May 2, 2005


Polls indicate President Bush is taking a pounding on the issue of Social Security. I will explain tomorrow why many of these reports are exaggerated. Today, I’ll focus on the simpler issue of why his Social Security sales pitch stinks.

Consider the following passage from the opening statement of the president’s April 28 press conference:

“Congress also needs to address the challenges facing Social Security. I've traveled the country to talk with the American people. They understand that Social Security is headed for serious financial trouble, and they expect their leaders in Washington to address the problem.

“Social Security worked fine during the last century, but the math has changed. A generation of baby boomers is getting ready to retire. I happen to be one of them. Today there are about 40 million retirees receiving benefits; by the time all the baby boomers have retired, there will be more than 72 million retirees drawing Social Security benefits. Baby boomers will be living longer and collecting benefits over long retirements than previous generations. And Congress has ensured that their benefits will rise faster than the rate of inflation.

“In other words, there's a lot of us getting ready to retire who will be living longer and receiving greater benefits than the previous generation. And to compound the problem, there are fewer people paying into the system. In 1950, there were 16 workers for every beneficiary; today there are 3.3 workers for every beneficiary; soon there will be two workers for every beneficiary.

“These changes have put Social Security on the path to bankruptcy. When the baby boomers start retiring in three years, Social Security will start heading toward the red. In 2017, the system will start paying out more in benefits than it collects in payroll taxes. Every year after that the shortfall will get worse, and by 2041, Social Security will be bankrupt.”

Check out the leaden phrases: “the math has changed...40 million retirees receiving benefits...more than 72 million retirees drawing Social Security benefits...16 workers for every beneficiary...3.3 workers for every beneficiary; soon there will be two workers for every beneficiary...In 2041...”

Not one syllable of this stuff resonates with people sitting at home watching on TV. It sounds as if some rogue accountant has invaded the president’s body, and filled his head statistical dross.

I agree with the president, and I actually sympathize with his argument, but this is unbearably abstract and dull. So what would I, Mr. Smarty Pants Radio Host, do instead? I would speak Dinner Table English. Here are the key rules:

• Rule Number One: Stay out of the tall grass.

Every speechwriter fancies turning the president into the God of All Policy Wonks. A good stack of statistics give the impression that the commander in chief not only is the head of government, but has total, dazzling mastery of each and every topic that crosses his desk. Reams of numbers also put people to sleep. Tall Grass speeches almost always impress the wrong people — policy analysts, scholars, nerds who have spent their lives poring over reams of statistical analysis.

• Rule Number Two: Explain the core issue in terms people can understand.

Yes, Social Security is an actuarial nightmare and yes, the trustees of the system warn of dire consequences in the distant and not-so-distant futures, but the real problem is far more fundamental than that. The real sin with Social Security is that it’s a long-term rip-off and a short-term scam.

Here’s how the system works. Every pay period, Uncle Sam takes some of our earnings and claims to set it aside for Social Security. Instead, Congress spends the money immediately. There is no Social Security Trust Fund. Nobody is placing your earnings in a safe place, where it might earn interest and grow in value. Politicos are spending it — on merry-go-rounds, $500,000 rest-stop outhouses, and other matters of vital federal concern.

When you retire, Congress will give you back some of the money you contributed, but there is no guarantee you’ll get what you’ve been promised. If the honorables have spent the money, you may get back only a fraction of what you contributed, and if you get shorted, there’s nothing you can do about it. The Supreme Court has issued a ruling on the topic.

In other words, Social Security is every bit as insecure as the stock market. Actually, it is more so. There is no five- or ten-year period in which the stock market produced a lower return than Social Security. Therefore, if you put your money into a market account, rather than just giving it to Congress to spend, you stand a very high chance of retiring richer. To get some idea how much, try out the Cato Institute’s Social Security calculator.

So, to return to our dinner-table rhetoric rule, here’s a simple question that translates the Social Security issue into simple terms:

“What would you rather do for your retirement: Let Congress spend your nest egg today, or set aside money in a market account, where it can gather interest and grow from now until the day you retire?”

This formulation leads us to

• Rule Number Three: When possible, humanize conflict by identifying a villain and a hero

This one is a no-brainer. Congress is the villain in this tale. It has turned Social Security into a piggy bank, which it raids with impunity.

The president can become the White Hat by proposing an arrangement that takes away Congress’s temptation to steal by establishing personal retirement accounts that honorables cannot touch, and replacing an insecure system with one that offers the very real prospect of a more secure and lucrative retirement.

To rephrase, in terms of good guys and bad guys: In this issue, the bad guys steal your money, while the good guy returns it...with interest.

• Rule Number Four: Lay out a battle plan, and invite the public to join in the fun.

It’s all well and good to analyze a problem, find a villain, and describe policies that will create a happy, wonderful world, but none of this will excite voters unless a politician has a plan for getting to the promised land.

The president hasn’t done this. White House sources say he won’t unveil a plan until this summer. But that will give him the chance to marshall his rhetorical sources, speak a little Dinner Table English, and turn what to date has been a P.R. disaster into the opening salvo in a successful battle to overhaul a system that began as a wonderful system to aid widows and orphans, but over the years hardened into a costly and potentially disastrous hoax.

That’s all for this installment of Dinner Table Talk, but in coming days, I’ll apply the same tools to some of the key Social Security arguments – such as the claim the president wants to “cut benefits” by vast sums.

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