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Social Security semantics watch: Drum emits a howler!

Posted by Hyuuga Cutezz On 4:19 AM

And the young analysts sob: We’re big fans of Kevin Drum around here, although we’d like to have full control of his topic list.

But uh-oh! On Monday, we had to sit the analysts down and tell them that, when Drum makes a mistake, he makes it a genuine doozy. Having read Drum's post about the economic health of Social Security, the young analysts were crying, quite hard.

As he started, Drum said the AP had “embarrassed itself” in its coverage of the recent trustees’ report. The analysts cheered when they read those words. But as he closed, Drum offered this aside, and the tears started to flow:

DRUM (4/23/12): On a related note, I'm going to annoy a few of my fellow lefties and say that we should stop getting bent out of shape when people respond to the Trustees report by saying that Social Security is "going bankrupt" or "running dry" or some similar formulation. There's a hyperlegalistic sense in which this isn't accurate, but honestly, it would be a helluva dramatic event if the trust fund ran out of money and Social Security suddenly had to slash benefits by 25% in 2033 (see chart above). Referring to this as "bankruptcy" isn't all that big a rhetorical stretch, and everyone on both left and right should put away their fainting couches, ditch all the tired excuses, and get to work on a fix that would involve—say it in unison, folks!—a very modest and phased-in cut in benefits combined with a very modest and phased-in increase in taxes. This isn't a hard problem.
“Annoy!” If Drum could have seen the analysts’ tears, he might have regretted his word-choice.

It would indeed be a very bad thing if the Social Security trust fund ran dry and promised benefits had to be cut. (The trustees now project that this will happen in 2033.) But people have been led to believe, for the past three decades, that Social Security won’t be there at all by the time they reach retirement age. Almost surely, the terms “bankrupt” and "bankruptcy" have played a key role in this disinformation campaign.

Because we’re away from our sprawling campus, we won’t provide any links. But voters have been deeply misinformed about the future of Social Security dating to the 1980s.

This isn’t a hyper-legalistic matter; we're not talking about a minor "rhetoriocal stretch." This is one of the greatest disinformation campaigns of the past fifty years. This campaign should be studied in detail, although orgs like the AP never will, and you know all about our professors!

Of course, when people are led to believe that Social Security won’t survive at all on its present course, they can easily be persuaded to favor extreme “reforms.”

The analysts sobbed after reading Drum’s comment. We did our best to maintain control. But we'll admit that we were surprised, even puzzled, by what we read.

Calling for the fainting couch, we pondered the fate of the world.

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