Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Larry Summers comments on Social Security reform, New York Times comments on Larry Summers

President Obama's chief economic advisor, National Economic Council director Larry Summers, spoke yesterday to the annual Retirement Research Consortium conference sponsored by the SSA and held in Washington. In his comments, the New York Times
reports, Summers touched on prospects for Social Security reform:

"Over the course of the president's term, the president will, I am confident, address Social Security," Mr. Summers said in a response to a question at a conference of the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Mr. Summers said the top priority in overhauling Social Security would be to make sure that people could rely on their benefits. President Bush tried and failed to overhaul Social Security, in part by letting people divert some of their payroll taxes into individual retirement accounts and by scaling back the growth in future benefits.

Mr. Summers seemed intent on signaling that Mr. Obama's idea of "reform" would be to strengthen the program rather than to partly privatize it.

While these remarks are welcome, I object a bit to the New York Times characterization of the Obama administration's likely approach to Social Security: "strengthen the program rather than … partly privatize it."

Strengthening the program is obviously in the eye of the beholder – one might say that reforms that buttressed the program's finances, targeted its resources better on people in need, added an element of funding to boost the system's pay-as-you-go financial base, and gave individuals the opportunity to diversify their retirement savings – would strengthen it. But obviously that's not what Times reported Edmund Andrews is thinking: he's thinking, rightly I'm sure, that Obama would focus on raising taxes to fix Social Security. But if you want to convey accurate, unbiased information to readers, why not just say that: "Mr. Obama's idea of 'reform' would be to raise taxes rather than partly privatize it." Raising taxes is what would actually happen; the Times should leave it to readers to decide whether doing so would be positive or negative.

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