As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Blog Fights!

Seems to me there's been a spasm of blog fights lately. First "rational progressive" Nate Silver and "Marxist" David Sirota (I think Silver came out of that one looking really bad, BTW, and he desperately needs a special election to talk about or something). Now Jane Hamsher and Ezra Klein.

Jane has been dogged in her efforts to uncover what's going on at this "fiscal responsibility summit" next week, which may be headlined by billionaire hedge fund manager Pete Peterson. Now fortunately, House and Senate leadership have shut down the trojan horse designed to force an up or down vote on "entitlement reform" that could possibly lead to Social Security benefit cuts. But Jane noticed an interview with Peter Orszag that put "modest" benefit cuts back on the table:

Orszag’s long-running project – something that has made him the Left’s favorite Cabinet member – has been replacing talk of an “entitlement crisis” with his argument that Social Security requires only modest tax hikes and benefit cuts, while Medicare and Medicaid have much more dramatic fiscal woes.

“Social Security faces an actuarial deficit over the next 75-100 years. In the past I’ve resisted the term ‘crisis’ to describe that kind of situation,” he said. “This is not quantitatively as important as getting healthcare done.”

In steps Ezra to say that the important part of the sentence is that there is no entitlement crisis, that is, there is no thing called "entitlements" including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid that all have the same funding problem. In fact, what Orszag has focused on all along at the CBO and elsewhere is that Medicare and Medicaid spending have the ability to destroy the federal budget, and only comprehensive health care reform can stop that. Social Security should not be in that conversation.

And you know what? They're both right! Orszag has been far more focused on health care spending as it relates to the budget, and he's absolutely right that the fiscally responsible thing to do is reform it to bring down costs (which coincidentally, would be done be eliminating the inefficiencies in delivery, namely the insurance industry). But the Diamond-Orszag plan clearly adds benefit cuts to Social Security, and Ezra's attempt to talk past that doesn't deny that reality, either. Orszag may want to end the fearmongering on Social Security by taking "entitlement reform" off the table, but he wants to do that through cutting. And that's not a liberal position. In fact, benefits ought to be increased given the collapse of the private pension system.

Jane goes after Ezra on this one.

Orszag's not running for prom king here so whether he's "one of the good guys" is not really relevant. He has been presenting his plan to cut Social Security benefits as part of the White House's efforts on "fiscal responsibility," according to people who have directly participated in those presentations. I granted anonymity in this instance in accordance with the rules followed by the New York Times, because I trusted where the information was coming from, I thought it was important to get out, and there was a valid reason (not wanting to jeopardize relationships with the administration) for requesting it.

Now Orszag confirms that reporting by doing an interview where he says he thinks Social Security requires benefit cuts. Ezra says my conclusion is "an effort to read the tea leaves to suggest that the Obama administration has a secret plan to cut Social Security benefits." I don't know what the "secret" part is.

He then goes on to tell us that what Orszag really means is that he has no intention to cut Social Security, what he really wants to do is deal with the broad question of Medicare and Medicaid as part of healthcare reform. Fair enough. But Ezra wrote a post this morning quoting anonymous administration officials on the subject wherein he granted them anonymity for no legitimate journalistic reason I can tell, because they did nothing other than give administration spin. Nobody legitimately speaking on behalf of the administration should fear retribution for doing so. Ezra transcribed this exchange with no pushback or critical scrutiny, something Glenn Greenwald has been taking Mark Ambinder to task for. If Ezra's got great sources in the administration, why is he venturing guesses about what Orszag intends? Why doesn't he go and ask them, point blank -- is cutting Social Security benefits off the table? [...]

It may be that in the wake of the horrified response Orszag got from Congressional leaders at the very thought that "fixing" Social Security has been abandoned -- these things seem to be changing by the minute. But if Ezra has valuable sources within the administration willing to speak to him about what the White House intends, there are a lot of people right now who would like to know. He should be using them to find out solid information on that front rather than float anonymous spin and then speculate about the meaning.

There are two things in conflict here - an effort to decouple Social Security with government health care spending to delegitimize the smears about Social Security, and a desire to cut benefits to put it on a path to stability (even though that's not required and an increase in the spending cap would be all that's necessary). Both of these people have enough sources inside the White House that they could get to the bottom of it. So, work the phones.

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