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TAKE THE TRUST FUND CHALLENGE! How should liberals explain the trust fund? Paul Krugman’s debunking falls short: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, JUNE 25, 2010

Connectivity can be elusive: In the past month, it’s always been something! We had several weeks of virus miseries. Then, this past week, our connectivity went missing again! We survived in this week’s unsatisfactory postings, due to what the playwrights call “the kindness of Cherbonniers.” But good grief! It’s very hard to know what you’re doing when you can’t get on-line.

This morning, our connectivity is suddenly back, thanks to heroic trouble-shooting. That said, we are way behind from our missing week. We’ll offer this morning’s mini-post, and look forward to a robust new week, to start on Monday morning.

A history lesson from Our Mr. Brooks: “Our Miss Brooks” was an early TV sitcom. It featured Eve Arden as a wise-cracking high school English teacher (click here).

That was then, and this is now. This morning, David Brooks teaches a history lesson about the American press.

We strongly recommend Brooks’ column. (We expect to discuss the column at length, starting Monday morning.) Brooks describes the way the press corps’ culture has come to “elevate the trivial over the important.” “These days, the inner soap opera is the most discussed and the most fraught arena of political life,” Brooks correctly says.

We agree with most of what Mr. Brooks says. Liberals rarely advance his key points, a decision we regard as strongly self-defeating.

Inevitably, Brooks leaves a lot of things out, including some points which are quite basic. For background reading, we’ll also assign Jay Rosen’s recent post, “Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right: On the Actual Ideology of the American Press” (click here).

We’re often puzzled by Rosen’s portraits of the press. In this case, we think he omits some of the same basic points which are AWOL from Brooks’ column.

How should liberals describe the press corps’ culture? We’ll sift these portraits next week.

TAKE THE TRUST FUND CHALLENGE (permalink): Let’s return to a key point from yesterday’s hurried HOWLER. This concerns a key conservative propaganda point—a point which has created untold mischief over the past 27 years. According to this familiar claim, the Social Security trust fund is just a worthless pile of IOUs.

The money isn’t there—we’ve already spent it! Voters have heard this persuasive claim for almost thirty years.

The money isn’t there—we’ve already spent it! This claim is lodged in voters’ heads. At present, it has relevance to the Reid-Angle senate race in Nevada. And this claim is all tangled up in the efforts of Obama’s Bowles/Simpson commission, the group which will try to form recommendations about changes to Social Security.

Yesterday, we linked to this post from Digby. At the start of her post, Digby discusses recent statements about this matter by Alan Simpson, Republican co-chair of the commission. She then links to a post by Paul Krugman, who describes this general conservative claim as a “zombie lie.” This is Krugman, framing the problem:

KRUGMAN (6/21/10): On Social Security, Simpson is repeating a zombie lie—that is, one of those misstatements that keeps being debunked, but keeps coming back.

Specifically, Simpson has resurrected the old nonsense about how Social Security will be bankrupt as soon as payroll tax revenues fall short of benefit payments, never mind the quarter century of surpluses that came first.

We went through all this at length back in 2005, but let me do this yet again.

For the record, the “quarter century of surpluses” to which Krugman refers created the Social Security trust find—the trust fund Republicans like Simpson say is no longer there.

True to his word, Krugman goes through the matter “yet again” in the rest of his post. Digby block-quotes his presentation. According to Krugman, this matter has been debunked many times. Simpson is telling a “lie” when he keeps misstating this matter.

We think Kruggers makes this too simple.

It’s true that the standard GOP claim is profoundly misleading—so misleading that it pretty much qualifies as a flat misstatement. The money isn’t there—we’ve already spent it! That statement isn’t exactly “false”—but it’s profoundly misleading. As such, we regard this as perhaps the most successful bit of political propaganda/deception of the past thirty years. This simple, conservative sleight-of-hand is deeply convincing—and it has been widely repeated. Voters have heard this misleading presentation again and again in the past (roughly) twenty-five years.

By way of contrast, liberal “debunkings” have tended to be complex, confusing, chaotic. No two liberals have ever said the same thing twice in the course of debunking this “lie.” For that reason, the liberal response—while correct on the merits—has been almost wholly worthless as a matter of persuasion. Just this Wednesday, we hard a well-informed lefty (a friend) repeat the conservative construct over a Subway lunch.

Everyone believes the GOP claim! Everybody knows how to repeat it! In large part, that is because the GOP’s sleigh-of-hand has been advanced in a highly professional manner, while the liberal world’s “debunkings” have been the work of rank amateurs. But this is the way the propaganda wars have tended to work in the past thirty years: Conservatives are disciplined and professional in their deceptions. The liberal world has gamboled and played, behaving like children in response.

That in mind, we’ll suggest the following:

Go ahead—take the Trust Fund Challenge! Read Krugman’s latest “debunking,” a debunking which is perfectly accurate. Then ask yourself if you could ever repeat this explanation to a typical voter. Average voters have heard the GOP “lie” a million times—and the story they hear is very simple. By way of contrast, Krugman’s debunking is four paragraphs long—and it defies repetition.

We don’t mean this as a criticism of Krugman, who has been a journalistic hero over the past dozen years. But Krugman’s debunking is virtually useless as a matter of politics—and this is the best our side can do with this seminal topic after these 27 years. (To all intents and purposes, the creation of the current trust fund began with President Reagan’s Greenspan commission, which led to changes in Social Security in 1983. That’s when “the quarter century of surpluses” began creating the trust fund.)

The contrast between this conservative “lie” and the liberal “debunking” offers us a primer in the politics of the past thirty years. The Republican lie has everything! It has a classic villain. (The politicians in Washington, D.C.) It has a bone-simple story line. (In their greed, they’ve already spent the money!) The presentation is easily restated, and it creates compelling drama. By way of contrast, the liberal “debunking” has never been said the same way twice. It has no story-line at all. Simply put, it defies restatement.

Rather typically, the liberal world has gamboled and played, leaving this “zombie lie” un-rebutted. Voters can repeat the GOP/conservative “lie.” By way of contrast, most voters have never even heard a Democrat or liberal “debunk” it. This raises an obvious question: After these 27 lost years, what would a workable liberal debunking actually look like?

To be effective, this debunking would need a story-line. And it could use a villain.

Our suggestion: The villain should be the wealthy dissemblers who are constantly deceiving the public. (Liberals almost never explain this fact to voters.) The story-line should make use of Reagan’s role in this matter. There they go again, we should say. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the way the trust fund has been used. It has been used exactly as President Reagan (and Alan Greenspan) prescribed in 1983.

In our view, that could be the start of an effective debunking. Someone else might have a better idea. But might we make an unfortunate guess about the political world you live in:

Our guess: In the past 27 years, you have never seen any liberal explain the need for a simple, standard liberal debunking. You have never seen a liberal describe this obvious, bone-simple need.

Go ahead—reread Krugman’s debunking. What Krugman says is perfectly right. But how on earth would you repeat it to an average voter? Has fast would her eyes glaze over?

Sorry. That zombie lie “keeps coming back” because it has never been debunked in a competent, professional manner. Conservatives have driven the “lie” with great skill. Your own side’s intellectual leaders have “debunked” the lie in a typically feckless manner.

Are you happy with the way this has turned out? This contrast—professional dissembling versus feckless debunking—almost defines American politics over the past thirty years.

Is it a lie: Is Alan Simpson telling a “lie?” That implies that Simpson doesn’t believe what he’s saying. We’re not fans of Simpson around here. (We recall the days when Robert Reich helped Simpson spread pure garbage about Candidate Gore, whom he rather plainly despised. At the time, Reich and Simpson were broadcasting partners.) That said, the Republican presentation about the trust fund is very convincing. We would guess that many conservatives don’t know why the presentation is a “lie.” That failure largely falls on our side—on our feckless, incompetent “leaders.”