Labels trump facts in Social Security debate

February 11, 2005|By Larry Beinhart

EVERY TIME I see or hear the phrase "reform Social Security," or "save Social Security," or "rescue Social Security," I say to myself, President Bush is going to win this one.

Every time a headline, or a title on the screen, or an announcer on TV or radio uses the words "reform," "save," "rescue," they make the Republicans' case. Indeed, even when the Democrats -- that media-challenged crew -- come out and say that the president's plan is not the way to reform Social Security, they are, inadvertently and ineptly, supporting the notion that "reform" is what is actually needed. And rescue or save is the intent.

In terms of who is going to win the debate, the facts may not matter. Even if people get past the headline or the promo for the story to a discussion of the facts, they plunge into a swamp of "he said," "she said," "we said," "they said," actuaries, statisticians, predictions, prognostications, configurations, calculations. And it all comes down to whom you trust, Paul Krugman or George W. Bush.

Arguing the facts won't work. The effective response is to change the label. Call it the plan to "loot" Social Security.

That happens to be accurate enough. The idea is to take this pile of money, currently meant for people's retirements, and give it away to corporations. Stockbrokers, bond merchants and banks will take a slice of it on the way. If the corporations manage to make profits with the money that used to go to people, they will pay it back, less corporate salaries and perks, dividends, commissions and handling fees.

But there's no guarantee that they'll pay it back. If the corporations are run by people like Enron's Kenneth L. Lay, they will go bankrupt. Then they won't pay it back.

If they are run by Dick Cheneys, it's possible that only some of their subsidiaries will declare bankruptcy. In the process, they are likely to default on their private pension obligations or find ways to avoid them, which is an indication of how they will treat their public obligations. That's part of what privatization means: that companies get to loot their pension funds to pay for their failures. Now they will be able to loot what used to be public funds to pay for their failures.

It will cost about $2 trillion to make the conversion. That has to come out of tax revenues or it has to be borrowed, in which case the borrowing and the interest on the borrowing have to be paid with tax revenues. That means taking money out of my pocket and yours -- not in a voluntary way -- to pay for giving that much to Halliburton and GE and Microsoft and whichever other companies in "the market" the money will be "invested" in.

Why, you ask, would someone want to "loot" one of our most successful systems?

That's what Bushenomics is about. The Bush people see a pile of money or resources and they plunge in with both fists to plunder it. The deficit, looted. Medicare, looted. There's oil in Alaska, let's plunder it. There's timber in the national forests, let's chop it down. The rich and big corporations always get to skim the cream and the mess is left behind for others to pay. In debts or pollution or lost jobs or ruined landscapes.

It is, I suppose, remotely possible that the Bushian crew are such true believers that they actually think that smashing the policies that have fueled and sustained the American economic miracle for the last 70 years will create such powerful magic that all debts will disappear. And the markets will never again have a prolonged downturn. As they have had under Mr. Bush. (Note to Republicans: The Dow and the NASDAQ and the employment rate are all still below where they were when Mr. Bush came into office.)

But it really doesn't matter if they believe it or not. If they're wrong, other people -- that means you and your children -- will have to pay for it.

Don't argue the facts. No one's listening. Argue the label. Make the principle into the pitch.

Larry Beinhart, whose latest novel is Librarian, is the author of American Hero, on which the movie Wag the Dog was based.

Columnist Clarence Page is on vacation.

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