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Daily Howler: Some readers cling to the 'bankruptcy' metaphor. Incomparably, we explain why they shouldn't
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SEMANTICALLY BANKRUPT! Some readers cling to the “bankruptcy” metaphor. Incomparably, we explain why they shouldn’t: // link // print // previous // next //

SEMANTICALLY BANKRUPT: Will Social Security “go bankrupt” at some future date? We think the claim should be challenged whenever it’s made; we think this is the obvious starting-point for those who want informed debate about the future of this program. But some readers cling to this locution. We’ve received several e-mails on the subject. This one states the case clearly:
E-MAIL: Regarding the Social Security issue, I'm 41 years old, and I have long assumed that "Social Security won't be there for me." It appears that I was wrong, and from your recent postings I now realize that there is a lot more complexity to the situation than I earlier understood. However, it seems to me that there is a legitimate reason to be concerned about the Social Security system. First, whether or not you think that the phrases "bankruptcy" or "going broke" are fair descriptions, the truth is that the CBO projects that sometime in mid-century the Social Security system will have more debts than assets. That sounds a lot like "bankruptcy" to me.
Let’s start with a point of general agreement. By all current assessments, Social Security faces a probable revenue shortfall in the middle of the century. According to that recent CBO report, the shortfall begins in the year 2052; at that point, SS will only be able to pay 81 percent of promised benefits. Using gloomier assumptions about economic growth, the SS trustees say the shortfall will begin in 2042.

On that basis, almost everyone agrees that, in some sense or other, Social Security faces future revenue problems. But should we refer to this as “bankruptcy?” For the record, this situation doesn’t “sound a lot like bankruptcy” to us, the judgment our reader reports. When John Smith can’t afford to pay his full rent, people don’t normally say that he’s bankrupt. They say he should move to a cheaper apartment, or that he should take on a second job, or that he should borrow some money or sell his slick car. So no—English being our mother tongue, we don’t feel inclined to say that SS is going “bankrupt,” “broke” or “belly-up.” We think those formulations are semantic propaganda—carefully chosen formulations designed to mislead, not inform.

And make no mistake—these locutions have misled the public. For the most obvious example, consider what our e-mailer says about his own past understanding. “I have long assumed that ‘Social Security won't be there for me,’” he writes. “It appears that I was wrong.” But why did our reader ever believe that Soc Sec “wouldn’t be there” for him? Most likely, he reached this conclusion because he kept hearing people say that the system was going “bankrupt” (“belly-up”). These locutions are vastly misleading, as the e-mailer’s experience shows. Most likely, that’s exactly why the locutions were chosen as conservative talking-points.

Over the course of the past several decades, the RNC has become quite adept at formulating poll-tested bits of language—locutions baldly designed to mislead. In their 1996 book, “Tell Newt to Shut Up,” David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf wrote a brilliant chapter on the mid-90s Medicare debate, describing how the GOP developed the language that became their great banner: No one is cutting Medicare; we’re just slowing the rate at which the program will grow. This formulation was vastly misleading; along with Standard Data the party used in its sales pitch, many voters were led to believe that the GOP plan would produce a vast increase in Medicare services, a belief which was pleasing but surely mistaken. The locutions were slick—and vastly misleading. For a full discussion of this episode, you know what to do: Just click here.

The “bankruptcy” metaphor serves the same purpose. Why must this locution be challenged? Because it has led a generation of Americans to believe things that are plainly false—to believe that Social Security “won’t be there” when they retire, for example. In his e-mail, our reader says he realizes now that he was wrong in that belief; 81 percent of promised benefits isn’t nothing, after all. But why do so many younger Americans believe SS “won’t be there” for them? The “bankruptcy” metaphor has vastly misled them. For ourselves, we’ll assume that’s why the locution was chosen. But at any rate, the locution does mislead, and that’s why it should be challenged at every turn in this debate.

DRUMMING IT INTO YOUR HEADS: Kevin Drum has produced excellent posts about SS; we especially recommend this post from December 1, which provides an instructive overview of the scam which is being played out. But note the way Kevin lets the “bankruptcy/doomsday” metaphors slip into yesterday’s post, a post which is otherwise quite informative. If Kevin is only talking about “the point at which full benefits can no longer be paid out,” why does he let these alarming images infect an otherwise solid discussion? During the Reagan years, Dick Darman famously told Lesley Stahl that the pictures are more important than the words (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/11/00). Similarly, when it comes to major policy debates, the metaphors are more important that the arguments. It’s very unwise to use these locutions—locutions designed to mislead.

TEN-MINUTE MAN: Everything changed on September 11—except for Richard Cohen’s fatuity. This morning, he pens another of his ten-minute wonders—another column which couldn’t have taken more time than that to type up.

Today, the famous liberal rants and rails about the Dem and abortion. According to Cohen, “the Democratic Party still marches to the tune of ‘Alfie’ if nothing has changed in almost 40 years.” Soon, the hapless pundit is waving his fist, upset by the party’s vast perfidy:

COHEN (12/14/04):But abortion is a different matter entirely. It is no longer what it was—simply about women's rights and sexual freedom. It is, as its opponents say, about life—arguably about the taking of it.

Yet the party insists otherwise. It entertains no doubts and counters reasonable questions and qualms with slogans—a woman's right to choose, for instance. The party is downright inhospitable to abortion opponents. Therefore, it was good Sunday to hear Howard Dean—both a physician and pro-choice—say on "Meet the Press" that "I have long believed that we ought to make a home for pro-life Democrats."

Here at THE HOWLER, we’re pro-choice ourselves—and unlike many aging roues, we haven’t changed our view on the subject because we’re no longer likely to get college girls pregnant. But we’ve long felt that Dems should be open to pro-life voters; for that reason, we had to laugh at Cohen’s ardor on this matter. After all, Naomi Wolf became a “controversial feminist” in the 1990s when she said the feminist movement should open itself to pro-life women. So what did Cohen do in 1999 when he learned that Wolf was advising Al Gore? Of course! He penned a smutty, slimy column in which he rubbed his thighs over Wolf and pretended that she was a wild-eyed lefty, even quoting smutty things from her books—smutty things that hadn’t appeared in those volumes! (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/5/04, with links to prior reports.) And of course, Cohen’s lazy approach to his work didn’t change after 9/11. This morning, the scribe continues to make bizarre claims about Dems and their leaders:
COHEN (continuing directly): Dean may make a run for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and so what he says could matter. As it is now, being pro-choice is a litmus test for all Democrats, especially their presidential candidates. It is almost inconceivable that a Democratic candidate could voice qualms about abortion. It's almost inconceivable, though, that the candidates don't have them.
Incredible. On which planet does this idiot live? Last month, to cite one example, the Dems selected Harry Reid as their Senate leader. Here’s paragraph 2 of Charles Babington’s profile in Cohen’s own paper, the Post:
BABINGTON (11/16/04): Reid, a Mormon from tiny Searchlight, Nev., lacks Daschle's flair as a speaker and public figure and rarely goes on TV outside his home state. Moreover, he gets along well with Republican leaders and has parted company with most Democratic lawmakers on some prominent issues, such as his support for a constitutional ban on flag burning and his opposition to abortion in most cases.
That same day, E. J. Dionne described Reid an “an opponent of abortion rights” right on the same op-ed page where Cohen hapless columns are put on display. So what happened to that “litmus test for all Democrats” about which Cohen rails? Meanwhile, is it “almost inconceivable that a Democratic [presidential] candidate could voice qualms about abortion?” One is never sure if Cohen has heard, so let’s note the fact that a man named John Kerry was the recent Dem candidate for president. And Kerry did “voice qualms about abortion.” Here’s part of a profile by Jim VandeHei in Cohen’s own paper, the Post:
VANDEHEI (10/18/04): Stanley Greenberg, Kerry's pollster, said a higher percentage of voters has to come to view Kerry as a man of character and truth—attributes some Democrats say are strengthened by the candidate's public embrace of God and by his display of moral values such as personal opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
Kerry did “voice qualms about abortion,” as everyone (but Cohen) seems to have heard. Meanwhile, Al Sharpton was a comic-relief White House candidate, but he discussed his personal qualms about abortion on Meet the Press just two weeks back. But good grief! Ever since Mario Cuomo in the mid-80s, major Dems have routinely discussed their personal qualms about abortion. What did Cohen think Bill Clinton meant when he said abortion should be “safe, legal and rare?” Why should abortion should be rare—unless Clinton had qualms on abortion?

But good grief! Weeks after Dems pick a Senate leader who “opposes abortion in most cases,” Cohen says thatbeing pro-choice is a litmus test for all Democrats.” The party “is downright inhospitable to abortion opponents,” he says. Everything changed on September 11—except for Cohen’s ten-minute typing, typing which continues to insult the interests of every American.