Saturday, April 30, 2005

President Bush: A Man In Tights?

I must confess that a wry smile broke across my countenance when I heard President Bush's defiant claim during his press conference the other night that he doesn't look at polls. Soon afterward, Bush unveiled a vague framework for revamping Social Security that had all the hallmarks of a pre-polled, market-tested, packaged product (more on this below). The question nagging to be asked, though, is if Bush is so disdainful of polls, and sticks to his guns regardless of public sentiment, why not just reiterate his privatization scheme rather than trot out this shiny new distraction? The answer is, the earlier version of his Social Security proposal was getting the polls.

Enter Luntz-speak. People like
David Brooks tell the Democrats that paying attention to language and framing is a waste of time - and that although the Republicans have been spending billions of dollars, and dedicating countless hours over three-plus decades to corner the market on both, it really doesn't yield any dividends. Nothing to see here Dems, move along. Joshua Green, perhaps under the illusion that people like Brooks are offering well-meaning advice, chides Democrats for their attention to language and framing, describing it as a misguided quest for a conscience salving excuse for recent electoral failings. Both are wrong of course, even if some Democrats might take Lakoffian principles on faith, without enlisting a broader array of voices in the process, or fail to recognize that it is but one facet in a grand mosaic of tactics and institutions.

In the meantime, as Democrats fight amongst themselves about the importance of language and the wisdom of Lakoff (presumably, under the Brooks theory, getting stronger in the process - look out GOP, we sure are at each other's throats now), President Bush and his wordsmiths are busy sneaking up behind us with a legislative dagger cloaked in the linguistic sheath of a New Deal crusader - or better yet, as New York Times columnist
John Tierney put it today - Robin Hood, a president in tights.

Democrats like to portray Mr. Bush as King George or Marie Antoinette. But on Thursday night, when he promised to improve benefits for the poor while limiting them for everyone else, he sounded more like Robin Hood, especially when he rhapsodized about poor people getting a chance to build up assets that they could pass along to their children.
In reality, the President's plan did not call for improving benefits for the poor, it just maintained what they would be getting if Social Security were left untouched. In the parlance of the day, somehow, that is transformed into an improvement. Under that rationale, I guess I get a raise every time I get a paycheck. Who knew?

And the show continues. Tierney was duplicitously lauding a plan that has been described by some, especially Bush himself, as affecting social security benefits thusly:

A slight benefit reduction for middle income and upper income earners, but with the lowest income earners benefits' left untouched - or "improved" if you will.

In doing so, Bush was trying to portray himself as a compassionate conservative, and someone who cares for the poorest Americans - a dubious contention that could be shredded with even the most cursory examination of the changes to the tax code that have occurred over the past four years. But it will likely have its desired effect - at least in the hopelessly sycophantic corporate media.

Speaking of which, we didn't have to wait long for stories like Tierney's to emerge which claim that Bush has turned the tables on Democrats by defending the poor at the expense of the mega-wealthy - even called it a "populist face on his Social Security plan." Now tell me again why language doesn't matter?

A closer look at the numbers behind Bush's plan, however, reveal the subterfuge (note to media: if bloggers can do this, so can you). Then again, who has the time or the interest to take "a closer look" - or so the GOP language masters believe - rightly so. Nevertheless,
Kevin Drum is all over it (as is the tireless Josh Marshall who I recommend as a valuable resource on all things Social Security - not that I'm telling many of you anything new in that) . Upon further review, this Robin Hood is a Scrooge.

So it turns out that the Social Security plan George Bush talked about last night was based on a proposal called the "Pozen Plan," named after Bob Pozen, who first suggested it. CBPP has a detailed breakdown of the plan, but for those of you with short attention spans I've cut it down to a single chart.

Basically, low income earners ($16K/year) currently get about 49% of their income replaced by Social Security. Under the Pozen plan, this would stay the same. Medium income workers ($36K/year), however, would see their replacement rate fall from 36% to 23% by the year 2100. The replacement rate for higher income workers ($58K/year) would fall to 14% and for maximum income workers ($90K/year) to 9%.
As mentioned, Kevin was even kind enough to include an easy to read chart for those who prefer graphic depictions (not that I would require such aids - honest). So let me sum it up: There will be steep cuts in benefits for everyone, except for people the President describes as "better off." The kicker is, as Kevin and Josh point out, anyone making over $20,000 a year is included in the "better off" category. $20,000 a year. Better off. Let that sink in for a moment. Steep cuts in benefits for anyone making over $20,000. This is "Robin Hood." Tell me again why framing is a waste of time?

Oh yeah, and as an aftertought, outshone by the halo of Christian beneficence beaming from just above Bush's head, was that nasty little detail that private accounts will still be implemented as the multi-trillion dollar poison pill to undo Social Security in the near future regardless.

The real way to shore up Social Security has always been to ensure fiscal discipline which provides substance to the backing for the "trust fund." Without budgetary flexibility, Social Security is in jeopardy, but just as every other federally funded program is. Unfortunately, "Robin Hood's" massive tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans (and by wealthiest, I mean earning about a hundred times more than $20,000 a year) has crippled the federal government's ability to fund a whole host of obligations - hence the record setting deficits and explosion of debt. To the extent that Social Security in particular needs additional tinkering, there are measures to take that would not result in large benefit cuts for the middle class. Perhaps, raising the limit on the payroll tax (currently only the first $87 thousand is taxed, which is regressive since those making millions pay taxes on a much smaller share of their income). How about scaling back benefits for the actual wealthiest Americans (millionaires, not $20,000-aires), or at the very least, not cutting taxes on the benefits they receive. Ironically, that is exactly what the latest Bush budget includes: tax cuts on the benefits that the real wealthiest Americans pay on Social Security benefits. How can an administration that continues to shift the tax burden from working class and middle class Americans to the incredibly wealthy be characterized as "populist," "generous" or "compassionate to the little guy"? Only in Kansas America.

This blatant contradiction can be seen in the faux concern that Bush supporters like Tierney show for the plight of the people that these programs were established to help - in addition to many in the middle class who get stiffed big time by the pseudo-compassionate commander in chief:

[The Democrats] know that Social Security doesn't even have the money to sustain a program that leaves millions of elderly people in poverty...

Social Security has an image as a progressive program because low-income workers get back bigger monthly checks, relative to their salaries, than high-income workers do. They're also more likely to get disability benefits.

But they lose out in other ways. They tend to start working and paying taxes at a relatively young age because they don't go to college, but then end up collecting benefits for fewer years because their life expectancy is shorter. They're more likely to be unmarried, making them ineligible for benefits earned by a spouse.
So let me get this straight, according to Tierney, Social Security doesn't provide enough money, as is, to keep millions of elderly out of poverty, and is disproportionately burdensome on working class Americans. The solution: cut benefits further, weaken a system to the brink of death altogether, and in the meantime preserve all the regressive tax cuts that Bush has ushered in which only exacerbate the destitute conditions these Americans must endure, and weaken the federal government's ability to offer relief in any form. If this is Robin Hood, I'll take my chances with the Sheriff of Nottingham.

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