Bush makes Social Security "personal"


Farhad Manjoo
January 27, 2005 3:28AM (UTC)

Not surprisingly, in his press conference today the president dismissed all questions regarding the specifics of his Social Security privatization scheme. Bush declined even to acknowledge obvious mathematical truisms -- for instance that the government will need to borrow a couple trillion dollars or so to cover the transition costs associated with pulling money out of Social Security and setting up private investment accounts. Still, despite his reticence, it was possible to see in Bush's words the outline of what will likely be a very aggressive effort, beginning with the State of the Union address next week, to -- how to put this without scaring people? -- throw out the New Deal.

The main thing we noticed today was the president's language, and the language of the reporters questioning him. The way to fix Social Security, Bush said, was to let people divert money from their payroll taxes and invest it in what he called "personal accounts." Note the repetition of his words here: "Personal accounts are very important ... a personal account, obviously, under strict guidelines of investment, will yield a better rate of return ... and personal accounts will enable a worker to be able to pass on his or her earnings...."

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And note what reporters asked him: "Q: Mr. President, at the beginning of your remarks today you referred to two criteria that you're looking for on a Social Security fix; namely, permanent solvency and personal accounts.... Q: Any transition to personal accounts is estimated to cost between $1 trillion to $2 trillion over 10 years.... Q: Are you prepared today to say that those who opt into a potential private account -- a personal account could, in fact, have a guaranteed benefit, as well?"

It wasn't too long ago that proponents of plans to divert money from Social Security payroll taxes into the stock market were using words like "privatize" and "private accounts" to describe their ideas. This would seem to be the accurate terminology: Social Security is a government program funded by public tax dollars. Diverting that public money into the stock market would "privatize" the program; the money that people invest in the companies in the market would have to be held in "private accounts."

The problem for Republicans, though, is that the word "privatize" -- and, by association, the phrase "private account" -- polls badly. "Personal account" is much friendlier. Nobody wants to "privatize" Social Security, the logic goes, but who would object to "personalizing" it? Sometime last year, then, word came down from Republican HQ that "private account" was verboten; from now on, Republicans would use the phrase "personal account" to describe their plan, and they would compel the media to use that phrase as well. Language maven and conservative columnist William Safire admitted as much in his On Language magazine column on Jan. 2: "This past summer, at the Republican convention in New York," Safire wrote, "the former House majority leader Richard Armey took me aside at a fat-cat function and whispered, 'Personal is the word, not private.'''

The President and others in his party have since been cowing reporters into using "personal" instead of "private." At his December press conference, a reporter noted, "You've been talking extensively about the benefits of private accounts. But by most estimations, private accounts may leave something for young workers at the end, but wouldn't do much to solve the overall financial problem with Social Security...." Bush replied: "As to personal accounts...."

The same thing happened when reporters from the Washington Post interviewed Bush on Air Force One a couple weeks ago. "Will you talk to Senate Democrats about your privatization plan?" they asked. "You mean, the personal savings accounts?" Bush replied. "We don't want to be editorializing, at least in the questions." When the reporters pointed out that Bush had in fact used the words "private account" in a speech, he was shocked: "It's amazing what happens when you're tired," he said.

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It's true, though. As the Post and many bloggers have pointed out, Bush and other conservative proponents of privatizing Social Security have used "private account" on many occasions. It's unclear how sleepy Bush was when, for example, he told the crowd at a fundraiser in September that young workers need "a private account that they can call their own, a private account they can pass on to the next generation, and a private account that government can't take away." TAPPED's Matthew Yglesias notes that the libertarian Cato Institute's main privatization advocacy site, socialsecurity.org, also brims with instances of these words -- see here, here, and here.

Given recent Republican use of "private account," it is ridiculous for the press to shy away from the phrase at Bush's insistence. It's not clear yet that any outlets have adopted an actual policy on this; scanning the newspapers and the wire services, reporters seem to be going back and forth between "personal" and "private." But judging from what reporters said at the press conference today, not to mention the apparent uptick in the use of "personal accounts" at the New York Times and other publications, it would seem that reporters and columnists are at least leaning the Bush way. Their choice of language may even be unconscious; after all, even Times columnist Paul Krugman -- as vociferous a critic of the president's plan as you can find -- seems to have taken to using the GOP phraseology.

Does it really matter whether the press says the president wants "personal accounts" or "private accounts"?

It matters a great deal, and not only because changing language to fit the Bush version of reality is creepily Orwellian. It matters because the GOP is right in the first place: Both the word "privatization" and the concept -- privatizing a fundamental social safety net -- are scary. Republicans have proven adept at winning big fights by choosing the right fighting words -- "death tax," "partial-birth abortion" -- and this is another attempt to do so. The press, by using the word "personal" rather than "private," shouldn't be helping them along the way.

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Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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