By Conor Smyth
If there’s one thing the Washington Post doesn’t like about the debt ceiling deal—which expanded work requirements for food stamp recipients (FAIR.org, 6/9/23) and took a knife to social spending more broadly—it’s that it didn’t cut Social Security.
As the editorial board (6/1/23) lamented, following the passage of the debt ceiling bill in the House of Representatives:
Most of the projected roughly $1 trillion in savings over 10 years comes from proposed spending caps on a relatively small range of discretionary budget items, rather than structural change to the real drivers of debt and deficits: healthcare and retirement programs.
In other words, why are we doing these little tweaks when we should be screwing over seniors?
This is the message the Post has been promoting for the last few months. With a looming showdown over the debt ceiling, the paper owned by one of the world’s richest men saw an opportunity. While various commentators were pushing the Biden administration to attempt to side-step negotiations and unilaterally bypass the debt ceiling, the Post evidently thought to itself, why not take advantage of this situation to remind Congress that it needs to cut Social Security? ‘Cause, you know, the elderly are a real pain in the budget.
On March 9, the Post editorial board kicked off a new series with an article (3/9/23) headlined “The United States Has a Debt Problem. Biden’s Budget Won’t Solve It.”
The premise was suspect from the start: If the US does have a debt problem, it’s really hard to see it. This is how Mark Copelovitch, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, explained the situation a couple of years ago (emphasis in original):
Let’s assume for the moment that the CBO [Congressional Budget Office] projections are accurate. In that case, in 30 years, US debt will reach 195% of GDP. In other words, there is some possibility that the US debt level, three decades from now, will be less than that of Greece now and more than 50% of GDP below the level that Japan has sustained, with absolutely no difficulty, for the last decade. If these countries can sustain debt levels 50–150% higher than our current levels, then the question of whether we can do so has already been answered. Indeed, it does not even need to be asked.
Nevertheless, the premise that the federal government has a debt problem is so taken for granted in corporate media that the Post felt little need to defend its claim. Instead, it turned its attention to criticizing the shortcomings of Biden’s proposed budget. This plan would generate around $3 trillion in net savings over the next decade, primarily through higher taxes on the rich. In response, the Post’s wise council muttered in unison: Not enough! Their preferred savings would be closer to $8 trillion. And, the council announced, they would be gifting the readership with “the solutions…in an upcoming series of editorials.”
Sparing the super-rich
The Washington Post (3/16/23) proposes “fixing” Social Security in ways that won’t be painful at all to the very wealthy.
The first two pieces focused on the programs the board later faulted the debt ceiling bill for failing to cut: Social Security and Medicare.
For Social Security, the Post (3/16/23) outlined a plan to keep the program solvent for the next 75 years. According to data from the Congressional Budget Office, this could be fully accomplished by hiking taxes on high earners. Gradually removing the cap on payroll taxes, which currently prevents taxation of earnings over $160,200, would plug around 72% of the projected shortfall through 2096. And a tax on investment income would cover another 56% of the shortfall, meaning the two together would cover costs with money left over.
But why would Jeff Bezos’ paper argue for plugging the deficit through higher taxes on himself and his buddies? Instead, the Post editorial opted for some more modest tax increases—most amusingly, subjecting 90% (rather than the current 84%) of wages to payroll taxation, which would hike taxes somewhat on higher earners, but would mostly leave the wealthiest be.
Meanwhile, the Post was quite pleased to offer up some benefit cuts. The most impactful would be to slow benefit growth for the top half of earners (so hitting the top 50%—as of 2021, anyone with a wage over $37,586—with cuts, rather than more seriously targeting the rich). But two others would reduce spending substantially as well.
First, raising the retirement age—which is a misnomer, because what is being proposed is not changing the age at which you can retire; instead, you would be able to retire over the same range of ages, only with a lower benefits at each age (Extra!, 12/12). This is more accurately described as “cutting benefits.”
And, though the Post references gains in life expectancy in its advocacy for increasing the retirement age, life expectancy in the US has actually been falling even as the official age of retirement has been rising. In 2000, when the “full retirement age” was 65, people in the US lived an average of 76.8 years. Over the next 21 years, as that retirement age approached the target of 67 years, life expectancy dropped to 76.4 years. This hasn’t prompted calls in establishment media for lowering the retirement age, however.
Second, the Post would tie cost-of-living adjustments, which shield benefits from the effects of inflation, to a different measure of inflation, called chained-CPI (FAIR.org, 12/19/12). Using this measure would mean benefits would be increased more slowly over time, leading to cuts for all Social Security recipients, with the oldest recipients being hurt the most. This would harm not just seniors but the millions of disabled workers who rely on Social Security as well.
These cuts are, of course, completely unnecessary. But pushing Congress to inflict unnecessary hardship is a celebrated tradition at the Post (FAIR, 2/24/23).
Hands on Medicare
The Washington Post (3/23/23) calls for “modest sacrifice from beneficiaries”—and quietly rejects Biden’s proposed tax increase on income over $400,000 that would require a modest sacrifice from its owner.
The Post’s suggested reforms to Medicare are less objectionable, though the headline leaves something to be desired (3/23/23): “A Fiscally Responsible Government Cannot Keep Its Hands Off Medicare.”
The main cost savings come from reforming Medicare Advantage (the insurance industry carve-out within Medicare), cracking down on excess payments to hospitals, and applying an investment tax to a broader base. Some savings do come from increasing Medicare beneficiaries’ cost-sharing burden, but the added hardship here doesn’t come close to that of the cuts to Social Security benefits.
What’s notable is that the Post never once mentions Medicare for All in its discussion of containing healthcare costs, though transitioning to this sort of system would be much more effective at containing costs than anything the Post outlines. One study conducted by Yale epidemiologists “found that Medicare for All would save around 68,000 lives a year while reducing US healthcare spending by around 13%, or $450 billion a year.” If we’re talking about cutting costs, why’s that not in the discussion?
The best support is less support
Social Security and Medicare may have been at the top of the list of the Post’s targets. But the board didn’t stop there. Its next piece (4/3/23) took the bold step of calling for cuts to veterans’ disability benefits. As the board put it, “If we owe our veterans every support, we also owe them a measure of fiscal responsibility.” In other words, we owe our veterans every support, including less support.
Veterans weren’t too pleased with this editorial, with one writing in a letter to the editor (4/6/23):
Go ahead—tell the soldier who is missing both legs that it’s just too expensive to compensate him for his disability. Tell the Marine with burns over 60% of her body that her service-connected disability is hurting the national debt.
The next piece (5/4/23) called for reducing subsidies to wealthy farmers, not an unreasonable request, but not one with much of an impact on the national debt either. The Post cobbled together a little over $100 billion worth of savings in this piece, or about 1/72th of the $7.2 trillion in total savings it wants to see.
The board followed that up with an editorial (5/25/23) advocating cuts to the military budget, in welcome contrast to another major newspaper’s recent whining (Wall Street Journal, 6/2/23) about reducing it. Exactly how much the Post wants to cut is unclear, but the piece does seem to suggest savings in the range of several hundred billion dollars.
‘Looking in the wrong place
The Washington Post (5/31/23) says that “budget experts across the political spectrum” agree that we need to cut Social Security—citing a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute as its lone example.
In the final installment (5/31/23) of its series before the signing of the debt ceiling legislation, the Post expressed its frustrations with the shortcomings of the negotiations between Republicans and Democrats. Its first paragraph contained the core message:
The top expenses worsening the national debt in the years to come are the rising costs of Social Security, Medicare and interest. Unfortunately, President Biden and congressional leaders refuse even to discuss these key drivers.
As the Post opined further down, Social Security and Medicare are precisely the sort of programs “where the bulk of the change should occur.”
That doesn’t mean the Post sees no room for changes to other spending—it puts forward other ideas for cuts in this piece, including rescinding student debt forgiveness—but the board is clear on the point that this is not where the real meat is. The headline says it all: “Politicians Keep Looking in the Wrong Place to Fix the Debt Problem.”
This sort of reasoning—that growth in the national debt means we need to cut Social Security—doesn’t have any basis in hard economic truths. It’s the reflection of the pro-rich ideology of a paper owned by a billionaire. More than that, though, it’s a predictable outgrowth of the sort of rhetoric pushed by the media more broadly.
The New York Times, for instance, has repeatedly emphasized that Social Security and Medicare will be the major factors in federal debt going forward (FAIR.org, 5/17/23).
After legislators cemented a deal to raise the debt limit, the Times ran an article (6/2/23) with the headline “The Debt-Limit Deal Suggests Debt Will Keep Growing, Fast,” which reported, “Early in the talks, both parties ruled out changes to the two largest drivers of federal spending growth over the next decade: Social Security and Medicare.” Would it be at all surprising if a person read this piece and got the impression that spending on retirement benefits is out of control?
The Times at least has Paul Krugman (3/10/23) to point out that the rising costs of these programs can be addressed without cutting benefits. But at Bezos’ paper, calls for cuts are on full blast. Because if money can’t buy happiness, it can at least buy a media outlet dedicated to defending your wealth.