Parsing Perry’s ‘Ponzi’ Claim

My short post last week on the failure of a CBS News story to assess the accuracy of Rick Perry’s characterization of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” generated some objections in comments, one of which was that Perry was speaking metaphorically, and it makes little sense to “fact-check” a metaphor.

The logic of that point makes sense. But it doesn’t amount to much of a defense of Perry’s remarks, because there are fundamental features of a Ponzi scheme—e.g., it is a deliberate criminal fraud that leaves the majority of investors with nothing—that are not shared by Social Security. Perry’s defenders say the metaphor is justified because there are some structural similarities between a Ponzi scheme and Social Security, and those similarities are related to Social Security’s challenges. In using the term, though, Perry inevitably invokes those other features, and in the process conveys the false message that the program is illegitimate on its face.

Today, Time’s Rick Stengel and Mark Helperin have an interview with Perry that suggests the Texas governor is, or at least pretends to be, indifferent to the distinctions at play here. Asked about his rhetoric, Perry says (emphasis added):

I don’t get particularly concerned that I need to back off from my factual statement that Social Security, as it is structured today, is broken. If you want to call it a Ponzi scheme, if you want to say it’s a criminal enterprise, if you just want to say it’s broken—they all get to the same point. We need, as a country, to have an adult conversation. Don’t try to scare the senior citizens and those who are on Social Security that it’s somehow going to go away with the mean, old heartless Republican.

Sure, let’s have an “adult conversation” about how to address Social Security’s long-run funding gap, and what sort of values and priorities should inform that (eminently fixable, if we choose to fix it) challenge. That conversation can begin by acknowledging that the bolded sentence above is just not true. As the crew wrote in their fact-check of Perry’s Ponzi claim: “Social Security is not a fraudulent criminal enterprise designed only to benefit current participants in the program. It is a legitimate government program meant to serve both current and future generations of retirees.” The difference matters.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.