Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Dissembling about the Social Security "crisis"

One reason I haven't blogged at all about the upcoming fight over Social Security is that Josh Marshall has done such a fantastic job of covering this topic that I've found myself with little to additional say -- call me a Marshall dittohead. His basic point has been that the Bush regime is greatly exaggerating the alleged "crisis" facing Social Security, which is actually a macro-deficit problem -- one created (perhaps even intentionally created) by Bush himself. The implied solution to the alleged future crisis in Social Security funding is, basically, to rescind the tax cuts.

Josh's posting from last night, however, is worth a special read, and I reference it here because it directly addresses one of the main themes I have treated in this blog, namely the way that the Bush regime treats evidence and fact with contempt. Like Marshall, I am leery of using the word "lie," not because it's not an accurate description of what Bush is doing, but rather because the term has been used so often, with so little impact on a large proportion of the electorate, that continuing to use the term risks marginalizing the speaker as a cassandra or a broken record. Moreover, what makes the word "lie" more difficult to use with regard to Bush, is that he specializes in lying about the future, something which is very difficult to prove. When things consistently turn out differently than he predicted -- such as budget surpluses forever or Iraqi WMDs, to use the two most obvious examples -- he covers himself by saying that "no one could have known," which is also false, but less provably so. Now we're getting the same treatment with regard to the alleged "crisis" facing the national retirement program.

Here's Marshall on the complicated rhetorical trickery Bush uses to represent the Social Security Administration's future solvency:

According to the Trustees, using very pessimistic estimates of future economic growth, Social Security will be able to pay full benefits until 2042. After that, incoming revenue, they say, will be able to pay for at least 70% of my benefits. In other words, I'm good until I'm 73, after which my benefits could drop by as much as 30% if the US economy does really poorly over the next 35 years and no one does anything whatsoever with Social Security until then.

On the other hand, the Congressional Budget Office, under the leadership of former Bush White House senior economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin, says I'll have no problem until 2052, when I'll be 83. After that, they say, there will be a reduction, but again not an overwhelming one.

As we've said again and again, if the US economy just keeps growing at the rate it has for the last hundred years or more, any problems are likely a good deal further out into the future.

So, what does this tell us? According to relatively pessimistic forecasts, two government agencies -- one of which is part of a Republican administration and the other under the oversight of a Republican congress -- say I'll get my full benefits for either the first five years of my retirement or the first fifteen years. After that, if nothing changes at all, I'll probably keep drawing three-quarters of my benefits. And even if I'm only drawing that three-quarters it'll still be more than today's retirees draw even in inflation-adjusted dollars.

This disconnect suggests one of three possibilities.

One is that the president has been briefed on certain highly classified budget projections which show a far more dire situation than the government's non-classified budgeting estimates would have us believe. We'll call this the secret evidence hypothesis.

Another possibility is that President Bush believes that the US government will default on the Treasury notes held by the Social Security Administration. Let's call this the Harken Energy hypothesis. If it's neither of these we can only conclude that as he has done repeatedly before, this president is deceiving the people he has sworn to serve and defend in order to achieve a policy goal he cannot manage by honest means.

Indeed, it is still more cynical and deliberate than that. The president knows he can't say, "No one will get any benefits after 2030, so help me replace Social Security with private accounts." So, just as he and his associates did during the build up to the Iraq war, he uses paraphrases, work-arounds and slippery repetitons to communicate the intended falsehood while still providing himself with sufficient wiggle room to evade being tagged as a liar.

So here, for instance, he states that young people think they'll never collect Social Security benefits. Then he says that's "probably an exaggeration to a certain extent." And then he goes on to say that it's precisely the young people who are knowledgable about Social Security who think this. The clear implication, the meaning he intends to convey, is that this dire prediction is at least more true than not, when in fact, as we've noted, to the extent we can know anything about the future, it's not even close to being true.

Is it a lie if one insinuates something you know to be false -- or which by any reasonable expectation of the future one should expect to be false? Especially if you make the expectably-false statement to scare the listener into doing something highly unpleasant to themselves?

Of course, what Marshall doesn't fully spell out above is that Bush's statements about Social Security's future insolvency are perhaps best seen not as a lie but rather an evasion of responsibility. If Bush's first term tax cuts, especially the estate tax cuts, are made permanent, then we may indeed have a fiscal crisis on our hands which will severely jeopardize Social Security's solvency. What's particularly cynical (but not precisely a prevarication) about Bush's stance is that he represents this potential future insolvency as if it were some lamentable but essentially natural state of affairs, a result of the unfortunate way in which the program was designed. He avoids any suggestion that his own macroeconomic policies have radically increased the risk of future insolvency.

(What's the right word for this? As I say, I am not sure "lying" or "prevarication" is exactly the right word. Dissembling? Double-dealing? Deceit? Duplicity? Is the nature of this pitch more of a swindle, a con, a fraud, or a snow job? Put another way, what is the character of a person who behaves this way? Insincere? Faithless? Tricky? Unscrupulous?)

All of which suggests that the Democrats put forth a very clear case to the American people: do you want to make the tax cuts permanent (cost: $11.3b)? Or do you want to keep the Social Security and Medicare programs intact (cost: $3.7b and $8.1b, respectively)? You could even ask the question more pointedly: has your paycheck increased enough as a result of the George Bush tax cut that you're happy giving up Social Security and Medicare?

1 comment:

rmockler said...

Save the Clinton/Kerry wordplay routine. Liar is fine. Or big fat liar.