Krugman Flails Wildly, Misses

It goes without saying that Paul Krugman’s latest column is a hysterical attack on the Bush administration. Krugman has written nothing else for years. Today’s subject is Social Security reform. Krugman’s language is, as always, over the top; he says that President Bush “misrepresent[ed] his goals” and “repeatedly lied about the current system.” Bush uttered various “falsehoods,” while “the administration politicized the Social Security Administration and used taxpayer money to promote a partisan agenda.” This is, of course, typical, since “the administration sells its policies by misrepresenting its goals, lying about the facts and abusing its control of government agencies.”
Wow. One problem with a 750 word column is that when you use up 500 words with invective, there isn’t much left for argument. And, typically, Krugman offers very little in the way of argument or evidence. The centerpiece of his column is an attack on Social Security commissioner Jo Anne Barnhart, who wrote an op-ed last week in the Orlando Sentinel. Barnhart’s column is about as inoffensive a treatment of the subject as you’ll find; here is her conclusion:

The Social Security program is largely a pay-as-you-go system — with today’s workers paying for today’s beneficiaries. This system has worked well over the years — especially when there was a relatively large number of workers to support each individual receiving benefits. But today’s demographics are working against us.
Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents can feel confident about the promise of a secure future. Their benefits are secure and will be paid.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for my teenage son and his friends. I believe Social Security’s 70th anniversary is the perfect opportunity for us to signal to younger generations of Americans that we, as a society, are committed to strengthening this important program — for them.
In today’s rapidly developing world, it’s no surprise that government programs also will need to adjust to our changing circumstances.
Under President Bush’s leadership, this issue is being discussed on Capitol Hill and in living rooms across the country. Looking ahead, the financing problems facing Social Security, coupled with the program’s complexity and scope, will be challenging to address. Reflecting back, our nation has a proud history of grappling with difficult issues. And we do it best when we work together. I believe Social Security — a program that touches the lives of almost every American — deserves nothing less.

In Krugman’s twisted world, this mild exposition is a tissue of lies, misprepresentations, and abuse of power. Krugman writes:

Last week Jo Anne Barnhart, the commissioner of Social Security, published an op-ed article claiming that Social Security as we know it was designed for a society in which people didn’t live long enough to collect a lot of benefits.

But wait! Barnhart didn’t say any such thing. Krugman is just making it up! Read Ms. Barnhart’s article with care, and see whether you can find any trace of a claim that “Social Security as we know it was designed for a society in which people didn’t live long enough to collect a lot of benefits.” There is none.
Having set up this extravagant straw man, Krugman proceeds to knock it down:

Now, it turns out that an article on the Social Security Administration’s Web site, “Life Expectancy for Social Security,” specifically rejects the idea the Social Security was originally “designed in such a way that few people would collect the benefits,” and the related idea that the system faces problems from “a supposed dramatic increase in life expectancy in recent years.”
And the current number of older Americans as a share of the population is just about what the founders of Social Security expected. The 1934 report of F.D.R.’s Commission on Economic Security, which laid the groundwork for the Social Security Act, projected that 12.7 percent of Americans would be 65 or older by the year 2000. The actual number was 12.4 percent.

Those figures are interesting, but they don’t quite address what Ms. Barnhart wrote, which was this:

The number of older Americans living now is greater than anyone could have imagined in 1935. Then, only 7.5 million people were age 65 or older. Today, approximately 36 million, or roughly one in eight people, are older Americans.

What Barnhart wrote was true. The 1934 Committee on Economic Security projected that by 2000 there would be a little over 19 million Americans over 65, just over one-half of the actual number. So Barnhart was right.
But that isn’t the real problem with Krugman’s attack. The real problem is that he simply ignores Barnhart’s point, which was not about today’s elderly population. Rather, the concern she expressed (like President Bush and other members of his administration) was for what will happen in the years to come, when the baby boomers retire and there are only around two workers for each retiree:

These numbers are going to continue to grow even more rapidly in the coming decades. In less than three years, America’s 78 million baby boomers will begin to reach retirement age. By the middle of this century, about one of every five Americans will be 65 or older.

This is why Barnhart concludes that the program needs to be reformed for the sake of younger workers. Note how unfair Krugman’s attack on Barnhart is: he triumphantly declares that currently 12.4% of Americans are over 65, while in 1935 the projected percentage was 12.7. But that doesn’t address Barnhart’s point, which is about the future. Go back and look at the 1934 Commission’s table projecting the number and percentage of retirees through the year 2000. The Commission projected the percentage of those over 65 to level off between 12 and 13 percent. Barnhart’s point is exactly correct: the prospect of an America where 20% of the population is retired, and there are only two workers per retiree, was never contemplated when the Social Security act was adopted.
There are many arguments, pro and con, relating to Social Security reform. But Krugman makes none of them. On this topic, as on so many others, he is so twisted by his obsessive hatred of President Bush that he cannot state facts accurately or argue fairly. Thus, he can only mislead those who take him seriously. If there are any such people left.

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