There are few areas where the corruption of the national media is more apparent than in its treatment of Social Security. Most of the elite media have made it clear in both their opinion and news pages that they want to see benefits cut. In keeping with this position they highlight the views of political figures who push cuts to the program, treating them as responsible, while those who oppose cuts are ignored or mocked.
This pattern of coverage was clearly on display last weekend. Both the New York Times and Washington Post decided to ignore the Senate’s passage by voice vote of the Sanders Amendment. This was an amendment to the budget put forward by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders that puts the Senate on record as opposing the switch to the chained CPI as the basis for the annual Social Security cost-of-living adjustment (COLA).
Switching the basis for the COLA to the chained CPI is one of the most beloved policies of the Washington elite. The idea is that it would reduce scheduled benefits for retirees by 0.3 percentage points annually. This amounts to a cut of 3 percent after 10 years, 6 percent after 20 years, and 9 percent after 30 years.
If a typical retiree lives to collect benefits for 20 years the average cut in benefits over their retirement ends up being around 3 percent. This is a much bigger hit to the typical retiree, who relies on Social Security for more than two-thirds of their income, than the tax increases put into law this year were to the typical rich person.
But the magic of the chained CPI is that everyone gets to run around saying that they are not really cutting benefits, they are just “adjusting” the cost of living formula. And the media do their best to assist the politicians pushing these cuts. They almost always uses euphemisms like “changing” or “restructuring” Social Security, trying to conceal the simple reality that politicians are pushing cuts to the program.
It is also worth noting, in contrast to the claims of the pretentious elites, there is no, as in zero, nada, none, basis for the claim that the chained CPI would give a more accurate measure of the rate of inflation experienced by seniors. Research by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that the rate of inflation seen by seniors is actually higher than the CPI that provides the basis for the current COLA.
While this research is far from conclusive, the answer for those interested in accuracy would be to have the BLS construct a full CPI for seniors. But the Washington elites don’t give a damn about accuracy, which is why not one of them has called for a full elderly CPI. The elite want cuts to Social Security; Accuracy is just something they talk about to children and reporters for major media outlets.
This is why the vote on the Sanders amendment should have been newsworthy. Here was an opportunity for all the senators who have explicitly or implicitly supported the adoption of the chained CPI to step up and say why the switch to the chained CPI was a good and necessary measure. However, not one senator was prepared to stand up and argue the case. Not one member of the Senate wanted to go on record in support of this cut to Social Security.
With all the Republicans who pronounce endlessly on the need to cut entitlement spending, there was not a single Republican senator who was prepared to say that switching the Social Security COLA to a chained CPI was a good idea. And even though President Obama has repeatedly stated as clearly as he could that he supported the switch to a chained CPI, there was not one Democratic senator who was prepared to stand up and speak in solidarity with the president.
This is a clear case of the elite lining up together against the bases of both political parties. If the chained CPI were put to a vote of the people it would lose in a landslide. But the elites are prepared to use their control of the political process and the media to do everything they can to push this cut forward.
The battle over the chained CPI provides a great case study in the state of American democracy. We will get to see whether the rich and powerful are able to attack a program that is vital to the security of almost all working people, even when the vast majority in both parties stand against them.
Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. He also has a blog, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues.