The Ministry of Truth: New Fronts in the War on Social Security

Every Orwellian campaign needs a compliant press, and the Social Security Slashers led by Pete Peterson have been particularly lucky (or effective) in this area.
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The phrase "Moment of Truth" first appeared in English in Ernest Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon. It was originally a Spanish expression for the final sword-thrust in a bull-fight, the one that finishes off the bull after the matador is done taunting and tormenting him.

Remember that whenever you hear about "The Moment of Truth Project," the latest public relations venture from the Social Security-slashing Pete Peterson crowd. It could be el momento de verdad for your future financial security.

Orwell's Children

If the phrase also reminds you of the reality-twisting "Ministry of Truth" from Orwell's 1984, that's appropriate too. A highly-financed network of consultants, ex-government officials, and politicians has been deployed to mislead the public on basic, unequivocal truths about Social Security, whose $2.6 trillion dollar trust fund could bankroll a lot of tax breaks for the wealthy. All it takes is a campaign to mislead and confuse the public.

This determined group is in for the long haul and it was bound to step up its efforts after it suffered a major setback in January. Preparations for the next wave probably began when, thanks to public pressure, the White House relented on plans to propose benefit cuts along with a very limited increase in the payroll tax cap in the president's State of the Union message. This new blitz matches the one we saw last November, when they pressed Congress and the White House to enact their unpopular proposals after the election.

The Peterson team has relentlessly pushed its right-wing agenda through a seemingly endless series of vehicles: a slanted "news" organization named "Fiscal Times" (now providing content to the Washington Post); a film called "I.O.U.S.A"; a consultant-designed game called "Budgetball" (which we called "Ayn Rand meets Deathrace 2000"); the mock "Hugh Jidette" political campaign (Hugh Jidette -- get it? Sure you do.); the "OweNo" ad campaign; The Rivlin/Domenici deficit group -- and now, the Moment of Truth Project.

"And the Records Department, after all, was itself only a single branch of the Ministry of Truth, whose primary job was not to reconstruct the past but to supply the citizens of Oceania with newspapers, films, textbooks, telescreen programmes, plays, novels -- with every conceivable kind of information, instruction, or entertainment ..." ~ 1984

The Peterson Brigade

I get complaints from the Peterson Foundation whenever I point out Mr. Peterson's long-standing conservative agenda against government in general and Social Security in particular, so let's get this out of the way first. For many years journalists have been documenting Peterson's efforts to gut Social Security and Medicare. As Robert J. McIntyre's 1994 article shows, his core tactics haven't changed. They include Peterson-funded "entitlement" and "deficit" commissions to push government cuts, the co-opting of centrist Democrats to endorse his conservative anti-government agenda, and a veneer of "bipartisanship" for his anti-government, flat-tax-like ideology.

The Peterson crowd changed its tactics after a series of polls showed that the public understands Social Security doesn't contribute to the deficit. Now the party line is that they want to "rescue" Social Security, with cuts that are larger than the shortfall that's expected in 27 years. But, as McIntyre reported sixteen years ago, Peterson and his staff had already written a book that was excerpted in the Atlantic under the title "Entitlement Reform: The Way to Eliminate the Deficit." (We've already analyzed the Orwellian strategy behind the phrase "entitlement reform," which is a well-crafted euphemism for "cutting services for the elderly." The idea that "cutting Is reform" is in the tradition of Orwell's "War Is Peace.")

McIntyre's piece describes the tactics that are still in play today: on the co-opting of Democrats, the progressive gloss on conservative policies, and Peterson's determination to lower taxes for the wealthy while reducing services and imposing new tax burdens on the middle class. It's class warfare against middle-income Americans.

Debts in the afternoon

The " Moment of Truth Project" gave a presentation in Washington on Tuesday afternoon, and commemorated International Woman's Day by inviting a panel of thirteen presenters that didn't include a single woman. (You've come a long way, baby ...)

The Moment of Truth Project is funded by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which receives substantial Peterson backing, and whose president (Maya McGuineas) is a long-time Peterson operative fond of writing editorials with titles like this one: "SOCIAL SECURITY NEEDS TO BE FIXED. SO JUST DO IT" (the caps are hers). Sticking to the game plan, MacGuineas has backed away from claims that Social Security contributes to the overall deficit, but the usual falsehoods are there in abundance: "If there is one thing we know in "Budgetworld," it's that the largest entitlement programs have to be reformed." (Actually, no. Social Security doesn't need to be "reformed" -- it needs a little more revenue, most or all of which could be provided by lifting the payroll tax cap).

McGuineas also wrote that "Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are growing at unsustainable levels because of the aging population and growing health care costs." These two sentence are part of the game plan, too. Here's the game plan for misleading the public, which you'll see a lot in coming weeks:

1) Pretend Social Security is "broken." Emphasize the cost of an "aging population," even though the age wave was anticipated and accounted for in 1983's revisions to Social Security.

2) Mix Social Security and Medicare together in people's minds by labeling them both "entitlements," saying we must cut both. (They don't want to fix Medicare, either, because that means reducing for-profit medicine, which is against their hidden ideology.) Never tell the truth: Medicare has serious problems and Social Security doesn't.

3) Now that you've conflated these two programs in the public mind, never describe what you're proposing as cuts. Call it "entitlement reform." (We have more on that nasty little bit of Newspeak here.)

4) Whatever you do, don't mention the real solutions: a payroll tax cap adjustment for Social Security and a restructuring of our health care system to fix Medicare. Behave as if these practical and overwhelmingly popular options don't exist. Remember these words from Orwell: "The whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought."

The smell of self-satisfaction in the morning.

Here's another standard Social Security Slasher move: Members of the Peterson contingent love to congratulate themselves on the "courage" and "boldness" it takes to regurgitate and promote predigested falsehoods in return for a future filled with consultancies, commission slots, and think tank appointments.

Enter David Walker. He's the former head of the Peterson Foundation and a long-time collaborator. Walker's new book Comeback America promotes slashing entitlements, rather than investments in jobs and economic growth (as a reasonable person might infer from the title). Walker has spoken nostalgically about debtors' prisons, repeatedly demonstrably false canards about entitlement funding, and tried to terrify Americans by claiming their taxes could "double."

Walker's response to a William Greider piece in The Nation about Peterson was self-incriminating. He repeated false claims that Medicare and Social Security "are not in danger of being looted -- they already have been looted," adding: "The federal government already has spent any related surplus and replaced it with non-marketable IOUs that aren't even considered liabilities by the federal government." (That's simply not true. A panel under President Eisenhower refuted identical charges in 1958. Besides, what ethical person wants to welsh on an IOU?)

Walker has parlayed a Bill Clinton appointment as Comptroller General into a lifetime career as a benefit-cut advocate, a career that not only pays well but provides enough over-the-top media flattery to embarrass a Maharajah. Yesterday's predictably fawning Post piece, for example, described him as a "prophet of deficit doom."

"I have a lot of nicknames," Walker tells the Post.

Paul Revere! Paul Revere. That's what Paul Volcker calls me... "Fiscal Ranger. That's what CNBC calls me. "And when I was on Colbert," Walker says, "he called me, 'Walker, Taxes Ranger.'

(Apparently "paid hack for anti-government ideology" doesn't have the same ring to it.)

After Peterson's done singing his own praise song, the Post tells us that "yuk-yukking commences in the pack milling around Walker in the hallway of Georgia Public Broadcasting's studios... "

This "merry bunch of deficit hawks," in the Post's words, is proposing to impose severe financial constraints on America's elderly. We ran the numbers, and elderly women paying low rent for an urban apartment would be left with less than $45 a week for food, other necessities, and whatever pleasure they can scrape out of the remaining few pennies.

The Petersonites will say that Social Security was never meant to be the sole source of retirement income -- but they won't mention the fact that Wall Street shenanigans and quarterly earnings pressure destroyed other sources of retirement security (investment accounts, corporate pensions, and real estate values). So while the rich continue to amass a level of national wealth unseen in other developed countries, the Peterson gang's out to rob the middle class.

The Gang of Six

And now the Peterson gang's recruited the Gang of Six, a group of Senators determined to enact the Peterson crowd's draconian agenda. The Senators are -- you guessed it -- "bipartisan," which means they belong to both political parties and reflect the majority views of neither. And once again we're told they're "courageous" for putting themselves in line for campaign contributions and cushy post-Senatorial sinecures.

The Gang and its allies made sure Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, the two Peterson operatives who failed to get a report out of their own Deficit Commission, were invited to give a presentation before the Senate Budget Committee. Then they appeared with Simpson and Bowles at the "Moment of Truth" presentation. (All six Senators are male.)

"Deficit-Cut Salesman Hit the Road," reported the Wall Street Journal as the six appeared before two hundred business leaders. (Wonder why they chose that audience?) Their presentation was solid Peterson talking points from start to finish, including the choice of words: "The only way we're going to get this done is for everybody to have skin in the game and everybody to get their ox gored a little bit." "Financial Armageddon." "We have to do this now."

One Gang member, Democrat Mark Warner, said he would no longer support stop-gap budget measures. That will help put pressure on the White House to cut entitlements, despite having thought better of it a few weeks ago. Why? Warner says it's because more stop-gap extensions could hurt the stock market.

Going Post-al

Every Orwellian campaign needs a compliant press, and the Social Security Slashers have been particularly lucky (or effective) in this area. Here's how the Washington Post described the Gang of Six's well-scripted rollout: "While Washington bickers noisily over cutting a small slice of the federal budget, Sens. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, and Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, launched a campaign Monday to convince the public that merely cutting spending will do little to tame the $14 trillion national debt."

Got that? Challenging slanted figures and dishonest statements is "bickering." Representing the majority's wish to raise the payroll tax cap rather than cutting Social Security benefits is "bickering" -- and "noisily" at that. But doing Peterson's will? That's a campaign. And did they really say they would do more than just cut spending? From the Post's own report: "None of us have ever voted for a tax increase, and I don't intend to," said Sen. Chambliss.

Here are a couple more gems from a single day at the Post:

" ... the Senate and House continue to wrangle over how to keep the government funded through the end of September. Simpson, Bowles and the senators' group are working to turn attention back to the country's longer-term fiscal issues." (link)

"Even as congressional debate in recent years has been crippled by partisan rancor, Warner and Chambliss have entered quiet talks with four other senators from both parties in hopes of forging a compromise that could lead toward a more affordable government." (link)

And that's just from yesterday's edition. Who knows what they'll write today?

Last Words

"Entitlement reform" ... "financial Armageddon" ... "now or never" ... "brave" ... "bickering" ... "compromise" ... "affordable" ... "bipartisan" ... "wrangling" ... "Moment of Truth" ... "Paul Revere" ... "Hugh Jidette" ... "Comeback America" ...

Those communications consultants have been earning their money cooking up all these phrases. This crowd wants nothing less than the rollback of a key New Deal program. The consultants who are cooking up all these phrases have learned well from the Ministry of Truth in 1984 , which believed that "the Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect."

They're counting on it.

1 - For more information, see my response to the Peterson Foundation here.

2 - SourceWatch reports that the Committee for a Responsible Budget "receives large swaths of money from the Peterson Foundation via not only the Institute for the Advanced Policy Solutions at Emory University, according to a list compiled by Firedoglake's Jane Hamsher, but also straight from the Peterson Foundation itself, according to the Foundation's 2009 Internal Revenue Service 990 form."

3 - Three-quarters of all Republicans and Tea Partiers oppose cutting Social Security to reduce the deficit. Most Americans want to lift the payroll tax cap to correct Social Security's shortfall, which is expected to begin in 2037. Only 6% of those polled agree that Congress and the President should make deficit-cutting their priority - but they're making it their priority anyway. (There's even more polling information here.)

4 - More on the unconscionable Simpson/Bowles proposals here.

Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.

He can be reached at ""

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