Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler does not understand how Social Security works. At all.
Nor do her editors.
Nor do the editors of many of the newspapers that rely on the Associated Press.
This is depressing.
Here’s what Pickler wrote in her report Wednesday regarding John Kerry’s campaign visit to Henderson, Nev.:
Also, Bush does not support privatization of Social Security for today’s seniors. He wants to give younger workers the option of putting part of their payroll tax into personal retirement accounts, giving them a chance to make a higher return on that investment in return for smaller Social Security benefits.
(The paragraph before this one vaguely cites “Bush’s campaign” and “the White House,” so it’s possible here that Pickler intended this graf also as a statement of their position. The way it is written, though, it’s difficult to know where the Bush campaign’s statement ends and Pickler’s begins. I’m not sure she knows either.)
Pickler seems to think of Social Security as a federally run Christmas Club. Or like a series of federally mandated IRAs — one for each citizen — that the government runs on our behalf.
In her scheme, your Social Security number functions like an account number. Your payroll taxes are deposited into your own personal Social Security account, from which you will be paid benefits when you retire.
Thus it is possible — in this imaginary scheme — to take a portion of younger workers’ payroll taxes and instead of depositing it into this federally run account, to allow those workers to deposit this portion in some other, “higher return” federally run account. Such a scheme would be neither social nor secure, but that’s not the point here. The point is that this isn’t how Social Security works.
The payroll taxes of younger workers do not go into “retirement accounts” that will someday provide the benefits for those younger workers. The payroll taxes of younger workers go to pay current benefits to those Pickler calls “today’s seniors.”* The younger workers, when they get older and become tomorrow’s seniors, will in turn collect benefits paid for by the payroll taxes of the younger workers of the future.**
Bush’s plan to “give younger workers the option of putting part of their payroll tax into personal retirement accounts” therefore has a direct impact on the benefits of today’s seniors. Another way — a more honest way — of describing this plan is to say that the president wants to take some of the benefits currently being paid to today’s seniors and give them instead to younger workers who will then invest them in private accounts, seeking high returns.
The newspaper I work for ran this story — which is a point against us. But we cut the section on Social Security on the grounds that it was garbled and asinine — which is a point in our favor.
Let’s see how some of the other papers did:
The Chicago Sun-Times leaves the Picklerized description of Social Security intact. Two big thumbs down for the editors there.
The editors at The Houston Chronicle don’t know how Social Security works either. Houston — we have a big problem.
Every citizen of Michigan has a Social Security number, and I’m sure many of them understand how the system works. But the editors of the newspapers served by MichiganNews.com don’t.
The editors of The San Francisco Chronicle would probably explain that they just provide raw wire stories on their Web site. (Just because we published it doesn’t mean we read it.)
Have a pulse and a rudimentary grasp of the English language, but no idea how American government works? You can get a job as an editor at Maine’s Kennebec Journal.
We’re not talking about a complicated subject here — something like the precise meaning of “margin of error” in a given poll. And we’re not talking about something arcane that doesn’t affect the lives of anyone who reads the newspaper. This is Social Security — it affects the lives of everyone who reads the newspaper. It would be nice if editors — or reporters like Pickler — had some idea of what they were talking about.
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* I would be very surprised if there isn’t, somewhere, a publication named “Today’s Seniors.”
** This is how Social Security was designed to function, and basically how it still operates. Since 1983, however, in anticipation of the eventual retirement of the Baby Boom generation, wage earners have been paying a higher-than-usual payroll tax intended to create a Social Security surplus that will help to pay the benefits for the larger-than-usual boomer generation upon their retirement. This makes the system, or part of it at least, slightly resemble the kind of scheme Pickler imagines. Or it might if the surplus were actually being set aside and preserved for future retirees instead of being used to fund the Bush tax cuts. But that’s another story.