Brian Williams Thinks Raising the Debt Ceiling Means Increasing BUDGET APPROPRIATIONS. O Peter Jennings, Walter Cronkite, and Edward R. Murrow, Where Art Thou? — [UPDATED]
I watched NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams last night. Big Mistake.
Because now I’m really confused. I was pretty darn sure until then that “raising the debt ceiling” meant allowing the Treasury Department to pay financial obligations already incurred, such as interest on bonds, Medicare payments, and contract obligations, and to allow continued payments for ongoing financial obligations such as Social Security payments, Veterans’ benefits, and salary payments to federal employees, some of whose jobs are sort of important. (Think: air traffic controllers.) I had thought that because I had followed the recurring-crisis news reports about it since 2011, when the first of the crises began. And because Obama had actually explained it in his Jan. 14 press conference.
But now, well, I think I might have misunderstood, because after Williams reported that the Senate yesterday had approved the House bill to “suspend” the debt ceiling through May 19, he added, shaking his head in disapproval, something like: “This is Washington’s version of kicking the can down the road. Our debt is now more than a trillion dollars.”
I suggest that next time Williams is onboard one of NBC’s corporate jets, he might read, say, Paul Krugman’s column in today’s New York Times. It doesn’t explain the difference between the debt ceiling statute and budget-appropriations statutes, so Williams will continue to conflate the two until he digs deeper and reads earlier Krugman columns or other mainstream-media articles that did that. But it does (yet again)–to borrow a phrase from Paul Ryan in his Meet the Press interview aired last Sunday–debate the efficacy of Keynesian economics, and whether anti-Keynesian “austerity” measures reduce or instead increase national debt in real terms and, more important (although Williams apparently doesn’t know this), decrease or instead increase debt relative to GDP.
But if he is going to wait until he’s up there in the air in that Learjet to read the Krugman column, I hope the trip occurs before May 20.
UPDATE: Additional recommended reading for Brian Williams: Joe Scarborough, Paul Krugman and the economist-pundit divide on debt and deficits, Neil Irwin, Washington Post, yesterday.
Scarborough, though, at least knows what the debt ceiling law is, and that it isn’t the same as budget-appropriations legislation. He does, after all, work for MSNBC, not, say, NBC News.
This may seem like nit picking, and I may be wrong in my understanding, but….
“..allowing the Treasury Department to pay financial obligations already incurred, such as interest on bonds, Medicare payments, and contract obligations, and to allow continued payments for ongoing financial obligations such as Social Security payments,”
Yes, the Treasury pays interest on bonds and pays the costs of contracts, etc. However, Treasury pays Social Security benefits only indirectly through its administration of the Trust Fund. It is the Trust Fund that is the source of revenue that makes those Social Security payments. The Treasury is directly responsible to make payments to the Trust Fund to cover interest due on the Treausry notes assigned to the Social Security Trust Fund, but that would be included in your first reference to “financial obligations such as interest on bonds.”
Yes, it is a subtle difference, but all the difference in the world of US government budgets. Payments by the Treasury Dept to Social Security are no different than are payments by the Treasury to any entity, you, me, China, or Goldman, Sachs. The subtlty of that difference is what allows the anti-Social Security liars to get away with so much of their lying.
Not sure why that would remove Social Security payments from default for failure of Congress to raise the debt ceiling, Jack.
The term Social Security payments is too imprecise. There are payment of benefits which are not a part of the general budget deficit. They are paid from the Trust Fund assets. Then there is debt service payment to the Trust Fund which is a part of the general budget, may be to the deficit, but are debt service payments which when paid imply solvency of the debtor. See how easily the rhetoric sorrounding Social Security, deficit and debt can be manipulated to convince others of any point of view regardless of a points validity..
Then Social Security payments ARE different than payments by the Treasury to any entity, you, me, China, or Goldman, Sachs. They WOULD be exempt from failure to raise the debt ceiling. Right? Until the Trust fund runs dry.
Again, be careful of the use of the term Social Security payments. There are payments of benefits which come from the Trust Fund account and there is payment of debt service (interest earned from the Special Treasuries which make up much of the assets of the Turst Fund) to the Trust Fund account. It is, I think, the payment of benefits from the Trust Fund assets that are unrelated to the debt ceiling since they are paid from assets on hand. The payment of debt service to the Trust Fund by the Treasury are, I believe, little different from the debt service owed to those other entities. I am not sure how such debt service relates to the debt ceiling, but I would sure like to hear McConnell and Boehner squeal when they stop receiving susch interest payments for T-Bills they may hold personally or, better yet, when their salaries are not paid once the debt ceiling is reached. I wonder how our Congressional representatives would be talking regarding debt ceiling if they understood that their paychecks are subject to debt ceiling limitations on Treasury spending.
I think the only effect the debt ceiling or other “shut down the government” has on SS is that the actual running of the Social Security Agency depends on money appropriated by Congress.
But the kicker is that that money actually comes from Social Security taxes and not from the “budget”, so it is a case of the “government” not paying benefits due (and paid for) because it won’t allow the people who distribute the money to come to work… even though their salaries are paid for out of the money that SS collects, not the “government.”
[and yes I know that SS is part of the government, but i am trying to make a distinction between that part which was created “off budget” and that part which is on budget… it is an important distinction.
I have lost track of the extend to which SS benefits currently depend on being repaid by the government the money the government borrowed from SS funds… which seems to be what you are talking about. more detail would help.
Well, I sort of suspect that Brian Williams doesn’t know many people who actually depend financially on receiving their Social Security checks each month, on time. So I’m sure he’ll continue to think we shouldn’t kick the can down the road by raising the debt ceiling.
Oh, but he does fly, though. So he should consider using his nightly forum to urge Congress to pass a bill paying separately for air traffic controllers.
Yes Beverly, the government actually spends lots of money in a very useful manner that even a talking head might understand. And “useful manner” doesn’t include corpoorate welfare or wars of adventure promoted by chicken hawks. I’d be more impressed by the big O. if he would direct the Treasury to rank order bill payments so as to assure that the waste is over the debt ceiling. And last paid shold be the salaries of all elected members of Congress.
So, is he really an idiot or does he just play one on the tv?
I hadn’t thought of Williams as a lightweight before, which is one reason I was so shocked that he apparently doesn’t know what “the debt ceiling” actually means, SW. I rarely watch the network evening news shows anymore, but when I do, It’s his show that I watch. The CBS and ABC ones seem to have made a concerted effort to play to conservatives, I guess because the audience for these shows these days is so largely white elderly folks.
There was a good Opinionator piece in the NYT yesterday by a Philosophy prof named Jason Stanley, called “Philosopher Kings and Fiscal Cliffs,” about how the misleading language used to discuss these things–which actually are specific facts–leads to dangerously false analogies and misunderstandings by the public, fed by deliberate misrepresentations by pols. (The article engages in a misrepresentation of sorts, itself, by equating Repub misrepresentations with Dem ones, but, oh, well.) But Williams isn’t any old member of the general public. How can the main news anchor for NBC Nightly News not know what the debt ceiling is, and think it’s something that it’s not?
Williams’ Wikipedia bio is surprisingly sparse about his professional background, but my guess is that he’s never been a hard-news reporter on anything really complicated. He apparently came to prominence by covering Hurricane Katrina for NBC News–hardly a complicated news event requiring knowledge beyond what the general public has. But it just really surprises me that he apparently doesn’t even read the NYT or the Washington Post on major, complex stories such as the debt ceiling thing.
Oh, well. This isn’t the era of Walter Cronkite. So, what else is new?
I watched his show again last night, and near the end he did a wonderful story on something dear to my heart: the Puppy Bowl. The dogs all are rescues, up for adoption. Again, nothing complicated. But, at least in my opinion, important.
The NYT piece is at http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/31/philosopher-kings-and-fiscal-cliffs/.
Oh, dear. Jack, I think the very last thing that Obama should do is what the Repubs have been suggesting he do: Direct the Treasury to rank bill payments in importance and order that the ones he selects as important be paid, and not pay members of Congress their salaries. Setting aside whether these things would, as a technological matter, even be possible, and as a legal matter, constitutional, the Dems should NOT follow the lead of the Repubs in their incessant childishness and gimmickry.
I can’t deny your being right on the matter, but my instinct is that when you’re playing in the school yard with children then you have to play by their lack of rules. I often wonder if LBJ’s ability to get his social agenda through the Congress was based upon that more hard ball approach. Something like, “You want that military base in your district to stay open? Then vote the damn bill in.”