How is Krugman like an ostrich?

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on July 26, 2002

Let me count the ways. He's ornery. He'll likely to kick you in the kneecaps if he gets riled. He has a tendency to stick his head in the sand when it comes to the fact that Social Security isn't viable in perpetuity the way it is currently structured.

In his latest New York Times piece, Krugman deviates from the thoughtful columns of days past (OK, Tuesday), and moves back into attack bird mode.

[S]ince the early months of 2000, the Nasdaq has fallen about 75 percent, the broader S.&P. 500 more than 40 percent. These aren't mere paper losses; they translate into disappointment and even hardship for millions of Americans. Now more than ever we need institutions that provide a safety net for the middle class.

Safety net for the middle class? Social Security isn't a safety net for the middle class. It's a safety net for the poor. It's a social program, as I am repeatedly reminded.

Yet George W. Bush still wants to party like it's 1999. On Wednesday he insisted that he continued to favor partially privatizing Social Security.

Isn't Krugman hip?

Bear in mind that ordinary Americans are already more vulnerable to stock market fluctuations than ever before. Twenty years ago most workers had "defined benefit" pension plans: their employers promised them a certain amount per year. During the long bull market, however, such plans were largely replaced with 401(k)'s ? "defined contribution" plans whose payoff depends on the market. This sounded great when stocks were rising. But now many will find either that they can't retire, or that they will have to get by with much less than they expected.

I've got money in a 401(k) -- like many people in America today -- so I've got an interest in this issue. I'm also not stupid (no matter how much Jeff Hauser wishes that to be the case).

I've heard around the newsroom the wails of people saying: "I'm never going to be able to retire now." Poppycock. Most of these people are in their 50s, own their own homes and are management types. Now, this doesn't make them rich -- they work for a newspaper -- but they're definitely not needy.

If you're an investor, you've got to use some common sense. If you're within 5-10 years of retirement and you've got your 401(k) money in an aggressive stock fund, then you're not too bright. I know of no company that doesn't have some option in their 401(k) fund that is mainly government bonds or even a money market account.

Younger people, like myself, are not panicking. Retirement is decades away. The reason that so many people have money in the market is, over time their money grows. Over the past couple of years the market has fallen, but it will go up again. We'd been spoiled during the dot com boom -- expecting the market to go up at an astronomic rate quarter after quarter. Anyone who expected that to continue was naive -- or stupid.

For some, Social Security will be all that's left.

Mr. Bush first proposed privatizing Social Security back when people still believed that stocks only go up. Even then his proposal made no sense; as I've explained before, it was based on the claim that 2-1=4, that you can divert the payroll taxes of younger workers into personal accounts and still pay promised benefits to older workers. But now even the nonsensical promise that individual accounts would earn stock market returns looks pretty unappealing. So why does he keep pushing the idea?

I've addressed the Krugman and his math problem before. I'm going to go out on a limb and make a prediction: Over the next 10 years the stock market will provide a better return on investment than Social Security. Am I really going out on a limb? Nope. The stock market has outperformed Social Security in every decade since WWII.

I'll also answer Krugman's question. Bush keeps pushing the idea because Social Security is broken.

One reason is ideology: hard-line conservatives are determined to build a bridge back to the 1920's. Another is Mr. Bush's infallibility complex: to back off on privatization would be to admit, at least implicitly, to a mistake -- and this administration never, ever does that.

Bridge? 1920s? Give me a break.

As I've pointed out before, every administration, every politician, every columnist is loathe to admit making a mistake. I'm still not sure that Krugman has admitted that his puff piece for Enron was a mistake. It took President Clinton about six years to admit that his tax increase was a mistake. Bush hasn't even been in office two years.

But there may be a third reason. Ask yourself: Who would benefit directly from the creation of "personal accounts" under Social Security?

Those personal accounts won't be like personal stock portfolios. The Social Security Administration can't and won't become a stockbroker for 130 million clients, most of them with quite small accounts. Instead it's likely that a privatization scheme would require individuals to invest with one of a handful of designated private investment funds.

That would mean enormous commissions for the managers of those funds. And those who would be likely to benefit showed their appreciation, in advance: During the 2000 election, according to, campaign contributors in the two categories labeled "securities and investment" and "miscellaneous finance" (basically individual wheeler-dealers) gave Mr. Bush almost six times as much as they gave Al Gore.

Heck, I'm the first to admit that I don't know what form personal accounts should take. I'd be satisfied if we could put that money in government bonds. Yes, I know that they're currently held in government bonds. But those are the government's government bonds. If I die at age 64, I don't get to pass any of that hard-earned money onto my heirs. These government bonds would be in my name. That's an improvement to the current system -- especially for blacks -- who have a shorter life expectancy.

Bush got more money from Wall Street than Al Gore did. Is that really a surprise? Al Gore got more money from trial lawyers than Bush did. What does that tell us about Al Gore?

Here, too, Mr. Bush's past is prologue. I reported in an earlier column the story of Utimco, the University of Texas fund that, while Mr. Bush was governor and the current secretary of commerce, Donald Evans, headed the U.T. regents, placed more than $1 billion with private funds, many with close business or political ties to Mr. Bush himself. Among the beneficiaries were the Wyly brothers, who later financed a crucial smear campaign against John McCain. ("Bush reveals his poisonous colors" was the headline of a piece about that campaign, written by the online pundit Andrew Sullivan.)

Would Gore's past be prologue too? Krugman sounds so naive. Scroll down and you'll see a rebuttal to Krugmans Utimco crusade.

Let's draw a similar guilt by association for the Democrats. Gore got a lot of money from the NAACP. The NAACP ran probably the dirtiest attack ad of the 2000 presidential campaign -- suggesting that Bush was complicit in the vicious murder of James Byrd. If Gore was president, would Krugman be drawing a similar line?

Could America's retirement savings really be used to reward the administration's friends? Ask the teachers of Texas. In one of many odd deals during Mr. Bush's time as governor, the Texas teachers' retirement system sold several buildings without open bids, taking a $70 million loss, to a company controlled by Richard Rainwater, a prime mover behind Mr. Bush's rise to wealth.

I don't know the specifics of this case, but that won't stop me from commenting -- because I do know a little about Texas politics -- thanks to the Democrats. Remember again, that the Democrats control the Texas legislature. Remember the attacks on Bush during the campaign that, constitutionally, Texas' chief executive had less power than most other governors, therefore Bush couldn't really be responsible for the good things that happened in Texas? Now Krugman would have us believe that Bush could manage all this on his own, without any help from any Democrats in the legislature.

I'll try to research this issue further later, but I'm skeptical.

In an Aug. 16, 1998, article in The Houston Chronicle -- which should be required reading for anyone trying to understand the Bush administration -- the reporter, R. G. Ratcliffe, matter-of-factly summarized this and many other unusual deals thus: "A pattern emerges: When a Bush is in power, Bush's business associates benefit."

I can't lockate Ratcliffe's article anywhere online. In fact, typing the quote into google brings up only left-wing hit sites. Of course, when Clinton was in office, none of his friends benefited. Does the White House Travel Office ring a bell? How about Charlie Trie, the Arkansas restaurantier?

Of course, personal Social Security accounts would have to be managed by nationally reputable institutions. Mr. Bush couldn't give the business to his old Texas cronies ? could he?

When a politician won't let go of a proposal that, by any normal calculation, should be completely off the table, you have to wonder.

Krugman sincerely believes that Bush just wants to steal grandma's money. That's the only explanation for this bizarre claim that Bush would be able to set up a system of personal accounts to benefit his friends -- I can think of 535 individuals who will guarantee that won't happen -- because all of them will be trying to rig the system ti benefit their friends.

I don't pretend that Bush's motives are always pure. My contention for months has been that all politicians -- on both sides of the aisle -- are beholden to special, but different, interests. Why Krugman gets so much space here is because he refuses to acknowledge that simple fact.


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July 2002



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