WASHINGTON -- Thomas Sowell recently remarked, "There are still people in the mainstream media who profess bewilderment that they are accused of being biased." I suspect that USA Today reporter William M. Welch would fit that description. For yesterday he had a humdinger of a hit job against Social Security reform.
First up was Welch's "statement of fact" that Bush and his surrogates aren't warning you of the fine print about personal accounts:
President Bush is selling his idea to transform Social Security with private investment accounts as part of a new "ownership society" for Americans. The accounts, Vice President Cheney says, would be "a retirement fund they control themselves and can call their own."
But the reality would produce a lot less individual control than Bush and Cheney suggest.
Yet barely a month ago Bush was talking about just that reality:
"You can't take [money in personal accounts] to the race track and hope to really increase the returns. It's not there for the lottery," Bush said at an economic conference promoting his domestic proposals, including Social Security, his leading legislative issue for next year….
"There will be reasonable guidelines that already exist in other thrift programs that will enable people to have choice about where they invest their own money, but they're not going to be able to do it in a frivolous fashion," Bush said.
Funny, but I only had to put "Bush," "Social Security" and "Lottery" into Google to find that article -- I didn't even have to use Lexis/Nexis! I wonder why the reporter didn't mention Bush's previous statements? Could it be that it is easier to discredit Social Security reform if you can portray Bush as not being fully honest?
Welch next displays his liberal bias with his use of modifiers:
Major proposals, including those from the president's own commission, to revamp Social Security with private investment accounts include provisions that place big limits on how much money individuals can invest, where it can be invested, what they can do with it when they retire and how much they can pass on to heirs. [Italics added].
Not just limits, mind you, but BIG LIMITS! I wonder if an article in the mainstream media ever described the regulations in, say, the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation as containing "big limits" for businesses? I took that question out of the rhetorical realm and ran those terms through Lexis/Nexis. It informed me that, "No documents were found for your search."
The Welch article also displays its bias by comparing the proposed reforms to an ideal, that of a system in which you would be able to do just about anything with your personal account, even investing in Zimbabwean yak futures:
One of the commission's plans sets a limit of $1,000 a year, which Graham would raise to $1,300. The plans would require that investors choose from among three to five conservative funds, to prevent the accounts from being ravaged by administrative fees and high-risk investments. Only after accounts grew in size -- to $10,000 under Graham's plan -- could investors move outside a federally sponsored investment system. Individuals could change their investment choices just once a year.
Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La., chairman of the Social Security subcommittee, acknowledges that there would be more limits on the accounts than Bush's rhetoric has suggested.
"These are not totally private accounts that are separate from Social Security," McCrery says.
(I wonder, did Representative McCrery actually "acknowledge" that Bush's rhetoric doesn't tell the full story, or is that Welch's spin on his remarks? I can't know for sure, but I'll bet it was the latter.)
What's most troubling about that passage is nowhere does it mention how much freedom we have under the current Social Security system. Effectively, none. Even if reform limits me to only putting $1,000 of my payroll taxes annually in a personal account and I have to wait until it accrues to $10,000 before I can invest it in mutual funds outside the three-to-five conservative funds, that's still a lot more than I can do with my payroll taxes at present. Isn't the relevant comparison how much freedom we'd have with reform versus how much we have with the current system? It makes no sense to only compare reform to an "ideal system" -- unless your goal is to make reform seem less attractive.
And, indeed, that is Welch's purpose as can be gleaned by reading the rest of the article. Nearly half of it is devoted to hyping potential benefit cuts. What better way to put reform proponents in a bad light?