Social Security: It's All in the Adjectives

People who want to cut Social Security benefits to lower future budget deficits are "reasonable" and "serious." People who oppose balancing the budget on the back of Social Security recipients, on the other hand, are "maddening," "crackpot," and "strident."
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People who want to cut Social Security benefits to lower future budget deficits are "reasonable" and "serious." Moreover, economists have reached a "consensus" that this should be done. People who oppose balancing the budget on the back of Social Security recipients, on the other hand, are "denialists" whose views are "maddening," "crackpot," "strident."

The cartoonist R. Crumb once advised a young protege that to be good at the craft, he needed to draw his subject accurately -- but then exaggerate it just a little bit. In polemical writing, adjectives are that little bit of exaggeration. Sprinkled sparingly through an otherwise competently argued piece, they create a slightly distorted view of the writer's opponents without making the writer sound too angry or confrontational. The cumulative effect is stark: those on the same side as the writer are intelligent and reasonable. Those on the other side are not.

The adjectives applied to defenders of Social Security, quoted above, aren't from Fox News, the Cato Institute, or a Rush Limbaugh broadcast. They are drawn from a news article in the Washington Post ("strident"), another editorial in the Post ("denialists" pursuing a "maddening strategy" of opposing cuts), and a New York Times op-ed by former White House budget director Peter Orszag ("strident" again).

What a relief to the Post's editors, then, that "reasonable people" in both parties are willing to consider deficit-cutting plans that include cutting Social Security. No less delighted were the editors of the Miami Herald to report that there's "a consensus among economists" that "raising the retirement age makes a lot of sense."

The truth behind each of these descriptions is something else. Lawmakers, economists, and political activists who defend Social Security are called "strident" because they've managed to make themselves heard over the anti-deficit echo chamber that is Washington today. Their strategy is "maddening" only because it's been fairly successful of late. According to the Wall Street Journal, their campaign against Social Security cuts had a direct impact on President Obama's decision not to include a reduction in the COLA formula in his budget proposals.

They aren't "denialists," either. They've generated a crop of reasonable ideas for reducing Social Security's long-term fiscal imbalance and cutting the deficit and have promoted them vigorously in recent months. The main reason their ideas, which range from raising or eliminating the cap on income subject to payroll tax to instituting a financial transactions tax, are not better known is that elite opinion in Washington favors spending cuts, not revenue raisers.

But the "consensus" on cutting the program exists only in the minds of center-right editorial writers. Plenty of reputable economists don't buy the argument that containing future deficits must include weaning American working households off Social Security.

And while Washington deficit hawks may sound perfectly reasonable to each other, to outsiders they frequently sound borderline apocalyptic. Pete Peterson in the Times calls the deficit "a transcendent threat to the future of this country." Erskine Bowles, co-chair of the president's deficit commission, has said that if Washington doesn't "Mess with Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security," then "America is going to be a second-rate power."

Likewise, the New York Times Sunday Magazine recently ran a full-length profile of Marty Peretz, the New Republic honcho who in 1988 helped inaugurate the media sport of bashing the elderly when his magazine ran a leering cover illustration of an army of malevolent oldsters armed with golf clubs and gardening tools underneath the banner, "Greedy Geezers." The Times profile whitewashed Peretz's impact on politics by asserting, without explanation, that he "helped toughen up modern liberalism."

Adjectives are important in politics because they can burrow their way into any discourse they touch. Once they've established themselves, they are hard to resist. Even for the people against whom they're directed.

Last June, Nancy Altman, co-director of the excellent Social Security Works project and a longtime expert on the program, was interviewed in an article about the deficit commission by the Washington Post's Lori Montgomery. She argued for raising the cap and imposing a financial transactions tax as a way to keep Social Security solvent.

"This is not a crackpot side of the debate," she said, and to prove it, pointed to polls showing that the public -- even Tea Partiers -- are against cutting benefits. Of course it's not a "crackpot" position. But the fact that Altman felt obliged to say so demonstrates just how thoroughly the conservative caricature of Social Security and its defenders has penetrated public consciousness.

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