Conclusion—It’s so easy: Attention K-mart shoppers! Also liberal “intellectual leaders!”
It’s easy to talk about Social Security—if you just know how! Unfortunately, we liberals have had thirty years and we still can’t do it—because we’re so lazy and dumb.
How easy is it to talk about Social Security? Let’s consider one more part of Lori Montgomery’s front-page screed in the Washington Post. (For part one of our current report, just click here.)
In the course of her lengthy front-page report, Montgomery advanced thirty years of disinformation about this venerable program—thirty years of talking-points we liberals still can’t rebut. At one juncture, she offered the point we highlight below. Incredibly, we liberals still don’t know what to do when people say shit like this:
MONTGOMERY (10/30/11): Social Security can pay full benefits through 2036. Once the trust fund is depleted, the system would rely solely on incoming taxes, and benefits would have to be cut by about 25 percent across the board.In that first paragraph, Montgomery offers the standard projection about the system’s future status. This is very basic stuff. But uh-oh! In that second paragraph, she returns to the alarmist language which drove her entire report.
Several factors have disrupted even that timetable. The recent recession caused the program to go cash negative years earlier than expected. The payroll tax holiday is depriving the system of revenue. And 10 years of escalating debt have crippled the government's ability to repay the trust fund.
First, she makes an inaccurate/misleading statement, saying the current tax holiday is depriving the system of funds. (She may have gotten that one from Digby.) But then, she makes a truly interesting claim. She says the nation’s rising debt has “crippled the government's ability to repay the trust fund”—its ability to repay the money it has borrowed from Social Security system over the past thirty years.
“Crippled” is an alarming term. That to the side, our liberal “intellectual leaders still don’t know what to say when people confront us with claims of this type (example below). After thirty years of disinformation, we still stand around with our dongs hanging out; we then find someone to call a racist and compliment ourselves on our brilliance. The notion that it won’t be possible to repay the trust fund is left hanging there in the air.
Do you know how to reply to Montgomery’s highlighted claim? If not, it isn’t your fault! It’s the fault of the “intellectual leaders” who have been clowning, showboating, snoring and burbling over the past thirty years (example below).
That said, it’s easy to talk about Montgomery’s statement. Here goes:
Without any question, our rising level of debt does make it harder to repay the large amounts of money the government owes. But that's true with respect to all the money the federal government has borrowed over the decades, not just the money borrowed from the Social Security system. (And no, the ability to repay the money certainly hasn’t been “crippled.”) When folk like Montgomery play this card, they separate out one strain of borrowing—the borrowing from Social Security—and treat it as somehow different from all the other strains of government borrowing. Have you ever seen Montgomery, or anyone else, publish a sentence like this?
MONTGOMERY REIMAGINED: Ten years of escalating debt have crippled the government's ability to repay the money it has borrowed from those big banks in China.Have you ever seen anyone suggest that we won’t be able to repay the Chinese because our ability has been “crippled?” Of course you haven’t! Folk like Montgomery play this card with regard to Social Security only. And this card has been played in a million ways over the past thirty years. Indeed, another version of this tired old scam was offered in an earlier part of Montgomery’s report:
MONTGOMERY (10/30/11): Social Security is hardly the biggest drain on the budget. But unless Congress acts, its finances will continue to deteriorate as the rising tide of baby boomers begins claiming benefits...The government has borrowed every cent and now must raise taxes, cut spending or borrow more heavily from outside investors to keep benefit checks flowing.To repay that money to Social Security, the government will have to “raise taxes, cut spending or borrow more” money. In recent years, this has become a standard talking-point; it is designed to make you think that we simply can’t repay all that dough. But Montgomery’s formulation obtains with respect to all the money the government will have to repay in the future. When the government repays those big Chinese banks (as it constantly does), it has to raise taxes, cut spending or borrow more money then too! Inevitably, it simply borrows more money—and that’s what the government will do when it repays the money it borrowed from Social Security. But this alarming formulation is only trotted out in one circumstance—with respect to Social Security. And omigod! After thirty years of this well-scripted crap, we liberals still don’t know how to respond to such talking-points. This was proven a few months ago when Matt Yglesias weirdly folded this right-wing talking-point into his own capsule explanation of the way Social Security works—with Steve Benen rushing to praise him for making the whole thing so wonderfully clear! To read our post, click here.
(Your lizard brain will tell you we’re wrong about the lads. You shouldn't listen to lizards.)
Even after thirty years of this crap, Yglesias didn’t know how to talk about Social Security! He produced a confusing and bungle account, with Benen praising him for his wonderful clarity! But last week, he received the modern world’s greatest reward—he was hired by Slate! To see Paul Krugman congratulate the brilliant lad, steel your nerves, then click here.
Thirty years in, our brilliant intellectual leader simply didn’t know squat from squadoodle when it came time to talk about Social Security. (Squadoosh was missing in action too.) We ought to be embarrassed by this. Being pseudo-liberals, we aren’t.
How should liberals talk about Social Security? There are two basic points we liberals should make—and we should say anything else:
First, we should say what Montgomery said in that first quoted except. Let’s present this point again. This is Montgomery’s language:
The first things liberals should say when they talk about Social Security: Thanks to the trust fund, Social Security can pay full benefits through 2036. Once the trust fund is depleted, promised benefits will have to be cut by about 25 percent, absent some new source of revenue.It’s possible to make a few additional points about the size of those promised benefits. Resist the temptation to do so! That would take us liberals far beyond our current “grade level.”
There’s one other thing a liberal show say if he talks about Social Security. We’ll borrow this language from Kevin Drum’s recent post. Again, these are Kevin’s Drum’s words:
The second things liberals should say when they talk about Social Security: Social Security only needs minor tweaks...If we gradually raise the payroll tax from 6.2 percent to 7.2 percent and gradually raise the earnings cap from $100,000 to $250,000 between 2030 and 2050, Social Security will be solvent forever.Yes, the program will need more revenue—but the needed adjustment is fairly minor. It’s fairly easy to tweak the system so that future promised benefits can in fact be fully met.
It’s possible to make a few points about the way those tweaks would compare to the size of projected future incomes. (Baker and Weisbrot discussed this matter in their 1999 book.) But there again, that takes us far beyond our very restricted “grade level.”
It’s easy to talk about Social Security! Liberals should just keep making two points:
a) The system does face a revenue shortfall.Our liberal “intellectual leaders” should keep making those two basic points—and they should say nothing else. If they try to recall a third point, they will likely forget what it is. Beyond that, we liberals should stay away from the more abstruse “explanations” which have come from some parts of our world. Paul Krugman is a massive intellectual hero. But he has never devised a clear explanation for the way this whole shebang works. (Neither did Candidate Gore in Campaign 2000.)
b) It’s easy to find the additional revenue.
Oh by the way: If you try to stick to these points, conservatives will start reciting time-honored points about the Social Security trust fund. This is where the disinformation machine has worked its magic for the past thirty years, secure in the knowledge that we liberals are too dumb, too feckless and too self-impressed to devote any serious effort to the project of learning how to talk. (By way of contrast, the plutocrats do devote a lot of time and effort to their relentless search for effective disinformation.) They’ll say it’s just an accounting fiction! They’ll say the money isn’t there—that we’ve already spent it! At some point, they'll even say that the government will have to raise taxes, cut spending or borrow more money to repay the money it has borrowed! And this is where our liberal "intellectual leaders" will break down and lose.
As Yglesias and Benen made wondrously clear, we still don’t know how to talk about the trust fund after thirty long years of this garbage!
We’re lazy and feckless; we’re dumb, uninformed. On the bright side, we spill with self-regard. And there’s one thing we do know: If we just posture hard enough, we will get rewarded one day with a spanking new job at Slate.
People! How great is Slate? Why, it’s owned by the Washington Post!
The fruits of our lack of labor: To see the fruits of our lack of labor, be sure to read the part of Drum’s post in which he records the way some Berkeley students assess this program’s future.
Drum’s words: “The conservative campaign to convince everyone that Social Security is doomed has been wildly successful, even among extremely bright kids who are actively interested in policy issues.”
Alas! That campaign has been successful because your “leaders” have failed.