Off-the-Record Briefings: I Think Felix Salmon Misses the Issue

by: Brad DeLong

The lesson Felix draws is that off-the-record briefings are fine and on-the-record briefings may not be.

The lesson I draw from the incident Felix Salmon is thinking about is that off-the-record briefings are fine--if the people the senior government officials are talking to are people who understand the substantive policy issues and are not playing gotcha. If the people the senior government officials are talking to are people who either do not understand the substantive policy issues or are playing gotcha (or both), then off-the-record briefings are not fine at all.

And, of course, if the audience for the briefing is made up of people who understand the substantive policy issues and are not playing gotcha, then on-the-record briefings are fine too.

Felix Salmon (Why Treasury briefings are off the record):

Having a meeting with a Treasury official is interesting and worthwhile, although I admit that my mind did wander in parts, when the conversation got too political.... Nasiripour is reporting, for instance, that at this meeting a senior Treasury official “said that home prices will likely decline in the near future” and “argued that taxpayers should continue to prop up small banks due to their exposure to toxic assets”. I don’t recall either statement, but I was neither taking detailed notes nor recording the conversation. It would be great if we could simply go to the tape and report exactly what was said and who said it. But then the news cycle would glom onto the “X said Y” story, in a world where administration officials can get fired if they say the wrong thing. Putting the whole conversation on background makes it almost impossible to turn the briefing itself into a news event, and that in turn allows officials to speak without worry that their words will end up being used against them in the kind of fevered political-media frenzy which regularly appears out of nowhere and nothing in Washington...

But this misses the issue. The issue is that, after the meeting with senior Treasury officials (including Secretary Geithner) that Salmon says allowed officials to speak "without worry that their words will end up being used against them in the kind of fevered political-media frenzy which regularly appears out of nowhere and nothing in Washington," their words ended up being used against them in the kind of fevered political-media frenzy which regularly appears out of nowhere and nothing in Washington. For Mike Allen went back to his keyboard and wrote:

--ADMINISTRATION MINDMELD: The virtue of action on Social Security is that it demonstrates the ability to begin to affect the long-run deficits. Social Security isn't the biggest contributor to the problem -- that's still health-care costs. But ti could help a little bit, buy time, and strengthens the odds of a political consensus behind other spending cuts or tax increases. Most importantly, it would establish more CREDIBILITY with the MARKETS. The mood of the world at the moment (slightly excessive, from the administration's point of view) is that if you don't do anything with spending cuts, it doesn't get you credibility.

And he--apparently--published it in Politico on August 19, 2010. Tim Fernholz writes (The American Prospect):

Sure makes it seem like the administration wants to cut Social Security, doesn't it?

By chance, I was at the same deep-background briefing where Allen had his "mindmeld," and I have to say, I don't think he's got it right.... The official believed that the largest consensus was forming around an undefined plan to support the long-term solvency of Social Security and was discussing why that hypothetical plan might help bolster political will for other deficit-reduction ideas. The official would note that Social Security is already solvent for decades.

The most important omission from Allen's item is that the official concluded the conversation by noting that Social Security is not a generous benefit compared to other public pensions around the world and that cutting benefits, even years in advance, would be difficult to justify.... Allen doesn't mention that the official cited Paul Krugman when talking about Social Security's contributions to the deficit. Finally, the reason the administration official was interested in credibility before the markets is so the government could borrow more money for temporary fiscal stimulus....

It's hard to dispute Allen's interpretation without being able to post direct quotes, but hopefully this adds some much-needed context. At least, let it be a lesson to take these unsourced items with a shakerful of salt...