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Daily Howler: ''Which word is right,'' Brooks Jackson asks. But that's not the way to approach this
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HOW TO SUCCEED AT SEMANTICS! “Which word is right,” Brooks Jackson asks. But that’s not the way to approach this: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, MAY 4, 2005

HOW TO SUCCEED AT SEMANTICS: Yes, a semantic war has broken out about Bush’s proposal for Social Security. At FactCheck,org, former CNN ace Brooks Jackson has already noted the problem:
JACKSON (4/29/05): Sometimes it seems as though Democrats and Republicans are living in parallel universes. Consider these two duelling quotes from April 29, regarding the President's announcement that he is supporting "progressive indexing" of Social Security benefits for future retirees:

President Bush: I propose that future generations receive benefits equal to or greater than the benefits today's seniors get.

Senator Harry Reid: This plan will provide deep benefit cuts for middle-class seniors.

So which is it—steady benefits or reduced benefits?

In fact, those “parallel universes” are even more separate than Jackson’s passage suggests. As we’ve seen, while Dems complain about Bush’s “cuts,” Bush’s supporters tout his benefit “increases.” On the surface, it does sound like they’re looking at two different plans.

“Which side is right?” Jackson asks at one point. But Jackson shows his amateur status when he asks this unhelpful question. That isn’t the way a semantic fight works. Semantic disputes really aren’t like that.

What happens in a semantic dispute? Surprise! In a semantic dispute, everyone agrees on the facts; it may not seem that way at first glance, but the facts really aren’t in dispute. Instead, people fight about favored ways to describe the facts—facts on which everyone agrees. And that’s what’s happening in the current debate, where everyone does agree on the facts. In this current debate, for example, everyone knows what level of benefits SS recipients currently get. And everyone knows what level of benefits they’re currently scheduled to get in the future. Beyond that, everyone knows the level of benefits people would get from the Pozen plan—the plan from which Bush is now working. In short, when you watch the dispute about Bush’s plan, there’s no real dispute about the key facts. Instead, the dispute concerns something else—it concerns favored ways to arrange and describe those key facts.

“Which side is right?” Jackson asks. But in a real semantic dispute, that’s rarely the most helpful question to ask. Except in highly technical areas, we rarely have hard-and-fast rules prescribing the names we get to call things. For that reason, the best way to resolve a semantic dispute is to look for ways to describe the facts while avoiding the terms that are in dispute. Jackson misunderstands this point in his largely unhelpful review.

Who is “right” in this dispute? For our money, the claim that benefits would “increase” under Bush is far more misleading than the claim that they’re “cut.” But that is always a matter of judgement. Again, here are the facts that we would lay out to help people see the shape of Bush’s proposal. Note that you don’t have to use the disputed word “cut” to describe the basic facts that are involved here:

First: At present, middle-income retirees get a check from SS that equals roughly 36 percent of their previous income. Everyone agrees on that fact.

Second: Under the Pozen plan, such retirees would instead get 26 percent of their pre-retirement income. Everyone agrees on that, too.

Third: The Pozen plan only resolves about 70 percent of the system’s projected solvency problem. (Everyone agrees on that.) If Bush wants to fix the solvency problem without adding new revenue, he may have to set benefit levels even lower than he has said—at perhaps 20 percent.

Conclusion? At present, middle-income earners get about 36 percent of their income replaced by SS when they retire. Under Bush’s plan, that may be 20 percent instead. Just state those facts to the average person. Trust us: You won’t have to say the word “cuts.” And they won’t think of this as an “increase.”

Are Democrats right when they use the word “cuts?” Are Bush flacks right when they use the word “increase?” You don’t have to use either word to lay out the basic facts of this case—facts which really aren’t in dispute. The best way to settle semantic disputes is to avoid the words that are under dispute. Democrats, just give people the facts we have listed. Their imaginations will take them from there.

TOMORROW: What else is new? Bush calls it a “cut” when it suits his purpose. When it doesn’t, he calls it an “increase.”

ACCEPT NO SUBSTITUTE FOR “REPLACEMENT:” If history serves as any guide, reporters are going to have a hard time sorting out this semantic dispute. (For example, Michael Fletcher is flailing hard in this morning’s Post.) Democrats shouldn’t waste their time arguing about which word is actually “right;” that rarely produces best outcomes. (Republicans can quickly present a context in which their word is “right,” too.) Instead, Dems should try to get the concept of “replacement rate” into the SS discussion. In this morning’s New York Times, for example, Richard Stevenson does a pretty good job of laying out fair-and-balanced facts about the effects of Bush’s proposal. But uh-oh! The notion of “income replacement” is nowhere to be found! In our view, people understand the problem best when you give them the facts we have listed above. How much of a worker’s previous income will get “replaced” by his SS check? A lot of confusion gets wiped away if you offer the facts we have listed. Everyone agrees on those facts—and people will quickly see the problem with Bush’s proposal, whatever you might want to call it.

Bonus: Defining dishonesty down!

GEORGE WILL IN THE WORLD (PART 2): Oh, how the mighty have fallen! Michael Kinsley was raving hard about Bush’s great honesty in Sunday’s Post (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/2/05). “There was a remarkable amount of honesty and near-honesty,” the fiery liberal columnist said, discussing last Thursday’s presidential press conference. “Above all, Bush was honest and even courageous about Social Security.” In fact, one day after Bush’s conference, he journeyed out to Falls Church, Virginia—and baldly lied about his proposal. (And yes, the things Bush did and said that day can only be described as a “lie.”) Good grief! We’ve really dumbed dishonesty down when we praise Bush, two days later, for his vast honesty on this subject. And we’ve really dumbed dishonesty down when our great “liberal spokesmen” do this.

But forget about that trip to Falls Church; despite the praise that Kinsley lavished, Bush wasn’t especially honest about Social Security at his press conference, either. He continued to make his favorite misleading statement: “By 2041, Social Security will be bankrupt.” He made the silly claim Dana Milbank later cited, about the 1983 reform: “They thought we had it fixed 22 years ago for 75 years, and here we are, 22 years later after the fix, talking about it again.” (We’re only talking about it because Bush brought it up. According to the CBO, that fix will hold for 47 more years.)
Most important, he made another key statement, one that can easily mislead the public: “I propose that future generations receive benefits equal to or greater than the benefits today's seniors get.” That claim creates a misleading picture in the mind of average viewers. Today’s seniors get 36 percent of their previous income; with Bush, it may drop at low as 20 percent. But alas! Very few people would get that picture from the statement Bush made this evening. No, we wouldn’t call Bush vile names for this, or say he was “lying” in this instance. But it’s amazing to think that a fiery liberal would praise this outing as “remarkably honest and even courageous.” And it’s especially amazing when you think about what George Will later said.

Yep, that the way it now works in America’s press corps. If you want to hear Bush’s deepest motives examined, you can’t turn to burned-out “liberals” like Kinsley; you may have to turn to a major conservative! On Sunday morning, Kinsley’s column was telling the world how courageous and honest Bush had been. But on This Week, George Will was still functioning as a searching observer. The “liberal,” Kinsley, praised Bush up and down. But on ABC, the conservative said this:

STEPHANOPOULOS (5/1/05): One other point on that—the personal accounts, if you take them, also require an extra cut in the guaranteed benefit.

WILL: Exactly. So what you're doing is you're making Social Security less and less relevant to a majority of the American people [under the provisions of Bush’s plan]. You're stigmatizing it, if you will, by means-testing. That's what this is. They're now means-testing Social Security so it becomes a poverty program.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You have cracked the code. I mean, there is no question about that. The reason the Democrats are so crazed about this is they believe this is dismantling Social Security over the long haul and, you know, you might even see them start to say it. They're saying it's turning Social Security into welfare.

WILL: Precisely, because what Democrats have always understood is if you want to help the poor, you attach the poor to a middle class program. You don't say, “Here's a program for the poor,” because there's not gonna be majority support for it.

Was Will right in his assessment of the Bush Admin’s deepest motives? Does Bush want to “means-test Social Security so it becomes a poverty program?” We don’t know, but while a fiery liberal was telling the world how wonderfully honest Bush had been, an ardent conservative, “cracking the code,” was describing an ulterior motive—a motive Bush forgot to mention at his ballyhooed press conference. The foolishness of the Kinsley column became even more clear in the face of this exchange. The liberal was telling us, “Bush is sooo honest.” The conservative was saying, “Not so fast.”

Does Bush have the motives Will described? We don’t have the slightest idea. But even before Bush went to Falls Church and lied in the face of those five younger workers, it was silly to describe his press confab as wonderfully honest. But then, Kinsley—the brightest man of his generation—checked out a long time ago. On Friday morning, in Part 3, we’ll sadly provide you the evidence.

WE EMIT THOSE LOW, MORDANT CHUCKLES: Poor Kinsley! In his drive to dumb dishonesty down, he praised Bush for his “remarkable honesty” concerning religious firefights, too:

KINSLEY (5/1/05): There was a remarkable amount of honesty and near-honesty. Bush's rebuff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was superb. The people who oppose his judgeship nominees aren't prejudiced against religion, he said. They do it because they have a different "judicial philosophy." That is exactly the point...

Then it got even better. Starting with the cliche that in America you can "worship any way you want," Bush plunged gratuitously into a declaration that "if you choose not to worship, you're equally as patriotic as somebody who does worship." How long has it been, in this preacher-spooked nation, since a politician, let alone the president, has spoken out in defense of non-believers?

Was Bush being “remarkably honest” in his “rebuff” to Frist? We agree with what Bush said, but no, we can’t get inside his head; it may be that he offered this rebuff for political purposes only. But not to Kinsley, who seemed determined to ring bells for Bush’s “remarkable honesty.” It wasn’t enough to say Bush was right. He had to be honest as well.

But here at THE HOWLER, our analysts emitted those low, mordant chuckles when Kinsley asked the question we’ve highlighted. “How long has it been, in this preacher-spooked nation, since a politician, let alone the president, has spoken out in defense of non-believers?” We can’t answer that question with certainty, but we do recall a memorable instance from a recent White House campaign. Amazingly, it was a Democrat who offered the defense, which may explain why Kinsley has forgotten. We refer to a passage from the Gore-Bradley debate in December 1999—a statement for which Gore got jumped by the Washington Post, while losers like Kinsley stared blankly:

GORE (12/17/99): I strongly support the separation of church and state. The bedrock principle on which our nation was founded was to search for religious freedom, which clearly meant freedom from government interference in religion. And I think that carries with it not only an obligation to respect the Constitution—for example, I think the Constitution forbids the teaching of evolution in the schools, except in religion class, not in science class. [Gore later said he had misspoken—see below.] And I think it also means that every single person in our public life ought to recognize an obligation to communicate tolerance of all religious faiths and traditions, especially the religious faith and traditions that are held to by a minority in our country. That's what we are all about: religious freedom.

Now, I think that in some times past that principle has been wrongly interpreted to mean that somebody who is a person of faith and in public life should not even affirm his faith. I very much respect the way Bill [Bradley] has handled this question. I—you know, that's great, that's fine, that's his way of doing it.

I affirm my faith when I'm asked about it, but I always try to do so in a way that communicates absolute respect not only for people who worship in a different way, but just as much respect for those who do not believe in God, who are atheists. Atheists have just as much of a right to the public discourse as people of any religious faith in this country. And I think we have got to really stand and, if necessary, fight for that principle.

Holy cow! Gore even used the A-word—atheist! Yes, we agree with what Bush said last week. (His hacks are out saying the opposite, of course.) But Gore’s statement went somewhat farther.

And what happened to Gore when he made this statement? No, you didn’t hear hosannas from Michael Kinsley, the fiery liberal who praised Bush for his views. Instead, the Post’s Ceci Connolly did what she did every time Gore opened his mouth during the two-year White House campaign. She ran as fast as she could to her console and typed something Gore hadn’t said:

CONNOLLY (12/18/99): One woman, remarking that the Republican contenders recently spoke at length about Jesus Christ, asked the Democrats how they felt about injecting faith into the presidential campaign.

Gore, noting that the number of atheists in America is rising, reiterated his support for separation of church and state. But, he added: "I affirm my faith when I'm asked about it, but I always try to do so in a way that communicates absolute respect, not only for people who worship in a different way, but just as much respect for those who do not believe in God."

“Noting that the number of atheists in America is rising?” Gore hadn’t said anything remotely like that. But so what? It made for a nice cheap shot—a suggestion that Gore was trolling for votes among the ungodly. This was just a tiny oddness for Connolly, who managed to “hear the voices other people don’t hear” almost every time Gore opened his mouth. And no, it didn’t affect the election—unlike the “mistake” she had made two weeks earlier, when she “mistakenly” thought she heard Gore saying that he had discovered Love Canal. (That “mistake” by the imaginative Connolly made a gigantic difference.) But just so Michael can catch up on his facts, there we saw another time when “a politician spoke out in defense of non-believers.” For his trouble, Gore got lightly slimed in the Post—and no, Kinsley didn’t say Boo about it. But then, Kinsley also kept his mouth shut about Gore’s sliming on Love Canal. Like many other fiery liberals, Kinsley sat out the press corps’ two-year War Against Gore—the press corps war which put Bush in the White House, where he makes the “remarkably honest” statements Michael is pimping this week.

Readers, it’s important that you see the actual shape of your modern discourse. In Modern Millionaire Pundit Land, “liberal spokesmen” let you know how brave and honest George Bush is. But they stare off in boredom when Big Dems get trashed—and you have to turn to conservative Will to hear someone “crack Bush’s code.”

We’re sorry to say it, because we admired him greatly, for years, as he did his superlative work. But Dems and liberals should stop accepting Michael Kinsley’s recent work. The fiery liberal checked out long ago, as we’ll help show in Part 3.

MISSPEAKER: Earlier, Gore had said that he thought creationism could be taught in high school religion class, but not in a high school science class. He inverted the thought in the passage above, which he later corrected.

By the way, how about a spot of amusement? To see the snide tone that pervaded Gore coverage, here’s the end of Richard Berke’s New York Times report on this subject:

BERKE (10/28/99): To a man who asked about trade relations with countries accused of humanitarian abuses, "We've got to work for a ban on child labor around the world," Mr. Gore said. To a biologist who asked about the teaching of creationism, Mr. Gore said: "I am strongly opposed to the teaching of creationism in the schools. It is against the Constitution." He said it could be taught in religion classes, but not in science classes. "No state should be allowed to do it, no school district should be allowed to do it."

After 90 minutes, Mr. Gore finally stopped talking and left the stage.

“Gore finally stopped talking,” the scribe snidely wrote—after which, Berke went to the bar of the Wayfarer Hotel and treated himself to a good stiff drink. Context: In New Hampshire, your highly professional reporters endlessly complained that Gore was answering too many questions from citizens. This kept the precious little scribes from going back to their hotels, where they could do the things they most enjoy. It’s hard to believe they could be quite this stupid, but they made these snide remarks again and again, all through the New Hampshire campaign. And yes, the problem was that Gore was talking to voters too much.

Jibes like this were striking, but trivial. Other press matters most clearly were not, and almost surely put Bush in the White House, where he speaks with such honesty today.