Those Social Security Code Words Again

The meaning behind the tweaks, privatization, and modest changes

The Hill yesterday set the standard for coverage of the president’s remarks in a Columbus, Ohio, backyard town hall meeting. Jordan Fabian reported that the president said Social Security is not in crisis, and needs only modest changes to keep it solvent. We don’t know which changes the president had in mind, because The Hill didn’t report whether he had been asked that important follow-up by the carefully screened participants in the backyard—or the press. We do know that The Hill’s story was picked up mostly by a bunch of bloggers who tended to repeat the president’s twin themes without much scrutiny.

One was the “I am against privatization” message. “I have been adamant that Social Security should not be privatized, and it will not be privatized as long as I am president,” he told the participants.” He talked about “some fairly modest changes that could be made without resorting to any newfangled schemes.” Presumably he meant individual savings accounts, which would hold a person’s Social Security contributions, earn interest, and yield big fees for the investment firms that would sell the accounts. As Campaign Desk pointed out earlier this week, privatization is not on the table this year, at least directly, and is a stalking horse for the real issues—raising the retirement age for collecting full Social Security benefits, and beginning to means-test the program by perhaps cutting benefits for recipients who have more money.

Is the president pulling the wool over the eyes of the public? Here is where his code speak comes in. He said that Social Security “has to be tweaked because the population is getting older.” Tweaks? Fairly modest changes? Making people wait until age seventy to collect all of their benefits might not be a tweak or a fairly modest change to those who have worked in physically demanding jobs all their lives, or have been thrown out of the workplace and can’t find a new job at age sixty or sixty-seven. A poll by Stan Greenberg and colleagues released last week found that 65 percent of likely voters do not support raising the retirement age. But if the president continues to talk in code, and the press continues to dutifully pass along his double speak, they may never get a chance to voice their opinions. They won’t understand what’s happening.

Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik recently warned about those minor tweaks. He wrote that the simplicity of the program from the standpoint of beneficiaries—the checks just keep coming—“masks the complexity of its inner workings.” And that’s “what allows the program’s antagonists to disguise their efforts to destroy it as merely minor tweaks.” Some of them, Hiltzik noted, can have dire consequences for the people who rely on those checks for their bread and butter.

This requires from the rest of us, he said, “never-ending vigilance.” I like to think Hiltzik was talking about the press.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.