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A New Year's pledge: Don't let politicians and pundits say Social Security and Medicare 'reforms' when they mean 'cuts'

A New Year's pledge: Don't let politicians and pundits say Social Security and Medicare 'reforms' when they mean 'cuts'
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is a serial exploiter of weasel words to conceal his intention to cut social benefits. (Associated Press)

Just before New Year's, economist Jared Bernstein published the second in what may be an annual feature: A plea to the media to call out politicians who try to conceal their intention to gut Social Security and Medicare by talking about "reforms" instead of "cuts."

Bernstein, who served as chief economist for former Vice President Joe Biden, originally raised the alarm about this sort of weaseling a year ago. I seconded the motion then, and do so again now.

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One expects politicians to conceal their intentions behind a obfuscating scrim. The problem is that news organizations become complicit in their underhanded efforts to cut social program benefits by employing the benefit-cutters' terminology.

If the other fellow can get you to use his words, he wins.


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Just after Christmas, for example, Politico achieved a multi-fecta in an article about disagreements between House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) over Medicaid and Medicare.

Reading from the top down, the article referred to "overhauling" the programs, to "reform," "welfare and entitlement changes" and "policy modifications." These are Republican terms for benefit cuts. There's no excuse for journalists repeating them without defining them. But one has to drill pretty deeply into the Politico piece to find the first mention of benefit "cuts" (to paragraph 12, actually).

Other weasel words often found creeping into what purport to be objective reports about social programs are "reshape," "revamp," "modernize" and especially "fix." As we've observed in the past, Republican plans for Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps and other such programs are "fixes" in the same sense that one "fixes" a cat or the Mafia "fixes" an informer.

I've mentioned (in another context) the warning delivered in a 1965 speech by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) about what he called "semantic infiltration" in policy debates: "If the other fellow can get you to use his words, he wins."

To Bernstein's list of words to watch out for, we'd add a few suspect debating points that tend to creep into discussions of social programs:

"Entitlements": Republicans and conservative enemies of Social Security and Medicare seem to have succeeded in turning this term into a dirty word. They use it to imply that recipients of these programs' benefits don't get them because they need them, but just because — perhaps in the sense that the wealthy don't need another tax cut, but believe they're "entitled" to it (though the GOP probably wouldn't use that example). The truth is that these programs are indeed "entitlements" in the truest sense — their enrollees have paid for them over their working lives, through the payroll tax, and in the case of Medicare through annual premiums, and therefore are entitled to the benefits they've purchased.

Social Security will hold fairly steady as a percentage of GDP (left-hand scale), according to this projection by the Congressional Budget Office, but not so Medicare and Medicaid; beware when politicians try to lump them together.
Social Security will hold fairly steady as a percentage of GDP (left-hand scale), according to this projection by the Congressional Budget Office, but not so Medicare and Medicaid; beware when politicians try to lump them together. (Congressional Budget Office)

Social Security and Medicare are not the same thing: Conservatives often will lump these two programs together as "drivers of the deficit," as though they play equivalent roles in federal budgeting. Sometimes they'll be lumped in with other social programs. One will see language such as this, from a CNBC.com article a few weeks ago: "Programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program comprise the bulk of the government's expenditures every year."

That's a bit like saying that Clayton Kershaw and I notched a total of 18 wins last year. The truth is that most of the growth in these programs is concentrated in healthcare, not Social Security. According to the Congressional Budget Office, Social Security's share of gross domestic product will rise by about 1.5 percentage points over the next three decades, to 6.4%. The share going to Medicare, Medicaid and the Childrens Health Insurance Program (if Congress ever gets around to reauthorizing CHIP) will rise by 3.3 percentage points, to 8.8%.

Leaving aside the question of why these outlays shouldn't be well within the resources of the richest nation in the world, it's obvious that two distinct trends are at work. Social Security's finances can be adjusted within the four walls of its benefits and its revenues, which come from the payroll tax, interest on its reserves, and income tax on benefits. The former can be cut and the latter raised.

The healthcare programs are sensitive to a key externality — the cost of healthcare. You can't reduce the cost of Medicare or Medicaid in any significant way unless you reduce the cost of those services — unless you simply eliminate those services. That makes the policy choices for those programs very different from those for Social Security. The lesson is: Beware of politicians who say "Social Security and Medicare are too expensive, so we have to cut Social Security."

What's driving the deficit? The sophistry of the claim that Social Security and Medicare are "the biggest drivers of the national debt," as was implied in the Politico piece, is underscored by recent events. The article quoted Ryan as stating on CBS a few days before Christmas, "We have to address entitlements, otherwise we can't really get a handle on our future debt." That's a remark that deserves horselaughs, given that the tax cuts Ryan and his GOP colleagues just handed out to corporations and their wealthy donors will create a deficit of $1.4 trillion or more in the next 10 years.

Jared Bernstein acknowledged in his most recent piece that "the policy media has seriously picked up its game in the age of Trump. Both on health care and taxes, more often than not, journalists cut through the phony language and clearly identified who was expected to win and lose from the proposals."

That's a positive sign. But "semantic infiltration" is a powerful force. Here's betting that one year from now, Bernstein and I will have to issue a third annual plea for journalists to beware of politicians' weaseling.

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Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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