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Got my hands on the White House background briefing about the Social Security plan. The reporters in attendance obviously don't understand what's going on:

Senior Official: The first year that we envision that people would have a complete investment control of their personal accounts -- 2009. . . . We would have people born in 1965 and earlier participating in the accounts in those years. . . . In the second year of implementation, the opportunity to invest in the personal accounts would be extended to those born in 1978 and earlier. And then in the third year of implementation, all eligible workers would be able to participate in personal accounts if they chose. . . . The size of the personal accounts would be limited to 4 percent of a worker's wages from their payroll taxes. But there would be a cap placed on the accounts in the first year -- contributions to the accounts of $1,000. Now, each year that cap thereafter would rise in increments of $100 on top of the natural wage growth that drives the growth in payroll taxes. And what that means is that over time, more and more of the work force would be able to contribute the full 4 percent of their wages to the personal accounts. . . . Our estimate of the total amount of transition financing for the accounts, according to the schedule that I've outlined before, is about $664 billion through the end of the budget window of 2015. If you assume that -- debt service effects on top of that, that would be another $90 billion. . . .

REPORTER: You talked about the $664 billion for the near-term costs. There's been a lot of speculation in advance that it would be something like $2 trillion. Talk a little bit more about that. How do you square that?

SENIOR OFFICIAL: : I don't want to say too much about it. Obviously, the $2 trillion number is not a number that was ever generated by us or by the Social Security actuaries, or any of the other nonpartisan scoring agencies. There were different assumptions that went into that number, and they reflected, I think, the thinking of other people beyond the scoring agencies.
The reason the senior official's estimate is so low is simply that he's only calculating the costs up to 2015 and his initiative is going to be slowly phased in starting until 2009. The transition costs will bump upwards in 2010 and 2011 as larger classes of people begin to move their payroll taxes out of the Social Security system and as the cap is gradually raised from $1,000 or 4 percent of income (whichever is less) to a straight-up 4 percent of income. This is, admittedly, somewhat complicated, but there's no sense in sending a reporter to a background briefing about a policy initiative the White House is trying to sell unless the reporter is capable of understanding the relevant issues. Someone, at least, had the balls to ask the briefer what kind of benefit cuts this proposal is supposed to entail, prompting the briefer to punt.

February 2, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

Matthew, there may be no reportorial sense in sending someone to cover an issue that he or she doesn't really know much about, but it's a rare reporter who is hired for subject expertise.

Reporters are hired for the ability to write fast and more or less accurately by the standard conventions of journalism while on deadline pressure.

Posted by: howard | Feb 2, 2005 6:53:34 PM

I don't think Matthew understands a reporter's job. The reporter isn't there to argue with the official; the reporter is there to ask the question and report what the official says. If the offical gives a "wrong" or "incomplete" answer, then it is Matthew's job to tell us why.

Posted by: Al | Feb 2, 2005 7:07:19 PM

So, in other words, the transition cost is $600 billion in the first 6 years of the plan, during which 2 of those years include only a small group of people who are allowed to start up the private accounts.

So, just using those numbers, we're well over the $1 trillion in transition costs over the first ten years that everyone has been predicting.

And as we all know, that $1 trillion in initial transition costs are just the tip of the iceberg.

So, once you remove the "short budget spin", this is exactly what we were anticipating, both in terms of costs and spin.

Posted by: Balta | Feb 2, 2005 7:12:55 PM

Al-
I agree a reporter shouldn't "argue" with officials, but a reporter's job is to ask officials questions and then ask follow-up questions if the official gives an "incomplete" answer that doesn't add up. If the reporter simply writes down what an official says without understanding what it means, he won't properly translate it into layman's terms and his reader will be informed of nothing. I think this is the point Matthew was trying to make.

(Of course, if you're a reporter for Talon News, your job is to stand up during press conferences when called on and chastise all the real reporters in the room for not accepting the President's every utterance as divine...

Posted by: Brad Reed | Feb 2, 2005 8:19:01 PM

Al - sucking ass across the blogosphere since 2001

Posted by: Al Sucks | Feb 2, 2005 8:19:36 PM

Really the terms "reporter" and "journalist" are quaint, outmoded, so Geneva Convention pre-2001 old hat.

Let's get with the 21st century and call them by their proper title.

Transcriptionists.

Posted by: Dan THE MAN Okrent | Feb 2, 2005 8:35:53 PM

Further response to Al:

As Brad Reed already acknowledged, a reporter's job isn't to argue with officials. But it's not to be a transcriptionist either, which is what you'd make of one.

And Matt does indeed understand the reporter's job, which is to ask good questions, to ask penetrating questions, questions whose answers will either illuminate and advance the discussion, or help make it clear that the interviewee is trying to keep that from happening.

This requires knowledge of the subject matter. But that's not in conflict with being able to write fast and meet deadlines. These days, anyone with just a single talent isn't going to go very far, unless it's one hell of a talent. Being able to write isn't enough; there are lots of people who can write. The newspapers can, and should, be hiring people who can not only write, but have at least a knowledgeable layman's expertise in a particular field, such as biology, economics, or law.

Having a good background in the field, and being able to ask good questions on one's feet, is how a reporter can get to the heart of the matter without turning anything into an argument. The arguer has to raise his voice because he can't think clearly. What we out here in the blogsphere want is reporters who can.

Posted by: RT | Feb 2, 2005 9:52:20 PM

RT: I agree that newspapers should hire reporters with some expertise in one subject or another. But I disagree that they *can*. Reporters with a ready-made background in economics, say, are hard to find; once on the job a reporter has to cover so many subjects that he or she will have a tough time developing a great deal of highly specialized knowledge. Most reporters -- that is, those at papers smaller than the NYT or WP -- have to be generalists.

Posted by: editer | Feb 3, 2005 2:32:14 AM

Why is it that major initiatives always start the year AFTER the president's term is up? What, the WH can't shoot for a start in 2006 or 2007? Chickenhawks...

Posted by: J. | Feb 3, 2005 8:25:37 AM

I suspect several of you are missing Al's use of sarcasm.

Posted by: Ken Houghton | Feb 3, 2005 8:39:20 AM

I don't know who the reporter in the briefing was, but it seems to me that the NYTimes got it exactly correct:

"WHEN WOULD IT TAKE EFFECT? The plan would phase in over three years. In 2009, it would be available only to those born in 1965 and earlier; in 2010, to those born in 1978 and earlier; in 2011, it would be available to everyone born after 1949.

"WHAT WOULD IT COST? The plan is estimated to cost more than $754 billion through 2015 and much more after that."

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/03/national/03sbox.html?oref=login

That says everything that Matthew would want it to say, no?

Posted by: Al | Feb 3, 2005 10:41:54 AM

I've got to give the TImes credit for this part of their story, even if its nowhere near the top:

The proposal would amount to one of the biggest changes in government social policy in history. But just as remarkable is what was not addressed.

The president did not say what benefit reductions he favored. The official who briefed reporters spoke only of unspecified "benefit offsets" and did not say what the cuts would entail or how large they would be.

The president did not address the cost to the government of paying full benefits to retirees for decades while tax money was being diverted into private accounts. Nor did he say how much this would increase the annual budget deficit.

There was no mention of what would happen to workers who become disabled, currently 16 percent of Social Security beneficiaries, or the minor children of workers who die, now 7 percent of beneficiaries. People who stop working or die young would obviously have much less in their retirement accounts than those who worked until retirement age. Nor was there discussion of whether spouses would have access to the private accounts or what would happen in the case of divorce.

No one in the administration mentioned how workers who retired when the market was in a slump would be protected financially.

There was no discussion of exceptions to no-withdrawal rule - for someone with large medical expenses associated with a terminal illness, for example.

All these difficult questions, some of them possibly deal breakers, were left for negotiations with Congress.

Posted by: SqueakyRat | Feb 3, 2005 10:54:28 AM

hi matt, i'm a producer at cnbc for larry kudlow, we would like to invite you on our program, interested? if so, what days are you available this week? where are you located? i can arrange for a convenient studio... thanks, christine

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