Echoing the Republican National Committee, which denounced a recent American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) poll (subscription-only link) showing that the "appeal of Social Security private accounts drops when [the] consequences are known," FOX News host Bill O'Reilly and his guest, Heritage Foundation senior fellow William W. Beach, cast the AARP as a dishonest "left-wing organization" and attacked the poll. But Beach's complaints about the poll -- that its questions gave respondents false information and that the questions were poorly structured -- were misleading and baseless.
O'Reilly began the "Follow-Up" segment of the January 27 edition of FOX News' The O'Reilly Factor by suggesting that any left-leaning advocacy organization is necessarily dishonest, asking, "Is the AARP an honest organization or bent on a left-wing agenda?" Then he introduced Beach, who harshly criticized the AARP poll, though it was unclear why Beach was qualified to assess the poll's reliability since he is an economist by training, not a pollster. Indeed, his chief credential seemed to be that he is a staunch advocate of President Bush's proposal to create private investment accounts in Social Security.
Beach labeled the poll "a classic push poll" and went further:
If I poll you and say, "How would you like to own a home?" you'd probably say yes. And most people would. Then, if I do a follow up and I say, "But would you like to own this home if you knew it was going to burn down tomorrow?" Well, you'd give a completely different answer.
But the point of the poll was precisely to determine if the public favors creating private accounts in Social Security even when they are informed about additional -- and potentially less attractive -- elements of the plan. Indeed, it's ironic that an advocate of private accounts would compare these elements to a catastrophic fire.
Beach claimed that when the poll asked about the concept of private retirement accounts "most people" expressed support. He explained: "They've said, 'Would you support private retirement accounts?' And most people in their poll said 'yes.'" In fact, the poll's first question on private accounts, which explains only that "[s]ome people propose allowing workers to invest some of their Social Security payroll taxes in the stock market through individual retirement accounts" and that "[f]or the average worker, this portion would amount to about $750 per year that they could invest," shows that only 43 percent of respondents favor such a proposal.
Beach's main argument against the poll was that its follow-up questions, which asked respondents who initially favored private accounts if they would still favor such a plan if they knew of certain other elements of the plan, allegedly misinformed voters about what such a proposal entails. He complained that one of these so-called "consequence" statements, which asked if respondents would favor private accounts "[i]f it meant creating a new government agency to administer the program," was "completely off the wall." He insisted, "No one has suggested a new government agency." But Bush's own Social Security commission, formed in 2001 to explore ways of reforming the system, proposed a private accounts plan in which "account contributions would be managed by a central authority" (emphasis added) charged with deciding on the limited slate of investments from which personal account holders could choose and keeping track of money in the accounts (p. 178).
Similarly, the poll's other consequence statements are all accurate descriptions of what Bush is expected to propose. The 43 percent minority that initially favored private accounts shrunk substantially when the poll asked respondents whether they would still support the plan under the following circumstances:
- If you would not be permitted to withdraw any of the money you invested until you retire;
- If it meant you would receive a lower guaranteed Social Security benefit when you retire;
- If the ups and downs of the stock market meant you might receive less money throughout your retirement than if you had kept all your money in Social Security;
- If it meant each worker would have to pay the management fees associated with these accounts; and
- If diversion of some Social Security payroll taxes into private accounts meant that it would cost an extra 1 trillion dollars out of other tax money to help pay the Social Security benefits of current retirees.
As for the first statement, Bush's own Social Security commission advised that "Pre-retirement access to funds in personal accounts should not be allowed" (p. 55). As for the second, the commission's "Model 2," which is widely expected to form the basis for Bush's proposal, also includes a cut in guaranteed benefits for all beneficiaries and an additional cut for those who choose personal accounts, as Media Matters for America has noted. As for the third, the vulnerability of personal accounts on "the ups and downs of the stock market" is, of course, inherent in the concept. As for the fourth, the commission report makes clear that "administrative fees" would be part of any private accounts plan (p. 44). Finally, the commission report estimates the transition costs associated with "Model 2" at $0.9 trillion (p. 92).
Beach offered a second unfounded argument against the credibility of the poll. He complained that the poll asked respondents about the general concept of letting individuals invest a portion of their payroll taxes in the stock market and only later presented the consequences. Beach insisted that an honest poll would include such additional considerations in a single question, not a series of follow-up questions that respondents answer separately. But he never explained why his proposed method would make the poll more reliable.
Beach did accurately note that the poll surveyed only Americans who are at least 30 years old, so it doesn't represent the views of the entire public.
O'Reilly declined to challenge Beach's criticisms of the poll and repeated his false assertion that Bush's plan is thoroughly optional and that all beneficiaries will be free to maintain their guaranteed benefit as currently promised. -- G.W.