January 2005 Archives

AARP recently conducted a survey on Social Security privatization, but the findings didn't make Republicans happy. As AARP CEO Bill Novelli summarized, "A lack of knowledge about private accounts is a dangerous thing. [...] When people are exposed to the full details of private accounts, support falls to only 5 percent."

GOP spinmesiter Frank Luntz (architect of 1994's "Contract with America") was interviewed on Air America, and complained that the media are still using the now-disfavored phrase "private accounts" instead of the shiny new "personal accounts" (supplanted just this week by "individual accounts") which apparently polls even better. Luntz whined about the media still referring to "private accounts:"

"It's one of the reasons why the American people don't trust the media. If the media wants to engage in the debate, let it say so. [...] ...let them state a point of view, and people know that they're not getting the journalistic report, they're getting the opinion of the left wing, the right wing, because there are journalists on both sides..."

Yes, you read that right: if the media don't use the exact language that Republicans decree, then they're stating a point of view. Of course, if they simply repeat the GOP talking points, then they're objective. The New York Times' David Rosenbaum mentions, "I don't see any difference between private, personal, or individual. [...] I'm sorry the White House doesn't like the word 'private' because it doesn't poll well...[but] that's just too bad." Thomas Lang of Columbia Journalism Review echoes this sentiment:

"In truth, both 'private accounts' and 'personal accounts' are an accurate description of what the president appears ready to propose. But in making a choice between the two, journalists -- unlike politicians -- shouldn't pay attention to which phrase polls best with the public."

Check out CJR's "Campaign Desk" for a partial Washington Post interview with Bush, demonstrating that he doesn't even remember that "private accounts" was ever the preferred spin. (It was apparently dropped down the memory hole sometime between mid-December and now.)

CampaignDesk also notes that:

"Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman sent a fund-raising email out Wednesday morning telling supporters that donations are needed 'to get the president's message past the liberal media filter and directly to the American people.' Funny, isn't it, how at the same time the administration gets busted for paying off columnists to tout its programs, all of a sudden it needs cash to 'get past' the media. [...] According to this logic, it's not the administration's policies that draw the heat, it's just that darn media filter which keeps reporting those inconvenient facts."

Maybe the administration's continuing propaganda scandals will help Kennedy and Lautenberg's "Stop Government Propaganda Act" pass the Senate, and put an end to the more egregious episodes. If not, Bush can just increase his PR spending; after all, it's only twice what it was under Clinton.

When did the media's responsibility switch from reporting the facts to helping the Bush administration sell its agenda to the public?

Thanks for reading.

Quotes of the Day:

"It has long been right-wing strategy to repeat over and over phrases that evoke their frames and define issues their way. Such repetition makes their language normal, everyday language and their frames normal, everyday ways to think about issues. Reporters have an obligation to notice when they are being taken for a ride and they should refuse to go along."

George Lakoff (Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, p. 50)

"When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases -- bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder -- one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful.

A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity. "

George Orwell ("Politics and the English Language," 1946)

I'm sure you've all seen the blizzard of Social Security "crisis" stories in the media over the past several weeks. Those who believe the endlessly repeated Bush soundbites about a "flat bust[ed broke]" Social Security system may not know that the current trust fund surplus is over $1.5 trillion, growing to an estimated $6.6 trillion in 2028. Dean Baker, co-author of Social Security: The Phony Crisis, offers a succinct summary: "President Bush has been working hard to promote belief in a Social Security crisis. Unfortunately for him, the numbers refuse to cooperate." The facts don't have to cooperate with Bush, though, as long as the press continues to cooperate by credulously spreading his message. To date, they have been almost perfectly compliant, repeating his "crisis" mantra, his "ownership society" slogan, and his fuzzy math (more on that later) while skipping those pesky contradictory facts.

Bush's plan, phrased as always in attractive-sounding slogans, really amounts to nothing more than "a guaranteed cut in benefits and $2 trillion in debt, plus the possible burden of supporting our parents if the stock market underperforms" (Matthew Yglesias, "There is no Social Security crisis." Harold Meyerson summarized Social Security's impending revenue shortfall as constituting:

"just 0.7 percent of national income, according to the trustees, or 0.4 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That still amounts to a real chunk of change, but it pales alongside the 75-year cost of Bush's Medicare drug benefit, which is more than twice its size, or Bush's tax cuts if permanently extended, which would be nearly four times its size."

In order to present Social Security in the worst possible light, Bush's fuzzy math uses two different estimates for future economic growth: a pessimistic one (1.7%) for growth of the Social Security surplus, and an optimistic one (7%) for the growth of private accounts. Then he ignores the costs of replacing Social Security's non-retirement benefits (such as survivors' benefits and disability insurance) with private policies.

For those conservatives who truly want to fix Social Security rather than "reform" (destroy) it, there are two simple actions to take: raise the income contribution limit (so Bill Gates pays the same rate as his groundskeeper), and stop raiding the Social Security piggybank when trying to hide the true size of the federal deficit. The real crisis of Social Security is that, ever since the 1983 Social Security tax hike (with the exception of the end of Clinton's second term), Congress has squandered the Social Security surplus and used a "unified budget" to obscure that fact from public attention.

Michael Kinsley not only provides a logical proof that - on a macroeconomic level - privatization can't work as advertised, and he also points out that the budgetary reasons for tinkering with Social Security are bogus: since "Republicans control the entire federal government. If they want to cut government spending, they should do it. They don't need to trash Social Security along the way."

For more details, the best websites are American Prospect's Special Report on "Saving Social Security" and The Social Security Network. Others include the "Myths and Misperceptions" section of the "Truth about Social Security" website, Jason Furman's analysis at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and Robert Kuttner's analysis from the Boston Globe. For the heavy-duty policy wonks, Gene Sperling's proposal from the Center for American Progress is well worth reading.

Even conservative pundit George Will admits, "The president says Social Security should be reformed because it is in 'crisis.' That is an exaggeration." and - more tellingly - that "the philosophic reasons for reforming Social Security are more compelling than the fiscal reasons." This indicates the neo-cons' antipathy toward Social Security. Thomas Frank analyzed this mentality ("Get Rich or Get Out: Attempted Robbery with a Loaded Federal Budget," Harper's Magazine, June 2003) in context of Bush's 2004 budget:

"The real problem with Social Security, of course, is that it is a popular and successful program. Its existence confirms that there are economic functions better served by government than by business, and as such it provides a foundation for the activist government that pro-business conservatives like the current president have dedicated their lives to destroying."

Why is there a seemingly endless amount of money available to invade other countries, but such a reluctance to help our own citizens out of poverty? Why does Iraq in 2005 bear such a resemblance to Vietnam in 1967? Why don't politicians ever learn?

Thanks for reading.

Quote of the Day:

"A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing, except a tragic death wish, to prevent us from re-ordering our priorities, so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. [...] If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight."

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ("Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam," April 1967, Manhattan's Riverside Church)

The best part of Will's recent column on Harvard president Larry Summers is, not unusually, his sarcasm:

"Is this the fruit of feminism? A woman at the peak of the academic pyramid becomes theatrically flurried by an unwelcome idea and, like a Victorian maiden exposed to male coarseness, suffers the vapors and collapses on the drawing room carpet in a heap of crinolines until revived by smelling salts and the offending brute's contrition."

In his attempt to generalize a single episode, though, Will misses his intended target (feminism) completely. The real "fruit of feminism" is simply the mundanity of a female Ivy-League science professor; the incongruity is her response to Summers' opinion. It's amusing to note that Will's "Khmer Rouge-style re-education camp" quip is an overreaction nearly as hysterical (although not in the physical sense) as that of Professor Hopkins. (At any rate, her being at "the peak of the academic pyramid" would put her in Summers' office, but that's another topic.)

As far as Will's complaints about criticism of Bush's inaugural address, I'm not sure what point he's trying to make. Maybe he's bothered by the fact that Bush's continual repetition of the words "freedom" (33 times) and "liberty" (16 times) in a 2,000-word address is inconsistent with the administration’s well-documented abridgement of civil liberties, disdain for the rule of law, and tacit approval of torture.

Will writes about "rejection of the philosophy…of natural right," but, instead of providing an example, he repeated the accusation (which I've addressed before, from his column of 9 September 2004) that the "political left recoil[s] from" the idea of natural right. Unfortunately for Will, liberals such as John Locke have both endorsed the tabula rasa theorem and been proponents of "the consent of the governed" - which Will should know, having mentioned that phrase in the previous paragraph.

Finally, the notion of "governing elites," far from being supported by progressives, is derived from Plato's Republic by way of neo-conservative mentor Leo Strauss (whose protégés from the University of Chicago include John Ashcroft, Paul Wolfowitz, Ahmad Chalabi, and Abram Shulsky, among others).

When I first saw George Will’s column last week (published as “Conservatives in Fake News Business” in my local newspaper), I initially hoped to finally read a conservative denunciation of the Fox/Sinclair/ClearChannel axis of error. That wish went unfulfilled, but I was treated to the rare and refreshing sight of a prominent conservative columnist writing about the Bush administration’s propaganda machine.

Will identified four separate instances where the federal government was misused to disseminate partisan propaganda: a $240,000 payment to Armstrong Williams for pumping up Bush’s “No Child Left Behind,” Health & Human Services’ fake news videos about the Medicare prescription drug plan, the administration threatening Medicare’s actuary not to reveal the program’s real cost until it was too late, and more “fake news videos” from the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Curiously, Will skipped over several other examples: the IRS trumpeting W’s destructive top-heavy tax cuts, Social Security employees shilling for his proposed private account scheme, soldiers in Iraq being supplied with wallet cards of GOP talking points, and Congress promoting skewed history via a “Republican Freedom Calendar.”

It’s quite interesting that Will is (rhetorically, at least) a staunch opponent of propaganda, after participating in so much of it during his long career as a pundit. As detailed by Steve Rendell in his article “The Hypocrisy of George Will,” Will took both sides of the Senate filibuster issue (each time favoring the GOP); denigrated Jesse Jackson for his ignorance of policy issues and later excused W for the same; coached Reagan for a debate with materials stolen from Carter’s staff; gave Bush II interview questions before airtime; and scorned Bill Clinton’s extramarital affair while not mentioning his own.

Thanks for reading.

Quote of the Day:

“The men who do iniquity in the name of patriotism, of reform, of Americanism, are merely one small division of the class that has always existed and will always exist,- the class of hypocrites and demagogues, the class that is always prompt to steal the watchwords of righteousness and use them in the interests of evil-doing.”

Theodore Roosevelt (“True Americanism,” The Forum Magazine, April 1894)

I received this email about Democratic opposition to Bush's plans to privatizate Social Security:

Good News on Social Security

It looks like you won't have to worry about saving for your retirement. According to this newspaper article Social Security is not in financial trouble. The reason - Ted Kennedy says there is no crisis. Why does he say that? Because George Bush says there is a crisis. Of course it probably won't matter to Teddy if he's wrong and George is right.

My response follows:

I would like to point out that Kennedy did not say that Social Security has no problems, but that he doesn’t think Bush’s plan will “make it through Congress.” This is a far cry from being blindly contrarian. Check out what Kennedy said on “Face the Nation” (page 4 of the “rush transcript”) this past Sunday:
“First of all, it seems that this administration tries to make a crisis on any political problem. […] So now we have the crisis in terms of the funding of Social Security that is non-existent. It's solid till 2042. And without any help, it'll be able to continue to 2075 with three-quarters of the benefits if there was going to be no help and assistance to it. All you have to do is raise the payroll tax on that and that would solve most of the kind of a problem that you'd have, other kinds of ways to dealing with it. And that is certainly something we ought to think about.”

For all his faults, Kennedy has his facts straight; he recognizes that Social Security is flawed, but that it can be fixed without being eviscerated. Bush, with his propensity for prevarication, is up to his usual scaremongering. The future of Social Security doesn’t matter to Bush – not only because he won’t need it, but because he would rather see it destroyed in the name of “privatization.”

As writer Thomas Frank noted in “Get Rich or Get Out: Attempted Robbery with a Loaded Federal Budget,” from Harper’s Magazine, June 2003:

“Here [in Bush’s 2004 budget] war and recession are merely pretexts for getting the crudest social trends of the last twenty years moving again. This deficit is designed to enrich those at the very top of the social pyramid while cutting services for those lower down. This is not cyclical Keynesianism. This is not a helpful or even a merely benign program of deficit spending. It is a blueprint for sabotage. It is an instruction manual for how to power up a complicated machine and dash it headlong into a stone wall. After which the president will turn to us and say, ‘See? I told you big government doesn't work.’”

I received a link to this ACLU movie illustrating the perils of data collection (17 January 2005, 8:54 PM).

My response follows (22 Jan 2005 10:06 AM):

This movie clearly illustrates the inevitable mischief in a world where profit is the highest good, and government favors corporations rather than citizens. Strict constructionists will grumble that the word "privacy" does not appear in the Constitution and free-market fundamentalists will whine about potential restrictions on their "economic liberty," but that doesn't mean we shouldn't search for a solution to protect our personal privacy.

Since you recognize the ACLU's role in drawing attention to this dystopian future, I hope this means that you disagree with Bill O'Reilly's opinion that the ACLU is a "fascist organization" that is "the most dangerous organization in the United States of America right now...second next to Al Qaeda."

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from January 2005 listed from newest to oldest.

December 2004 is the previous archive.

February 2005 is the next archive.

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