Slanting Social Security


Many people involved in the debate over Social Security's future worry that the 2005 trustees' report will be slanted in favor of privatization.

I don't expect to see books that are literally cooked: Stephen Goss, the agency's chief actuary, has an excellent reputation. But it's not out of the question. After all, in 2003 the chief actuary of Social Security's sister agency, which oversees Medicare, was told that he would be fired if he gave Congress accurate information about the cost of the Bush Medicare bill.

Even if the numbers aren't fabricated, however, it's a good bet that they will be presented in a way intended to make Social Security's financial outlook seem much bleaker than it really is.

Why should we expect a slanted report?

First, this administration has politicized analysis across the board, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Food and Drug Administration.

Second, the White House has been using taxpayers' money to sell its privatization plans in ways that would have been considered out of bounds for any previous administration. The Treasury Department has set up a "war room" to promote privatization; its first three hires were former aides in the Bush-Cheney campaign.

Third, Social Security officials have been playing a clearly partisan role. James Lockhart, the deputy commissioner, has become a regular fixture at pro-privatization rallies - and has been dispensing misinformation. Last week Mr. Lockhart echoed a misrepresentation by President Bush of a statement in last year's report, telling the audience that each year that there are no changes to the program costs "hundreds of billions."

A few weeks ago, Progress for America issued a press release describing Thomas Saving, one of the Social Security trustees, as an adviser and spokesman. This announcement drew some unwelcome attention; the organization now says it was incorrect to call Mr. Saving a spokesman.

But it's still extraordinary to have one of the Social Security trustees associated with a group that is "dedicated to a conservative issue agenda" and has been running ads in support of the Bush privatization plan. (You may have seen the ad that features Franklin Roosevelt; James Roosevelt Jr., F.D.R.'s grandson, wrote to Progress for America to demand that the ad be withdrawn.)

Finally, the Social Security Administration has already begun to slant the information it provides to the public in ways that exaggerate the program's problems. Even the recorded message callers get when the agency puts them on hold disparages Social Security's future prospects.

House Democrats have made a striking comparison between the 2000 and 2004 versions of a public information booklet titled "The Future of Social Security."

The 2000 version was hardly complacent about the future: it presented a chart showing that the trust fund would be exhausted in 2037, and warned that at that point, "Social Security will be able to pay only 72 percent of benefits ... unless changes are made."

By 2004, evidence that the productivity boom that began in the mid-1990's was continuing had led to more optimistic projections: the trust fund was expected to last until 2042. But the caption on the corresponding chart in the 2004 booklet reads, "Current Social Security system is unsustainable in the long run." That's simply false - we can argue about whether it's a good idea to maintain the present system, but there's no question that the basic form of the system could be maintained indefinitely through some combination of tax increases and/or benefit cuts.

What efforts to slant the presentation should we expect in this year's report? A recent op-ed article by Mr. Saving, in which he insists that we face a $74 trillion crisis - 20 times the funding gap estimated in the 2004 trustees' report - offers some hints.

Look for an attempt to conflate Social Security with Medicare. Look for an emphasis on "infinite horizon" estimates, which the American Academy of Actuaries, in a letter to trustees, said "provide little if any useful information about the program's long-range finances and indeed are likely to mislead anyone lacking technical expertise ... into believing that the program is in far worse financial condition than is actually indicated."

The trustees' report has always been a very useful document, providing a wealth of information. But this year, more than ever before, it will have to be read with an eye to the ways it will try to mislead.

Originally published in The New York Times, 3.11.05