Column

Politicians aiming to cut Social Security and Medicare use weasel words to hide their plans. Let's call them on it.

In this era in which the Orwellian manipulation of language by politicians to say the opposite of what they mean has reached a fever pitch, we should be especially wary when conservatives hide their plans to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits behind a smokescreen of euphemism. 

Jared Bernstein, a fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and a former chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden, has put in a plea to journalists to call out policy makers when they pull this stunt—and not to empower politicians by doing the same thing.

“Though many policy makers want to cut these social insurance programs, they rarely say ‘cut,’” he writes. “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…. Please stop the obfuscation. When policy makers are talking about cutting entitlements, call it like it is.” 

We second the motion. We’ve been particularly wary of plans described as “fixes” to Social Security and Medicare. As we’ve observed, these are invariably “fixes” in the same sense that one “fixes” a cat. But several other such weasel words surfaced in coverage of the confirmation hearing for Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), President Trump’s budget director-designate. NPR reported that Mulvaney “wants to overhaul” Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. CNN said that he “wants to overhaul” the programs and believes they “need revamping to survive”—a journalistic twofer!

Let’s not allow these euphemisms to obscure Mulvaney’s true opinions about these programs. He proposes to raise Social Security’s normal retirement age to 70 (it now tops out at 67 for those born in 1960 or later), and to means-test Medicare. These are benefit cuts any way you define them.

Mulvaney also has described Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme,” a term he tried to evade during his Jan. 24 confirmation hearing. He said he was just trying to explain Social Security’s cash flow, which “takes money from people now in order to give money to people now.” That’s not a Ponzi scheme. Moreover, that’s not a full and accurate description of Social Security’s cash flow, which collects money from people now and banks some of it to provide benefits for people in the future. (Do we really want a budget director whose understanding of one of America’s most important fiscal programs is so vacuous?)

As Bernstein pointed out, politicians understand that Social Security and Medicare are beloved by Americans, and for good reason: They represent value for money. Both programs incur rock-bottom administrative costs while delivering more than a trillion dollars a year in benefits to tens of millions of American retirees and families. 

Republicans and conservatives have plotted for decades to turn this flow of cash over to Wall Street via privatization. Financial firms would skim billions off the top, administrative costs would soar, and to make up for the diversion benefits would shrink. The promoters of these schemes can’t tell the truth about this, of course, so they talk about “reforming,” “revamping,” and “overhauling,” as though they’re dressing a crumbling old house with a new coat of paint.

As Kathy Ruffing, a consultant to the CBPP, points out, the group George W. Bush empaneled to put over his privatization scheme in 2001 was called the “Commission to Strengthen Social Security.” Luckily for millions of Americans whose retirements were saved when the effort failed, most people weren’t fooled.

The privatizers and benefit-cutters haven’t stopped trying. They still cloak their plans in the mantle of “reform” and “rescue.” The House GOP’s latest package of proposed Social Security cuts, unveiled in December, was described by its sponsor, Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas), as a “plan to permanently save Social Security.” 

Earlier this month, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) bragged on “Charlie Rose” that he has been “the Medicare reform guy in Congress for many years.” This is, once again, “reform” as benefit-cutting. What Ryan proposes to do is replace traditional Medicare with a privatized program. Seniors would get a federal voucher to help them pay premiums charged by commercial insurance plans. (Ryan calls this system “premium support,” another wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing euphemism.) 

But since the value of the vouchers would rise slower than the rate of healthcare inflation and the costs of private insurance typically rise faster than those of Medicare, an ever-larger share of healthcare costs would land on seniors’ shoulders. In 2011, when Ryan first proposed this change, the Kaiser Family Foundation calculated that by 2022, healthcare spending would consume roughly half of the typical 65-year-old’s Social Security check, compared to only 22% under the existing Medicare system. That’s a benefit cut.

The notion underlying all these schemes is that American seniors and retirees have it too good, and can survive on less. That’s the ultimate deception. As Bernstein writes, “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??”

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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