HOW TO TALK: Cutting-and-pasting confusion hooray!


Part 4—Do we know how to talk pork to the people: Lori Montgomery omitted few points in her long, alarmist screed concerning Social Security. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/9/11.

A long list of standard talking-points have disinformed the American people about this program down through the years. Eventually, the Post reporter made her way to the grand-daddy of them all:
MONTGOMERY (10/30/11): "The federal government is saying, 'We're in the red right now and we're having trouble paying back Social Security, so we'd like to cut Social Security benefits,’ ” Certner said. "But that's not the deal."

Others argue that the deal has long since been abandoned and that the trust fund has become a fiction of accounting. "We can debate until the cows come home whether there's really a trust fund or not," said Olivia Mitchell, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School who served on a 2001 presidential commission to study Social Security. "But the fact is, there's no money available to pay for those benefits. And the system is short on cash now.”
Where in the world do they find these “professors?” Professor Mitchell ought to driven deep into the forest for making the ridiculous claim that “the fact is, there's no money available to pay for those benefits.” (We’re assuming she was quoted fairly.) But before Montgomery recorded that statement, she channeled the piece of disinformation which towers above all the rest.

“The trust fund is just an accounting fiction!” This persuasive, disinformative claim has given birth to so many others! They include “The money isn’t there—we’ve already spent it!” and that talking-point’s near-relation, “The trust fund is just a pile of worthless IOUs!”

The trust fund is just an accounting fiction! This talking-point and its bastard offspring have served to mislead the American public for the past thirty years. Almost every key piece of disinformation about the Social Security program has involved the status of the trust fund, not the basic functioning of the program itself.

But so what! During that thirty-year period, we liberals have fiddled and diddled and toyed with ourselves, napping pleasurably in the woods while praising ourselves for our obvious brilliance. As we’ve burbled, snored and self-deluded, these unrebutted talking-points have created a world in which reams of voters are convinced that the program simply “won’t be there for them.”

These voters have been disinformed through the efforts of two major sectors. They have been disinformed in these two major ways:

1) Through aggressive attempts to disinform driven by major plutocrat sectors. And:

2) Through the uselessness of our “liberal” elites, the laziest, most worthless mother-frackers who ever drew breath on the planet.

What’s the reaction from someone like Digby? People like Digby react to this history by mocking the dumbness of “those people,” while praising us for our wondrous morals and our vast intellectual insight. Consider the way this tribal true believer reacted to Montgomery’s gruesome report in the Post.

Digby did what true believers will always do in this era—she reacted by cutting-and-pasting the words of her tribe’s highest priests. “I'll let Dean Baker do the honors,” she unhelpfully said. And then, she cut-and-pasted a nine-paragraph chunk of Baker’s lengthy blog post about Montgomery's groaner.

As we noted yesterday, Baker is one of the very few liberal heroes in this area. Quite literally, he wrote the book about the fraudulence of the Social Security “crisis.” That said, Baker is an actual expert on economics—and he tends to be a bit abstruse, as experts often are. But Digby made no attempt to simplify or explain what he said—something like that would be hard work, and it would take real skill. Instead, she simply block-quoted the bulk of his piece, helpfully telling us this: “Read on. It gets worse.”

She then block-quoted Krugman too. Krugman had written this:
KRUGMAN (10/30/11): In legal terms, the program is funded not just by today’s payroll taxes, but by accumulated past surpluses—the trust fund. If there’s a year when payroll receipts fall short of benefits, but there are still trillions of dollars in the trust fund, what happens is, precisely, nothing—the program has the funds it needs to operate, without need for any Congressional action.

Alternatively, you can think about Social Security as just part of the federal budget. But in that case, it’s just part of the federal budget; it doesn’t have either surpluses or deficits, no more than the defense budget.

Both views are valid, depending on what questions you’re trying to answer.

What you can’t do is insist that the trust fund is meaningless, because SS is just part of the budget, then claim that some crisis arises when receipts fall short of payments, because SS is a standalone program. Yet that’s exactly what the WaPo claims.
Krugman’s explanation wasn’t “wrong.” It was something worse—it was useless. Krugman has been our side’s greatest hero in the past dozen years, but this is one area where he hasn’t done a good job talking pork to the people. As Krugman noted in his post, he has offered this explanation “repeatedly in the past.” Unfortunately, every time he does so, he offers a chain of reasoning so abstruse that it simply can’t be used to explain this situation to average voters.

Do you think Digby could explain those four paragraphs? Crackers, please!

Paul Krugman hasn't yet been able to make this topic easy-to-follow. To state the obvious, this isn’t a moral failure on his part—it’s a failure of communication. Krugman has explained a lot of things well. Social Security isn’t among them.

Here at THE HOWLER, we’ve come to loathe the moral tone of Digby’s site—the denigration of those people, the broken-souled focus on telling ourselves that we folk over here in our tribe are always morally and intellectually right. In fact, we in our tribe aren’t always right; beyond that, we are among the dumbest, most self-impressed people who ever drew breath on the planet. We've had our asses kicked for thirty years by a transparent disinformation machine—by low-grade tribunes like Sean Hannity. In response, people like Digby cut-and-paste incoherent rebuttals and tell us “those people” are racists. This provides our side with soothing therapy—and it doesn’t help progressive interests at all.

Without question, Krugman and Baker have been two of our side’s most admirable players. But they haven’t done a good job making this critical program understandable for average voters.

The other side has misled those voters for decades; we’ve snored in the woods and we’ve fiddled and diddled. Our side simply isn’t real smart—and their side has just kept taking advantage. In response, Digby keeps saying we’re great. Ain't tribal therapy grand!

The good news is, it’s fairly easy to talk pork to the people about the Social Security program, as long as we know how to deal with those trust fund-related deceptions. Kevin Drum knows a major part of the answer; he explained it in this recent post. And Baker keeps explaining one of the ways to talk pork to the people regarding our alleged debt/deficit crisis. This is an area where Baker has helped make a key topic easy-to-explain.

Tomorrow, we’ll outline the ways our pitiful side should be talking pork to the people. That said, this is happening some thirty years later. Is there a dumber group than we liberals? Is any group lazier or more self-impressed? We really need to get over ourselves—we who get our keisters kissed at Digby’s therapeutic site.

Tomorrow: Truthfully, not all that hard


  1. I went to Kevin's article in Mother Jones site and was excited by:

    If we gradually raise the payroll tax from 6.2% to 7.2% and gradually raise the earnings cap from $100,000 to $250,0001 between 2030 and 2050, Social Security will be solvent forever.

    Then his peroration:

    "1 point and 150 grand" does the job just fine. Add one point to Social Security taxes and increase the earnings cap by $150,000 over the course of 20 years. Done.

    Which is it? Do they both work as well? if so I'm for the latter. Still a little confusing... for someone not following Bob.

  2. I believe "AND" is the operative word here.

  3. Only a fool would defend the "liberals" employed by corporate America (they're fools for a reason; are you all that surprised that MSNBC employs Rachel Maddow rather than Glenn Greenwald? or Baker? or Krugman?), but you overlook the very signficant rhetorical advantages of lies (versus the awkward burdens of the truth).

    Since they're not true, lies can and are crafted to deceive. They're easy to repeat, because there's nothing to prove or substantiate. And there's no argument to fend off because, like David in Cal, the prevaricator simply shifts the focus when caught in a deception. Or retires for the day and repeats the same lie tomorrow.

    Consider, by contrast, the truth. It may be a little complicated. It may not be exciting, appeal to the imagination or stimulate a fear response. It may require a broader understanding of finance (or arithmetic), to be comprehensible (particularly after the lie as set in). And "professionals" will get tired of repeating the obvious. An astronomer doesn't want to spend his life repeating "the earth is round". Eventually he'll just roll his eyes when this nonsense gets spouted.

    And just as we no longer have a social contract in America, "truth" is another casualty of corporate dominance. When the game is played this way, and the liars own the media, what exactly do you propose?

  4. It's nice to know Bob is a BSG fan too.

  5. One could quibble with Kevin Drum's quote shown by Kithara. There's no way to make SS solvent forever, since nobody knows the future earnings, lifespans, etc.

    However, I agree with Drum in principle. SS can be made solvent by some increase in assessments. Similarly, Medicare can be made solvent by some increase in assessments. The federal budget can be balanced by some increase in taxes. The National Debt can be paid off by some further increase in taxes.

    However, I see two big problems:

    1. Would all these tax increases weaken our economy? By how much?

    2. Would Congress and the President actually pass increases of such magnitude.

    Regarding #1, I think huge tax increases would substantially weaken the economy, but I have no figures at hand.

    Regarding #2, I'm pessimistic. Republicans have resisted tax increases. Obama led (and won) the battle to cut SS assessments, even though an increase is needed to keep the program solvent. Neither party wants to be blamed for raising taxes.

    Right now, food inflation and gasoline inflation are doing a lot of damage to middle class and lower middle class families. If we keep running huge deficits, we will be hit by much higher inflation., with all sorts of negative consequences.

  6. Kithara- the two statements are equivalent.

    "When the game is played this way, and the liars own the media, what exactly do you propose?"

    Bob seems to think we can replace our elites. I don't see how. You make policy with the elites you have, not the elites you'd like to have...

  7. Yup, I was reading bob today and caught my mathematical mis-perception as I re-read the re-quote(ugggh).

    @Rob - I am not sure Bob has argued we can replace our elites given the dispositions of power in our systems. Perhaps OWS 50 years from now after long process of creating new progressive institutions which have atrophied.

    @David - Yes - SS is the tip of the iceberg and applying the tax increase approach will result in bigger increases. It is easy to justify 1/150 the potential harm due to regressivity of the proposed increases is offset by the benefit to our lower and middle class population? Some redistribution there.

    The key point is that if these tax increases are made to reduce inequality in our society through supporting Medicare and social programs, presumably the drag of illness and disfunction would be reduced and the benefits of a more equal population realized.

    This link on TED makes these points clearly , with correlations of GDP vs. income distribution in advanced economies: