The more he sinks


The more he sinks the more he lies. In fact, I’m not even sure ‘lying’ quite does it justice. He just makes it up as he goes along now.

With apologies for re-covering old territory, for upwards of a decade there’s been a debate, largely between Republicans and Democrats, over private accounts carved out of Social Security or ‘add-on’ accounts, accounts in addition to Social Security.

The add-on terminology has become close to universal in large part because it accurately describes what is being discussed.

Indeed, as recently as yesterday, Secretary Snow said that while the president greatly prefered private accounts as part of Social Security and believed that they would eventually become law, he was willing to put add-ons on the table if Democrats would negotiate.

Here’s how the Times described what Snow had to say …

Mr. Snow said the administration wanted to encourage the development of as many ideas as possible and that it was open to looking at personal accounts that would supplement Social Security rather than, as in the plan President Bush has proposed, replace a portion of the traditional government-paid benefit.

Mr. Snow made it clear that Mr. Bush would prefer his approach, which is built on diverting a portion of a worker’s payroll tax into a private investment account, and he predicted that the president’s plan would win out in the end. And Mr. Snow cited what he said were shortcomings with the supplemental approach, which would require workers to make contributions into private accounts in addition to paying the existing payroll tax.

But his willingness to consider the alternative, known as an add-on account, suggested that the administration was intent on retaining as much flexibility as possible to overcome the political and substantive obstacles that have slowed Mr. Bush’s drive to overhaul Social Security.

On the same day, the Post helpfully pointed out that though Snow was sent out to signal willingness to compromise, the president was only doing this to lure Democrats to the table …

Snow told reporters that Bush also has not ruled out embracing a plan backed by many Democrats to create government-subsidized personal savings accounts outside the existing system. White House officials are privately telling Republicans that Bush is opposed to the idea but does not want to say so because it would appear he is not willing to compromise.

But that was yesterday.

Now, realizing that the add-on terminology is less toxic than his Social Security privatization policy, the president has decided that privatization really is an add-on after all.

From the Bamboozlepalooza event in New Jersey …

This is a retirement account we’re talking about. But it’s your money, and the interest off that money goes to supplement the Social Security check that you’re going to get from the federal government. See, personal accounts is an add-on to that which the government is going to pay you. It doesn’t replace the Social Security system. It is a part of making — getting a better rate of return, though, so — to come closer to the promises made. That’s important to know.

Now we would be remiss if we did not note that the Times article covering the day’s events adopted what can only be called a singularly generous approach to the president’s word games …

Despite widespread evidence that the public is wary of changes to the benefits system, Mr. Bush did not retreat from his plan to divert some payroll taxes into individual accounts. Instead he shifted his language a bit to emphasize the parts of Social Security that would stay the same, describing the popular program as a “safety net” and borrowing a term for the types of accounts some Democrats have favored, “add-on” accounts outside the Social Security benefit system, to now describe his version of private accounts.

Where to start?

In a case where A and B are fundamentally different and you take the term for A and apply it to B, that is not usually known as ‘borrowing’. I’m not sure whether ‘lying’ or ‘deceiving’ or something else altogether is a better term for it. But this isn’t borrowing. It’s simply an effort to mislead.

There’s a clearer way for any newspaper to describe what happened: President Bush misidentified his proposal as an add-on to Social Security.

That covers the whole thing.

Simply look at the president’s proposal, as the White House itself explains it, and you will see that the accounts are funded by diverted Social Security payroll taxes. And those who chose private accounts have their guaranteed benefit cut by an amount that is supposed to be roughly equivalent to what their account might be expected to make under favorable conditions. Under any version of the English language we’re familiar with, that’s not an add-on to Social Security. That comes out of Social Security.

Until today of course when the meaning of all the words changed.

Admittedly, these word games are nothing new. And perhaps men of destiny define words rather than being defined or constrained by them. But just as you cannot have a constructive discussion about strengthening Social Security with someone who wants to phase it out, you also cannot have an honest or meaningful discussion about anything with someone who on a daily basis changes the meaning of the words being discussed.