late night thoughts listening to lloyd blankfein

I like Scott Pelley and what he’s done with the CBS Evening News, but I got the same queasy feeling watching him interview Lloyd Blankfein, the chairman of Goldman Sachs, tonight that I do when almost any sideline reporter interviews almost any football/basketball/baseball player or, for that matter, when CNBC’s anchors talk to almost anybody on Wall Street.

The problem is either the journalist (television person or ‘presenter’ might be more appropriate) genuinely agrees with the person being interviewed, or he or she is simply overwhelmed,  or both. Even an otherwise solid reporter like a Pelley seems unable to face down the conventional wisdom, when it is presented by a man in an exquisite suit.

So you get this:

Blankfein: “You’re going to have to undoubtedly do something to lower peoples’ expectations, the entitlements, and what people think that they’re going to get because they’re not going to get it.”

Pelley: “Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid?”

Blankfein: “Some things, and you know, you can go back and look at the history of these things and Social Security wasn’t devised to be a system that supported you for a 30 year retirement after a 25 year career. So there’ll be certain things, the retirement age will have to be changed, maybe some of the benefits have to be affected, maybe some of the inflation adjustments have to be revised, but in general entitlements have to be slowed down and contained.”

This, or something very close to it, is almost all the public is hearing. Why, I wonder, can’t a reporter ask a Blankfein, a Ryan, a whoever you think represents the adult view of the financial crisis the following question: “Has Social Security contributed to the current deficit? Medicaid? Other than the drug benefit, Medicare? Why then, should the beneficiaries of those programs have to pay?” This strikes me as the most fundamental question, and literally everyone in power is finessing it. I’m not conspiracy minded, but it seems like there’s at least a tacit understanding to not go there, to gloss over the unpleasant history of how we got to this point or to downplay its significance.

(For the record, the deficit is mostly two wars on the credit card, the Bush-era tax cuts, the loss in revenue because of the financial collapse, the Medicare drug benefit and…way down the list…the Obama stimulus.)

Another question worth asking, one that Krugman has chewed over the last few days: “Why do you think the life expectancy of Social Security recipients has gone up a lot? And isn’t it a fact that the people who rely on Social Security the most have barely gained in life expectancy at all? And isn’t it true that in many cases you’re talking about raising the retirement age for people doing hard physical labor?”

(Presumably to demonstrate his Olympian objectivity, Blankfein did allow that there will have to be “some” additional revenue raised, which will have to come “disproportionately” from rich people. It felt like the sop it was.)

There is a deep injustice being masked by the salesmanship of people like Blankfein, Simpson, Bowles, a salesmanship that plays on our fear of being irresponsible. They would have you believe they’re describing the hard facts of life, when it would be more accurate – far more accurate – to say they’re offering a point of view, nothing more, and perhaps a lot less.


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