PLEASE STEP AWAY FROM THAT METAPHOR! Someone needs to tell Allan Sloan: Please put that metaphor down: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, AUGUST 6, 2009
No Friday services: Well be on a mission of national import. Absolutely no HOWLER tomorrow.
Corporate clueless chic: Last week, Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza staged the latest groaning version of their now-defunct Washington Post on-line humor series, Mouthpiece Theater. (To watch the performance which doomed the series, just click here/courtesy Foser.) Long story short: The foppish fellows said that Hillary Clinton should be served a Mad Bitch at a future beer summit. And not only that! Former congressman Chip Pickerings wife is divorcing him (he had an affair). She should drink a Bitter Woman from Hell, the puckish alleged journalists said.
No, boys. You shouldnt call a famous public woman a bitch, even if youre engaged in something you insist is humor. Of course, you also shouldnt call a famous public woman slutty. But that one pretty much slid by when David Letterman so regaled us about Sarah Palin. By the time the Letterman brouhaha was done, pundits were recording the way hed apologized for an offensive joke (the joke about Palins daughter getting knocked up). Apparently, Lettermans slutty knee-slapper ended up passing the press corps taste test.
Weve long been aware of Milbanks oddness. But you havent seen corporate media clueless chic until you read the apology the bosses beat out of Cillizza. Each fellow was required to feign regret; below, you see how Christopher did it. So youll know, his blog at the Post is called The Fix:
Good God, thats awful! Calling a woman a bitch is, at this level, remarkably stupid. Unless youre a modern, upper-end journalist, in which case the practice is inconsistent with a long string of brands! Never mind the denigration of the woman in question! The real harm here was carelessly done to Cillizzas beloved Fix brand!
File under: Apology to self.
Cillizza seems like a nice guy. That said: On which planet do they breed? They arrive here in what sort of spaceship?
PLEASE STEP AWAY FROM THAT METAPHOR: Some policeman needs to tell Allan Sloan: Please step away from that metaphor! Sloan isnt a nut; he isnt even a movement conservative, which would be OK, of course. He seems to be a genial, well-intentioned person with thoroughly centrist views. He knows a lot about Social Security. But a certain set of metaphors has taken control of his life.
Mr. Sloan! This is the Public Confusion Police! Please put that metaphor down!
The metaphor in question is on full display in Sloans long piece from Sundays Post. (Almost 3300 words!) Hes trying to explain why Social Security is in big major troubleand thats a very important topic, a topic youd want to get right. But Sloan has been seized by a metaphors grip. Until he wriggles free from its ropes and chains, he will never provide any clarity.
Why is Social Security in big major trouble? Sloans argument starts with this:
Sloan goes on to explain that (well simplify a bit) he and his wife have paid more into Social Security than theyre likely to take out in the future. So why is there a problem here? Soon, the gentleman starts to explain. As he does, he drops his first pair of M-bombs:
There they aretwo versions of the most destructive metaphor of a political era. The Sloans have paid in more than 800 large. But so what? In this and in many paragraphs which follow, Sloan recites a slew of familiar metaphorsmetaphors which have confused a generation of newspaper readers. To wit: Their $800,000 asset is just an illusion! Their money has already been spent! The trust fund is just an accounting entry! The left hand has borrowed from the right! The money they paid is goneits no longer there! And of course, the mother of all these metaphors:
All thats left is some IOUs! Government IOUs to itself!
There you see themthe most misleading metaphors of a long political age. (These metaphors are inter-related.) People have been trained to think in these waysand Sloan has bought the package. But then, most economics journalists of Sloans generation seem to have accepted the misleading notions lodged in the highlighted part of that passage. Among modern mainstream journalists, this is the debate which exists about Social Security. Liberals are rarely allowed:
Thats the debate. Everyone describes the trust fund as just IOUs. Conservatives add the word worthless.
Is the trust fund a bunch of IOUs? Its a grossly misleading metaphora metaphor which was presumably designed to mislead us rubes. Sloan has bought the metaphor thoroughly. He needs to put it down.
Is the Social Security trust fund a bunch of IOUs? It depends on what you mean. In the past few decades, tax-payers have submitted more money to the Social Security trustees each year than the system needed to pay out. This has been done by design. (Sloan: Social Security has been collecting more in taxes each year than it has paid out in benefits.) The extra money gets loaned to the federal government. In this way, the federal government has borrowed from the SS trustees, promising to repay the money in the future. And when the government borrows that money, it doesnt bury the money in a big burlap sack on the national mall! The money is spent, on government programs. In that sense, the money no longer exists. (Sloan: The cash that Social Security has collected from me and my wife and our employers isn't sitting at Social Security. It's gone.)
Should that be troubling? Not really. Heres why:
The federal government borrows money from lots of sources, including (for example) big Chinese banks. But all that money is quickly spent on government programs too! That money is also gone. (Thats why people borrow money. They borrow money to spend it!) In the future, the government will pay that money back to those Chinese banks. The government will repay those Chinese banksand theyll repay the SS trustees too.
These transactions are essentially the same. In each case, a bunch of money gets borrowed, then repaid. In a slightly more rational world, that would be the end of the story. But you dont live in that world.
Is it possible that the federal government will go belly-up at some point? That it wont be able to repay the funds it has borrowed from the Social Security trustees? Yes, of course, thats always possiblethough such a thing would represent a major cataclysm. But its possible that the government will go belly-up before repaying those Chinese banks too! Does that lead anyone to say the following things about the money the Chinese loan us? Does anyone say these things about those loans: But the money is no longer there! Its gone! Weve already spent it!
No one ever says such things about the money the Chinese loan us. Weve been trained to apply that framework to loans from the Social Security trusteesno one else.
Presumably, this is the fruit of a deliberate attempt to undermine faith in Social Security. The propaganda campaign has worked very well as decent people have been bamboozled by the logic contained in those metaphors. If you doubt that, just read Sloans piece.
Guess what, people? Almost all financial transactions involve promises-to-repay which are, in the ultimate sense, just IOUs. The balance you maintain at your bank? Its a bunch of IOUs! If you take a jar of quarters down to your bank, your bank doesnt bury it out in the yard, then pay someone to guard it for you. They loan your quarters to someone elseand that person spends them! The money youve deposited in your bank? That money is mostly gone too!
The money youve deposited is no longer there! Does that mean your bank balance is illusory? (Please dont lean on the FDIC. In the future, the FDIC could in effect go belly-up too.)
You have an IOU from your bank in the form of your stated balance. In this country, such IOUs almost always get repaid. But so do the IOUs we give to Chinese banks. Presumably, so will the IOUs we give to the SS trustees.
Conservative hack-tanks have worked very hard to invent a set of confusing metaphors concerning those loans from the SS trustees. By design, the metaphors are only applied in one particular circumstance. Were trained to react with fear about the IOUs held by the SS trustees. Meanwhile, no one ever says things like this: We really fooled the Chinese this time! The assets they think they hold are illusoryjust a bunch of IOUs! The money we collected isnt sitting in a federal vault! Their money is gone!
No one ever says such things about those loans. Theres a reason: Such statements are silly.
Sloans report contains real information about the damage done to Social Security by the current economic downturn. There is real information in his reportbut it disappears down the drain as he defers to those frightening metaphors about those IOUs. Its true: Social Securitys situation doesnt seem as good as it seemed a few years ago, before the economy collapsed. But Sloan will never provide real understanding about this program until he steps away from those metaphorsuntil he puts those damn metaphors down.
Essentially, this is a semantic problem. Sloan is describing basic facts in ways which confuse people, thereby spreading alarm. The solution to a semantic problem is typically this: Stop using the language in question. Sloan needs to put all those related metaphors down. If he forces himself to describe Social Security without using the phrase IOUs, he might, some day, help readers know more about the actual state of the program.
Allan Sloan! Step slowly away from that metaphor! Train yourself to describe this program without saying IOUs!
A standard formulation: At several points, Sloan cites a standard formulation which always creates alarm. Heres the most potent example:
The second highlighted statement is basically true. But it leads Walker to the first highlighted statement. And that statement is basically false.
Guess what, people? In the private sector, you can go to jail for doing lots of things the federal government is permitted to do. (If Wal-Mart raises an army and invades Iraq, it might find itself in legal trouble.) But in the case which is under review, there are good reasons why we let the federal government engage in types of bookkeeping which are forbidden to private companies. Heres one reason for the differential treatment: The federal government can tax!
Duh. If private companies could make every worker in the country hand them large sums of money every year, it would be a lot less risky to let them do the type of bookkeeping which has Walker so upset. Debt obligations become less risky if an entity has the power to tax! But Walker moves past that obvious point as he pictures the trustees frog-marched to jail. In these ways, the nervous Nellies have constantly frightened the average Joes about the trust fund. Its time for Sloan to move away from a constellation of misleading frameworks.
This doesnt mean that a government cant ever take on too much future obligation. But Sloan will never be able to figure out if weve done that till he puts those damn metaphors down.
These metaphors are alarmingand potent. They seem convincingand spread great fear. Are there reasons to be alarmed about the future of Social Security? You simply cant tell from reading Sloan. Hes in the grip of misleading pictures. Allan Sloan! Put those metaphors down!