Privatization and the English Language

The art of building consensus out of the “vague and confusing medley” of individual opinions, Walter Lippmann wrote in The Phantom Public, consists in narrowing issues to a few simplified alternatives that can be reduced to “symbols which assemble emotions after they have been detached from their ideas.” It would be hard to go any further in that line than the slogans the current administration wallpapers across the backdrops for presidential appearances: “Jobs and Growth” when the president pushes for his tax cuts, “Compassion in Action” when he speaks about AIDS, or, most ambitiously, the “Mission Accomplished” banner aboard the USS Lincoln in May of 2003.

At the president's economic conference in December, the backdrop slogan was “Securing the Economic Future.” Like the “war on terror” and the “faith-based initiative,” that slogan skillfully exploits the multiple meanings and resonances of its key terms. At first glance, “securing” may seem an awkward substitute for “achieving” or “ensuring.” But “securing” echoes both “Social Security” and, more distantly, “securities,” and its ambiguity (“making safe” versus “bringing about”) evokes both the fear that the program is unsustainable in its present form and the hope that private investment accounts will fix the problem.

Fear, of course, is the easier emotion to assemble. After years of charging the Democrats with fear-mongering on Social Security, the Republicans have proven to be no mean hands at the rhetoric of alarm themselves. “The crisis is now,” President Bush has repeatedly asserted, and the media seem disposed to take him at his word. Tim Russert announced that “Social Security faces a crisis,” and conservative media commentators waxed even more apocalyptic: Brit Hume called the program “unsound” and “a Ponzi scheme,” Kate O'Beirne called it “unsustainable,” Stephen Moore compared it to “the Titanic headed to the iceberg.” Fred Barnes, meanwhile, warned against the complacency of “those who would do nothing on Social Security because insolvency won't be a threat for a decade or more,” shaving 20 or 30 years off the date when the trust fund is actually predicted to run out of money.

Over the last six months of 2004, major daily newspapers ran 159 stories in which “Social Security” appeared within five words of “crisis” or “looming,” against just 18 for the same period a year earlier. True, some of those stories involved denials that the system was actually in crisis, but those assurances were apt to be unsettling in themselves, like a sudden spate of announcements that it's safe to take aspirin.

So it isn't surprising that a growing number of people doubt whether Social Security will be available to them when they reach retirement, even though the majority think that private accounts are a bad idea. That resistance has necessitated some terminological adjustments from supporters of the proposals. During the 2000 campaign, Bush described his Social Security proposals as “the first step toward a complete privatization.” But in a neat bit of historical revisionism, a 2002 memo from the National Republican Congressional Committee described “privatization” as a “false and misleading” term that Democrats had adopted as a scare word. Proponents of private accounts fell into line: The Cato Institute, for example, rebaptized its Project on Social Security Privatization as the Project on Social Security Choice, even retroactively revising documents on its Web site to reflect the new language. And the P-word was nearly absent from the president's economic conference in December.

To make their case, supporters of private accounts have switched to language that evokes the benefits of such accounts without suggesting the risks that “privatization” implies. They talk about “choice,” “personal control,” and “ownership,” which Bush made a mantra in his 2004 campaign appearances. (“In a new term, we'll continue to spread ownership to every corner of America,” he said.) The word echoes Bush's fondness for phrases like “your own money,” which in one form or another has come up more than 500 times in White House speeches. (“I want to give younger workers the opportunity to manage some of their own money in the private markets,” as Bush put it back in 2001.)

In the event, though, Bush has had to temper the allure of letting people “manage some of their own money” with reassurances that private accounts will be restricted so as to minimize risk, saying, “People are not going to be allowed to take their own money from the retirement account and take it to Vegas to shoot dice.” There's a telling incoherence in that statement: When somebody refers to people's “own money,” you don't usually expect to be told what they can't do with it.

That inconsistency is obscured by “ownership,” another of those usefully ambiguous words that the administration favors. (The French business journal Les Ecos described Bush's “ownership society” as “more-or-less untranslatable.”) Nowadays, being asked to feel “a sense of ownership” in your job doesn't usually mean you're being given managerial control, much less an equity stake in the business; it's more a question of feeling your own neck is on the line. The Bush Social Security program comes to pretty much the same thing, “Ownership” comes down to asking workers to accept risk, volatility, and uncertainty in exchange for the possibility of higher returns on their payroll contributions.

Listening to supporters describe the probable returns on private accounts, you're reminded of the pitchmen for stock-trading schemes on late-night cable: You might think the market was being irrational in assigning a risk premium to equities in the first place. But the one certainty that all workers can have is of waking up some morning to find that their retirement expectations have been dramatically altered by a market correction or crash, with increasingly dire consequences as the day of retirement approaches.

The administration's supposed reform of Social Security turns both words into misnomers. Not only would it remove the security, it would no longer collectivize the risk. In the end, “ownership” amounts to saying you're on your own.

The most daunting task facing opponents of private accounts is to dispel the sense of crisis that leads many younger workers to support the scheme as the best of a bad bargain. That's partly a question of pointing out the factual inconsistencies and misstatements in the administration's position -- the dubious and contradictory assumptions about the rate of economic growth, the swollen debt burden imposed on future generations, and the exaggerations of the cost of maintaining the current program. Above all, workers have to realize that there are alternatives to the administration's scheme. (Barnes' reference to “those who would do nothing on Social Security” calls to mind depictions of critics of the president's Iraq strategy as “those who would cut and run” -- it's designed to cut off the conversation right there.)

But the public has only a limited capacity for these intricacies; as Lippmann observed, “the facts far exceed our curiosity.” So an effective response to the administration proposals also has to counter the implications of the language that supporters use to frame the program as the poor box of an aging parish -- words like “insolvency” and “unfunded liabilities,” along with warnings that a “tidal wave” of baby boomers will make the program unsustainable.

Americans need to be reminded that Social Security is a generational commitment, no different from long-term investments in defense or the environment -- obligations that, as Robert Kuttner has pointed out, nobody is tempted to regard as “unfunded liabilities.” The program must be described with the language of trust and commitment; we will not break faith with successive generations, just as earlier generations kept faith with us. Or as AARP has put it, Social Security is “a promise our country makes to working Americans and retirees. And a promise should not have an expiration date.”

Geoffrey Nunberg is a senior researcher at the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford.