Eden Hill Journal

Comments, dreams, stories, and rantings from a middle-aged native of Maine living on a shoestring and a prayer in the woods of Maine. My portion of the family farm is to be known as Eden Hill Farm just because I want to call it that and because that's the closest thing to the truth that I could come up with. If you enjoy what I write, email me or make a comment. If you enjoy Eden Hill, come visit.

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Monday, January 31, 2005

Social Security Answers

Here's a .pdf document called Saving Social Security: A Guide to Social Security Reform, dated January 27, 2005 summarizing the Republican strategy for selling the public on the need for Social Security reform:
The document source is identified on page 103:
"For more information about how this speech was developed, please contact Rich Thau at Presentation Testing, Inc. at 212-760-4358."
According to Josh Marshall, January 31, 2005:


the document was used by congressional Republicans at a weekend retreat.
It'll be interesting to see how this debate all plays out. I'm tempted to think that Bush will get his way on this one. Once again, the public perception and the reality don't exactly agree, yet the Republicans are being encouraged to act not so much on the reality as on the public perception. To muddy the debate a bit, In a section titled "Communicating Social Security Reform" on pages 6 and 7, statements like these seem to muddy the waters:

  • "Personalization" not "privatization": Personalization suggests increased personal ownership and control. Privatization connotes the total corporate takeover of Social Security; this is inaccurate and thoroughly turns off listeners, who are very concerned about corporate wrongdoing.
  • Keep the numbers small: Your audience doesn’t know how trillions and billions differ.They know these numbers are large, but not how large nor how many billions make a trillion.
  • Calling the trust fund meaningless will raise hackles. Taxpayers believe it is the source of the monthly checks paid out by Social Security. But, everyone agrees that it is an empty promise.
  • Don’t say, “Social Security lifts seniors out of poverty”
  • Advocates who have educated themselves on the issues sometimes find it hard not to “set the record straight.” Stay focused—don’t get sidetracked.

Here's a good one from page 8 under "Special Issues for Those Over 50":

  • Know how challenging the sale will be:

The "sale?" Republicans are selling Social Security reform to their constituents? OK, so who is turning Congress into a bunch of sales people?
What's strange is that I was listening to Public Television's Nightly Business Report tonight and a guy came on, a former advisor to George W. Bush and now Columbia University expert, and he virtually parroted this same sales pitch to the camera. The only mistake I detected was when he spoke of these personal accounts as "building wealth." This document advises on page 7, "to most Americans building wealth sounds unattainable—especially in the context of Social Security. But on the other hand, putting aside a nest egg sounds like common sense."
Shame on him...

Yet there is one thing in particular that troubles me as I read through this document. While the document characterizes the existing Social Security trust fund, presumably built on "IOUs from the government" (page 87) as "an empty promise" (page 86), under the proposed program, investors nearing retirement will be encouraged to invest in bonds, a more stable investment than stocks. Presumably, government bonds are the most secure investments of all, a fact reflected in their low rate of return. Yet what are these "IOUs from the government" if not government bonds? Has the US government invented for the sake of the Social Security trust fund a low return form of investment that in reality is merely "an empty promise" or are these IOUs in the form of government bonds? If they are government bonds and if they are an empty promise, what would be the advantage if investors under the new system invested their accounts in government bonds as they neared retirement?
I am inclined to think that this document wasn't drafted to clarify any issues but rather to coach congressional Republicans and other conservatives on the new approaches to painlessly selling this program to the American public. Reading it leaves me feeling like I am sitting at an abandoned salesman's desk in the showroom of a high-pressure car dealership while the salesman and his boss watch me sweat over the deal on closed-circuit TV. George Orwell comes clearly to mind.


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