I look at how the Bush administration is trying to manufacture a Social Security "crisis," and it looks much like what was done to manufacture the rationale for invading Iraq.
Certainly the steps are the same. Invent a crisis where none currently exists. State only the information (real or not) that benefits your argument, and repeat it often. Ignore all information that might undermine your argument and attack anyone who might disagree. Then, after convincing everyone that there is a crisis and marginalizing your opponents, come up with the solution to the crisis you manufactured.
Through constant repetition and taking full advantage of the limitations of journalism's objectivity fetish, the Bush administration can bend reality to fit its policy schemes.
As journalism is now practiced, to state the facts is considered an act of bias. In the case of the Iraq war, even though there was abundant evidence that the Bush administration was overstating its case at best and flat-out lying at worst, the cult of objectivity required giving the Bush administration's lies as much weight as (and often times, more weight than) the opposing views. Pointing out discrepancies between the facts and the spin is sacrificed in the name of balance.
The Social Security debate has followed the same path. News reports dutifully repeat the claim that the program will go bankrupt in 2042. The reality is that, if nothing is done, Social Security will be taking in more revenue than it pays out until 2018. After 2018, current obligations can be met until 2042. After 2042, there would still be enough money to pay at least 73% of benefits. These figures aren't wishful thinking from a liberal think tank, they are the government's own calculations.
However, just as it was impossible to convince the American people in 2002 that Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction and posed no threat to the US, it is now next to impossible to convince many Americans that Social Security is not going to go bankrupt.
Once again, it's about controlling the language and repeating your message over and over and over until people believe.
For the last 20 years, conservatives have worked to change the perception of the program. For example, Social Security never used to be thought of as an investment program. It was conceived as a social insurance program to take care of the elderly, the orphaned and the infirm. But conservatives started talking about the rate of return and planted the seed that people would make more money investing what they pay in Social Security taxes in the stock market. Over time, people started believing this.
Sure, it is possible to make more money. But the beauty of Social Security is that it is a guaranteed benefit. The people who were close to retirement who lost a substantial chunk of their savings in the stock market troubles of 2001 and 2002 will not be seeing their lost money return. Markets don't always go ever upward. After the 1929 crash, it took until the 1950s for the stock market to recoup its losses. The Dow Jones average was stagnant from the late 1960s until the early 1980s. If you are unfortunate enough to need your retirement savings when the market is in a down cycle, you're out of luck.
But none of the supporters of privatization are talking about this. They just keep saying that Social Security is going bankrupt, rather than say it is the most successful, most popular and best-run government program ever created. And far from being bankrupt, there is a Social Security trust fund with more than $2 trillion of government bonds in it. Far from being "IOUs," these are the same Treasury bonds that this nation is selling to China and Japan to paper over the ever-growing federal deficit. Think President Bush is going to tell this nation's creditors that those bonds are just meaningless pieces of paper that the US has no legal obligation to repay?
The public needs to be educated on the three main facts regarding Social Security: there is no Social Security crisis, Social Security is not going broke and there is already enough money coming in to pay for the retirements of the Baby Boomers.
These are facts that every American &emdash; and every would-be "reformer" &emdash; needs to know. But it was a fact that Iraq didn't have nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, and the US invaded anyway. Again, the Bush administration has repeatedly shown that it will not allow facts to get in the way of its policy goals.
We can't allow President Bush to fool us again. No one is asking for change except the financial services industry, which is lusting for the billions of dollars it would make administering private savings accounts, and hard-core conservatives, who have been fighting to kill Social Security ever since Franklin Roosevelt proposed it six decades ago.
But Social Security is no longer a liberal program. It is ingrained in the fabric of America as an example of the best instincts of our nation. It is a prime example of the democratic ideal that everyone should act on behalf of the collective interests of society. Most of us will eventually grow old. Some of us will have major health problems as we age. We contribute money when we are young, healthy and employed and draw benefits when we aren't. It's something we do collectively. Some of us will live longer. Some of us won't. Some of us will be wealthier. Some of us won't. But the idea is that we all share in the responsibility of taking care of the aged, the disabled and the sick with the expectation that others will do the same for us when we are in that position.
So make this your New Year's resolution. If you hear someone on the radio or the television talking about Social Security going bankrupt, or if you read something in your newspaper to that effect, write in or call immediately. Demand that the press do its job, go beyond the phony attempts at objectivity and balance, and instead report the relevant facts. And if your Congress member or senator is wavering, write or call them and let them know that you are watching and will do your utmost to remove them from office if they cave in to President Bush's nonsense on Social Security.
This is an eminently winnable battle, but only if enough people care to fight. Ultimately, this isn't a fight for a government program. This is a fight over what sort of nation we wish to be.
Randolph T. Holhut is a journalist in New England. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. This originally was published in the online American Reporter (www.american-reporter.com).