Beat the Press

Dean Baker's commentary on economic reporting


Libeling Social Security

One of the disadvantages of having a public Social Security system is that people are free to make all sorts of untrue statements about it without facing any consequences. For example, an oped in the Washington Post this morning described the Social Security trust fund as “largely an accounting fiction.” This statement is of course absurd. The trust fund consists of U.S. government bonds, which the government is obligated to repay under the law. There is no sense whatsoever in which it can accurately be described as fictional.

Because Social Security is an agency of the government, the author is free to impugn the soundness of Social Security's financial situation with impunity, and the Post need not fear any consequences from printing this libel. On the other hand, if the author had made similarly untrue claims about the financial status of General Electric or Microsoft, the paper would be quickly greeted with an angry call from some honcho corporate lawyer. The correction would already be up on the website and ready to run in tomorrow’s paper. Maybe privatizing Social Security wouldn’t be a bad idea.


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