff to the teachers’ union—while sending their own children to private schools. How can a bigshot senator or syndicated columnist mouth off, with any degree of conviction, about the inequity and danger of school vouchers and the integrity of a union that’s based on political clout rather than reading, writing and arithmetic, when at social gatherings they compare the merits of Exeter and Sidwell?

I’m a product of public education, which was decent a generation ago, but do send my own sons to private school not because it’s a lot of fun to pay enormous tuitions—both on the Upper East Side and now here in Baltimore—but for the hope they might actually learn something from a teacher who knows how to spell the names “Cicero” and “Eisenhower.”

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