Media: Please don’t let policy makers use euphemisms for cuts in social insurance.

January 25th, 2017 at 11:44 am

Especially in the age of “alternative facts,” it’s really important for policy makers and especially journalists to use clear, transparent language. One area where that’s particularly germane right now is in regard to cutting Social Security and Medicare.

Though many policy makers want to cut these social insurance programs, they rarely say “cut.” Instead, because the programs are so highly valued by recipients, policy makers say “reform,” “overhaul,” “change,” “revamp,” and “fix” the program. In the vast majority of these formulations, these verbs are euphemisms for cuts, and it’s very important for journalists to call them out as such.

When NPR writes that Trump’s nominee for budget chief Mick Mulvaney “wants to overhaul these entitlement programs,” for example, do readers understand that “overhaul” means reduce promised benefits? I’m sure many do not.

There are many variants of this problem when it comes to writing about the fiscal condition of these social insurance programs. When policy makers talk about “raising the retirement age” as a way to improve solvency, which sounds pretty benign, it’s essential to make clear that this is a benefit cut, as Kathleen Romig points out here:

Raising the retirement age cuts benefits for all retirees, the cuts could be deep, and they would fall hardest on lower- and middle-income Americans — who rely heavily on their hard-earned Social Security and have not shared equally in recent life expectancy gains.

When policy makers or journalists talk about how Social Security and Medicare are “running out of money” or “going broke,” it should be pointed out that they are by no means going broke and that, even without any changes, both will be able to pay full benefits for over a decade (through 2028 for Medicare and through 2034 for Social Security) and continue to pay the vast majority of promised benefits (75 percent for Social Security and 87 percent for Medicare) thereafter.

To be clear, that is an unacceptable outcome that must be avoided, which leads me to my final point. As I’ve stressed, the implicit assumption in this debate almost always seems to be that reforming and fixing and overhauling mean cutting.

But why should that be the default? Raise your hand if you think America’s problem is that we have too much income and health care security in retirement. Anyone…anyone…Bueller??

Progressives increasingly believe that overhaul and reform should mean strengthening and expanding social insurance, and we’re not afraid to offer concrete ideas as to how to raise the needed resources to do so. (It also helps if people pay their employees’ payroll taxes.)

In the meantime, please stop the obfuscation. When policy makers are talking about cutting entitlements, call it like it is.

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12 comments in reply to "Media: Please don’t let policy makers use euphemisms for cuts in social insurance."

  1. Sharon says:

    This is NOT your money. Keep your hands off!

  2. Katrina M Brown says:

    Media: please do not use euphemisms when describing cuts to Social Security.

  3. Ethan says:

    Damn right it’s an entitlement! When I pay for my groceries, I’m entitled to take them home. I’ve already paid for my Social Security and Medicare, and I’m still paying for my Medicare (premium). Since I’ve paid for them, I’m entitled to them, and I intend to yell if the government refuses to let me have them.

  4. Jim says:

    Ethan, the FICA and Medicare taxes I pay now go to you and other retirees. It’s not like the government stashed away your withholdings for your retirement. You’re entitled through a social contract: Those who pay are entitled to collect when they retire.
    I’m happy to partake on both ends.

    For Jared, has anyone run numbers on how much we could increase FICA payouts and or reduce the retirement age by doubling, tripling or even getting rid of FICA income ceiling?

  5. upnorth says:

    Frank Luntz came up with “Entitlements” and the press repeats it. The media needs to have some push back on this. How about pre-funded retirement, etc.?

  6. Jo says:

    We paid for it, unless they would like to return to me a lump sum with interest accrued over 50 years.

  7. Gerald Scorse says:

    “When policy makers are talking about cutting entitlements, call it like it is.” Of course; even the Orange One should be in favor. After all, isn’t he a big believer in “saying it like it is”?

  8. Prairie Populist says:

    Political doublespeak only works because our national conversation is carried on at such a superficial level: bullet points, rapid-fire change of subject, infantilization, infotainment, arrogant button-pushing. Not just politicians, ads too, content programming, trite repartee between talking heads. No wonder fake news does so well on social media. Entertainment over truth.

    I mostly read, but lately I’m watching TV about 12 hours a day because I’m caring for a sick family member and TV is always on. I am aghast at the banality of it all. This is fertile ground for demagogues like Trump. We have indeed ‘amused ourselves to death’.

  9. elkern says:

    I second Jim’s request for a napkin-math simulation of what happens if we end the regressive Cap on FICA taxes. Screw the half-measures (“double/triple the Cap”); that sounds too much like something the Democrats would wind up doing, but it’s a stupid place to start the conversation.

    And if that doesn’t fix SS for the rest of time, where would we have to cap the outlays? ( let the millionaires scream ).

    • Jared Bernstein says:

      This doc says that eliminating the tax max, aka payroll cap, would close 71% of the solvency gap, which is much more than most changes I see considered (not that anyone’s considering this).

      BUT, I’m pretty sure that this estimate ignores the usual way Soc Sec wonks think about this, which is that if you raised the cap, you’d have to raise the future benefits of people who were paying more into the system (not saying that’s what you’re suggesting, but that’s a very likely political outcome if we were ever to be able to get Congress to consider this sort of idea). That reduces that 71% to maybe something like–and I’m just guessing–40-50%. Still pretty good!

      • elkern says:

        Thx. “Eliminate the Cap” seems like the obvious place to start. Next question: Why are (too many) Democrats afraid to go there?

  10. Jackie Counts says:

    I am retired but I worked hard all of my working life and paid the FICA and other taxes every payday. My retirement was structured using Social Security as an integral part of figuring my retirement and I also paid in toward was eventually my annuity. So now you want to reorganize, restructure, upgrade….what a bunch of bullflooey! Here we go again, stealing, plundering, with no penalties and when our esteemed legislators retire it won’t be their program because a few years ago they wrote/legislated/voted (how does that work?) themselves a really great golden fleece retirement…heavy on that word ‘fleece’ as in fleecing the taxpayers regarding merely a regular person being forced to pay into something that congress has stripped and now you have your eyes on Medicare and anything else that will put more money in the ultra wealthy folks’ pockets. Shame on you.

    There wouldn’t be a Social Security shortfall at all if miscellaneous members of Congress had not systematically raped the huge amount that hard working taxpayers contributed and our elected officials time after time took money out of the reserve leaving a useless IOU that they never intended to pay back. I strongly believe that some arm twisting is in order to get them to find a way to pay back what they legally “stole” from those in this country who believed in them….what a mistake. However, they DID take the money and are probably in a fair enough financial position to put some of it back. Maybe then our children will not be charged SSI taxes with no hope of recouping some of that when they retire. Right now they are very bitter about what will happen to them again, thanks to crooked unprincipled legislators.

    Don’t try to make what you will propose as being a benevolent, concerned and having our interests at heart because first you have to have a heart moreover a conscience might be a nice add on for youl