Pushing back on Conservative “Social Security is a Ponzi Scheme” Framing

“Do you believe seniors living in gutters is the future of ‘social security’?”

 Nicholas Wilbur at Muddy Politics identifies an area in which liberals can push back on the right’s attempt to cast social security as a Ponzi scheme, a scam, or some irrefutably broken system:

The back and forth over Social Security only further convinced the constituencies on the Right and Left what those respective constituencies already believed: that Social Security is/isn’t a Ponzi scheme.

This may be the new reality in a politically polarized America, but for liberals who are expected to elevate political issues beyond the talking points and frameworks of Republican demagogues, they failed miserably – and I believe they will continue to fail for three reasons: First, because all ideologues are hard-headed, and the current “base” of the Republican Party is full of ideologues; secondly, because facts that don’t align with a party’s agenda aren’t facts at all; and lastly, because it takes only one liberal to admit publicly that there are similarities between a Ponzi scheme and Social Security, and when that liberal concedes, as Matthews did, it opens a small but fatal chink in the Left’s armor that conservatives will exploit until everyone knows that “Liberals agree,” in this case, “that it’s a Ponzi scheme.”

The Left missed the point – and a great opportunity to actually elevate the debate.

Comparing Social Security to a Ponzi scheme, even if the comparison is intended to show how Social Security isn’t a Ponzi scheme, is still comparing Social Security to a fraudulent scam. It relies on a Republican framework – Perry’s framework – and it criminalizes Social Security from the start.

Who cares what Perry thinks?

How a Tea Partier defines Social Security is irrelevant. The future of the program is the issue. And that should be the framework.

Rather than battling over a definition coined by a crank, the Left needs to focus on what Social Security would become under a President Perry – or a President Romney. Despite the two candidates’ differences in rhetoric, both believe in “fixes” that lead to the program’s demise.

Both Perry and Romney have voiced their support for creating private, individual social insurance accounts – which Romney claimed in 2007 is different from “privatization,” even if it isn’t different at all. Rather than minor tweaks, which is all that will be required to extend the longevity of a program that has already worked for three-quarters of a century, Republicans prefer scrapping the entire point of Social Security: the security part.

Whereas Democrats understand the moral imperative of maintaining a program that for 75 years has helped keep senior citizens out of poverty, Republicans, in contrast, believe that if you live past a certain age and run out of the money you paid into a private retirement account, oh well. You can “live in a gutter,” as Limbaugh put it.

That is the difference between Republicans and Democrats, and that is the comparison liberals and Democrats ought to be making. Publicly. Not terms and definitions and contrasting arguments about slight similarities that even Chris Matthews can’t quite pin down, but the heartlessness of forcing senior citizens to “live in a gutter” if they live too long, if they are injured as working adults, if their spouses die, or if they’re otherwise unable to work long enough to build up a sufficient savings. Social Security is not a retirement account, it’s an anti-poverty program that provides some dignity to seniors.

Rather than letting the Right frame the argument over Social Security by forcing the Left into a battle over semantics, the Left needs to refocus the issue to its core by asking the question, “Do you believe seniors living in gutters is the future of ‘social security’?”

(read the rest of “The Meaning of ‘Ponzi scheme’ vs. The Consequences of ‘Privatization’.”)

It’s about framing. When liberals use conservative framing, we give the frame legitimacy where there is none.

A very salient point, indeed.

[cross-posted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles]

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50 replies
  1. 1
    Lysana says:

    And I see a banner ad for Ron “kill the government except in a woman’s uterus” Paul’s “Constitution Day Money Bomb” next to this post, and the framing point couldn’t be emphasized better.

  2. 2
    handy says:

    I agree with the thrust of the article that the moral argument is important, but I’m not sure we should ignore the factual argument either. Rick Perry didn’t invent the “Social Security is a Ponzi scheme” meme. More than that, his side isn’t the only that has repeated it. This has infected the discourse for years and pushing back on this pernicious lie takes a lot of skill.

    One thing I would disagree with the article above is to characterize going after this meme as “arguing over semantics.” Social Security is precisely not a Ponzi scheme because of how it is structured and funded. The other thing is to admit that a lot of people are seriously misinformed about SS, including pundits in the mainstream media such as the “liberal” Chris Matthews.

  3. 3
    Mino says:

    I sure don’t want to get in a fight with you, but did you read what you wrote?

    When liberals use conservative framing, we give the frame legitimacy where there is none.
    A very salient point, indeed.

    This, this, is a core complaint about this White House on economic issues.

  4. 4
    Dee Loralei says:

    Ha, that article is one of the few things I actually got to read and tweet in my busy busy frustrating day.

    But I’m digging this Monty Python’s Holy Ail.

    Yikes that Reno plane crash sounds pretty horrific., Ok, My day was not bad at all.I take all my bitching back.

    75 injured and possibly 25 seriously. No number on the casualties at the air show.

  5. 5
    Shade Tail says:

    @Mino:

    I sure don’t want to get in a fight with you,

    Then don’t start one.

    Seriously, this is exactly what friends of ABL are referring to when talking about people here deliberately trolling her.

  6. 6
    Mino says:

    Well, I think this is only the second time I posted in one of her threads. Guess I’ll stay out. Thanks.

  7. 7
    lacp says:

    Actually, I think the Left has been saying this for a while. Now, Democrats, that’s another story…..

  8. 8
    walt says:

    Repetition is the key, which means the average 40 something already believes that “Social Security won’t be there for me when I retire”. Conservatives push memes designed to undermine the core values of social democracy. They succeed because they tweak the nerve of resentment, in this case where one generation – the boomers – are greedily taking everything for themselves.

    The way to push back here is to tell what the underlying strategy is: divide and conquer. If the right can keep one group of Americans divided against another, they can rush in afterwards and reap the spoils. That’s the plan. You have to tell people this over and over and over. They’re doing this because they want to destroy our social democracy. And every time you believe them, you abet their project.

  9. 9
    Elie says:

    ABL —

    I jus no got juice in the tank for this tonight

    Can we reprise this topic on a different night?

    I want to PARTEE!!!

    But carry on all of you into this right now.

    (I got burned out on Michael Moore etc)

  10. 10
    Cat Lady says:

    @Mino:

    I think that’s a valid criticism of Obama though. It has nothing to do with his race or being weak – he’s made some personnel and policy decisions that can and should be challenged from the left, but coherently. Just don’t start with the “he sold us out on Social Security OMG” pre-emptive freak out emo shit that’s pointless and counterproductive.

  11. 11
    ABL says:

    @Mino: it’s a totally valid complaint, one that i hold as well, although i do think that trying to negotiate with the jackholes in congress is one thing, and reporting and framing what these jackholes (both in congress and in the GOP presidential field) say is another.

    and FTR i don’t think you’re trying to start a fight with me.

    @Cat Lady: BINGO!

    (edited)

  12. 12
    ABL says:

    @Elie: a-ha! i just made the mistake of reading some of the silly comments in that thread.

    apparently, i have about 4 BJ trolls living in my head since they seem able to read my mind and divine my intention despite my clear statements otherwise.

    oh, and apparently i said somewhere that white people aren’t allowed to say “gangsta.”

    hilarious and stupid.

    :)

  13. 13
    Baud says:

    Nice idea, but liberals don’t frame well. This

    “Do you believe seniors living in gutters is the future of ‘social security’?”

    is not a frame.

  14. 14
    Dee Loralei says:

    Wonder if MSNBC is gonna say at 10 pm, oops gotta do our PrisonBreak programming, or whatever it’s called with this horrific news breaking.

    Now way in hell I can wake up for Chris Hayes in the AM, but I wish him well.

    ABL, I love ya honey, keep fighting the good fight.

  15. 15
    Dee Loralei says:

    @Baud: Dude it was the past of society,it seems to be less likely in the present of our society, but it will once again be a fact in our future society.

  16. 16
    handy says:

    @Baud:

    Indeed.

  17. 17
    Baud says:

    @Dee Loralei: Sorry, I don’t think it’s effective – I think it’s too foreign to most people’s experiences to sound like a realistic concern. Effective frames shouldn’t require a lot of explanation or imagination, IMHO.

  18. 18
    Cat Lady says:

    @ABL:

    I got Bingo! W00t! What’d I win?

  19. 19
    Another Bob says:

    @Shade Tail

    Seriously, this is exactly what friends of ABL are referring to when talking about people here deliberately trolling her.

    Why does it constitute “trolling” to complain about the Obama administration validating Republican talking points? A lot of people thought that even convening the “National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform” — aka “The Catfood Commission” — was a huge mistake, because about the only thing it accomplished was to demonstrate tacit acceptance among supposed liberals of the Republican framing of that issue. It’s a perfectly valid point. Calling it “trolling” is more like actual trolling in and of itself.

  20. 20

    Every president triangulates with congress. That is a big advantage for the executive branch, because there are so many more warm bodies in congress, than the singular POTUS, and sometimes using a right wing frame with left wing ideas will work where nothing else does. Though not these days of the cold civil war we are in. Everything is done as theater for the swing voting part of the public.

    An example has been with tax cuts that Obama has pushed for low income payroll tax holidays, as both recession relief and stimulus, that wingers get exposed for only supporting those tax cuts for the rich.

    I think the biggest error Obama has made on policy framing is bringing SS and medicare into the fray with the Catfood Commission and in general as part of the economic debate, especially SS. Not that any dem will sell out those programs, including Obama, but that there is little pol value to including it in dem talking points. Wingnuts will do it regardless, harp on entitlements. So there was and is no good reason for dems to keep harping on it. imo

    I don’t think it is a catastrophic error, and everyone should know that dems, and many republicans are not going to gut these programs. Though likely most wingers would be happy to at this point in time of them not caring about votes like they used to.

    As far as long term deficit reduction, that has been on the dem platform in a big way since they lost the House in 94, and their real and perceived change to caring about general fiscal responsibility is not a right wing frame, and was a big part of them winning in 2006 and 08. And should not be abandoned now as failing some kind of liberal purity test. And Obama is doing it right by pushing for short term stimulus and keeping the door open for long term debt reduction.

  21. 21
    Baud says:

    @General Stuck: Sounds right to me.

    I’m perhaps overly conservative (as in cautious) when it comes to criticisms about framing. There is a legitimate reason for politicians to try to co-opt talking points that might gain traction for the other side. That’s what George W. did when ran as a “compassionate conservative” in 2000; people don’t choose Republicans for their compassion, but adopting the compassionate conservative “framing” was W.’s attempt to co-opt that issue from the Democrats.

  22. 22
    HoneyBearKelly says:

    Social Security is an insurance program run like pretty much every other insurance program for a fraction of the administrative costs.
    It’s pretty simple, really.

  23. 23
    Evolved Deep Southerner says:

    @handy:

    Rick Perry didn’t invent the “Social Security is a Ponzi scheme” meme.

    He sure didn’t. I can remember going to hear G. Gordon Liddy speak at the University of Georgia in 1989, and I remember him saying the EXACT same thing. It’s about the only thing I can remember from that evening, as a matter of fact.

  24. 24
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Mino:

    Please. Don’t. Go.

    Seriously. I love ABL but I would really hate it if everyone who posits a question to her just ran off in dismay.

    I obvs can’t speak for her, but I’m guessing and hoping that ABL wouldn’t want that either.

  25. 25
    Mike in NC says:

    @Evolved Deep Southerner:

    I can remember going to hear G. Gordon Liddy speak at the University of Georgia in 1989, and I remember him saying the EXACT same thing.

    This is conventional wisdom among the wingnut set; heard it said time and again during my years in the DC area. Yet they happily collect it every month in spite of their ‘principles’.

    One can only hope Ponzi Perry has enough rope to hang himself, Texas-style.

  26. 26
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @ABL:

    Gangstagangstagangstagangstagangsta.

    I’m white, BTW.

    Nope. Guess you never said that.

  27. 27
    Linkmeister says:

    As I wrote at Google +:

    Divert current FICA payments into private accounts, destroy system. It’s not hard to understand, but somehow our illustrious Fourth Estate has avoided learning that. So has half the population, but unless it’s informed by the media what chance does it have of understanding it?

    That was with a link to this story.

  28. 28
    Trainrunner says:

    Here’s what I find most frustrating about these stupid RWNM lies and misleading characterizations about…well, about everything:

    It takes only a second to set up the demolishing lie:

    “Social Security is Ponzi scheme!”

    “Obamacare is socialism!”

    “Tide goes in, tide goes out. You can’t explain that without God.”

    “HPV vaccine causes mental retardation.”

    “There’s arsenic in your apple juice!”

    But it takes much, much, much longer to explain exactly what is wrong about the lie.

    So something that was settled, by science and facts and history, is called into question in a second, and adheres like glue to the rightwing/uninformed mind, and none stick around for the real explanation.

    Thus are huge opportunity costs exacted and Overton windows moved.

    It’s really fucked, when you think about it.

    But they keep lobbing these Molotovs of Ignorance, because it works.

  29. 29
    Dee Loralei says:

    I’m Dee. I’m +4 Monty Python’s Holy Grail Ail, which is pretty tasty. I’m a wee bit tipsy. Last thread I said I was in a pissy mood and ready to kick anyone who talked to me in the next few hours. I just realized I’m not bitchy tonight because I’ve been run ragged today toating one elderly parent after another around and getting yammered at for over 10 hours while driving through traffic.

    I’m bitchy because I drove by a place I seldom go. And it was the last place I spent time with my friend Leigh Ellen before she was murdered several months later.

    I think I’ll call her sister tomorrow and tell her how I teared up driving near the street Leigh Ellen and I last met for our 30th HS reunion. And Leigh can’t really be dead and gone, if people still remember happy moments with her.

    Will that help my friend deal with her still raw pain and loss, or would it hurt her?

    I’m kinda amazed I’m still kinda reeling from it.

  30. 30
    ppcli says:

    Whenever that “Ponzi scheme” connection we should just say “That’s like saying Amway is a Ponzi scheme”. In fact, it is nothing like saying Amway is a Ponzi scheme, but if it looks like the meme will get traction, you can damn well believe that the Devos family will convey to the recipients of their enormous financial support that they should put a kibosh on all the Ponzi talk.

  31. 31
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Baud:

    There is a legitimate reason for politicians to try to co-opt talking points that might gain traction for the other side. That’s what George W. did when ran as a “compassionate conservative” in 2000; people don’t choose Republicans for their compassion, but adopting the compassionate conservative “framing” was W.’s attempt to co-opt that issue from the Democrats.

    I think that a lot of Obama’s discussions on economic topics have been attempts to co-opt Republican talking points, especially when he started using the term “fair share” a lot, but good luck convincing the emobaggers that it was anything but a total capitulation.

    When Obama talks about how we need to cut the deficit, the proposals he makes are completely different than the ones the Republicans make, but apparently all some people hear is the D-word and they assume he must be repeating Republican proposals verbatim instead of re-defining them in more liberal terms, which is what I usually hear him doing. It’s very weird to me.

  32. 32
    Mark B. says:

    Ponzi schemes are wealth transfer schemes which are unsustainable due to the pyramidal ratio of recipients to contributors. The ONLY similarity to social security is that the people currently receiving benefits are not the same people currently making contributions. But since the system (with some minor tweaks) is sustainable basically forever, it is in no way a Ponzi scheme. I wish conservatives would try to learn the meanings of words before they try to use them.

  33. 33
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Mark B.:

    I wish conservatives would try to learn the meanings of words before they try to use them.

    There is a saying in my family attributed to a French-Canadian great grandmother: Wish in one hand, shit in the other; see which gets full the fastest.

  34. 34

    @Mino: It’s not what you said. It’s how you said it. That first sentence set the tone. What’s wrong with saying it this way?

    I sure don’t want to get in a fight with you, but did you read what you wrote?
    I agree with what you said here.

    When liberals use conservative framing, we give the frame legitimacy where there is none.
    A very salient point, indeed.

    This, this, is a core complaint about this White House on economic issues.

    Blockquote fail. FYWP

  35. 35
    Shade Tail says:

    @Another Bob:

    Why does it constitute “trolling” to complain about the Obama administration validating Republican talking points?

    I didn’t claim that it did. When you say, as Mino did: “I don’t want to start a fight, but…”, then you are clearly expecting a fight. Contrary to what a lot of people seem to think, ABL does do rational. Furthermore, as she has said in this comment thread, she does consider that a valid criticism of the Obama administration. So why take such a defensive (if not outright belligerent) attitude as Mino did?

    ABL gets a lot of that kind of crap around here, and she simply doesn’t deserve it.

  36. 36
    Mark B. says:

    @ppcli: Of course, MLM schemes like Amway are classical examples of Ponzi schemes. The people on top of the pyramid make money from all of the schmucks who are below them, in addition to the consumer.

    I had a buddy a long time ago who tried to talk me into a chain letter where you just mailed a dollar to the guy 7 levels above your name, added your name to the end of the list, and forwarded it to 7 friends. So long as nobody broke the chain, in a couple of weeks you would receive 7^7 dollars. Foolproof!! We sat down and did a little math and I convinced him it would only be a good idea if the human population was infinite and the idea of the chain letter was unique. Amway is that chain letter as a business plan. I was actually impressed that my friend did catch on, since he wasn’t very good at math or abstract reasoning, which makes him Amway’s target market.

  37. 37
    Mark B. says:

    @ppcli: Of course, MLM schemes like Amway are classical examples of Ponzi schemes. The people on top of the pyramid make money from all of the schmucks who are below them, in addition to the consumer.

    I had a buddy a long time ago who tried to talk me into a chain letter where you just mailed a dollar to the guy 7 levels above your name, added your name to the end of the list, and forwarded it to 7 friends. So long as nobody broke the chain, in a couple of weeks you would receive 7^7 dollars. Foolproof!! We sat down and did a little math and I convinced him it would only be a good idea if the human population was infinite and the idea of the chain letter was unique. Amway is that chain letter as a business plan. I was actually impressed that my friend did catch on, since he wasn’t very good at math or abstract reasoning, which makes him Amway’s target market.

  38. 38
    Mark B. says:

    Sorry about the dubblepost. Should be deleted soon.

  39. 39
    Jebediah says:

    @Mark B.:
    I worked with one of those “Gonna be an Eagle!!” MLM enthusiasts once. For some reason I tried to convince him that the American economy could not run on nothing but folks selling soap to each other. I was unsuccessful; he was unconvinced.

  40. 40
    The Other Chuck says:

    @walt:

    the average 40 something already believes that “Social Security won’t be there for me when I retire”.

    Count me as one of those, because the Republican Party is hell bent on ensuring that outcome one way or another. If they can’t privatize it, they’ll make damn sure to sabotage it somehow out of nothing but sheer hatred and spite.

  41. 41
    AA+ Bonds says:

    Americans: overwhelmingly supportive of something they doubt exists

  42. 42
    AA+ Bonds says:

    Probably the best thing to do is to point out that Rick Perry got a D in Principles of Economics at Texas A&M.

    You need to say, Rick Perry doesn’t understand how money works. Rick Perry isn’t cut out to be President.

  43. 43
    jcgrim says:

    the heartlessness of forcing senior citizens to “live in a gutter” if they live too long, if they are injured as working adults, if their spouses die, or if they’re otherwise unable to work long enough to build up a sufficient savings.

    Don’t forget: or if Wall Street gambled away their life savings, or Enron-like corporations left them penniless and pensionless.

  44. 44
    agrippa says:

    @handy:

    I agree

  45. 45
    agrippa says:

    Copy cats.

    Political hacks playing monkey see, monkey do.

  46. 46
    ppcli says:

    @Mark B.: Yes, I should have been clearer what I was getting at. SS isn’t a Ponzi scheme – Amway is. My point was that the super-rich, super-conservative supporting Devos clan must have some at least vague awareness of this, and would prefer the topic not be broached. Getting into the habit of bringing up the name “Amway” whenever Ponzi schemes are mentioned raises a question they would prefer not be broached at all. (Even if you give yourself a rhetorical fig leaf by using the cheap trick of saying “Ponzi scheme? Of course not. I mean, is Amway a Ponzi scheme?” and letting the audience start to think about it, and then some will start to make the obvious inference.

  47. 47
    rikyrah says:

    Good Hair isn’t going away from Ponzi. …all I ask is that he be gotten on tape, in as many different settings, talking about it being a Ponzi Scheme.

    the ad writes itself.

  48. 48
    rojawi says:

    We should vividly describe what life was actually like for many seniors pre-Social Security. We had poorhouses – terrible places where people past the age of 60 went to starve to death. These were horrible places and not a fiction. Social Security ended poorhouses; do we really want to go back there? Do we really want to break the commandment “honor thy father and mother?” That is a frame a right-winger can relate to.

  49. 49
    fuckwit says:

    It’s classic Rethug Projection. They’re calling it a Ponzi Scheme because they want to replace it with a Ponzi Scheme.

    Wall Street is a Ponzi Scheme.
    The dot-com bubble was a Ponzi Scheme.
    The housing bubble was a Ponzi Scheme.
    This whole gold bubble that FAUX is selling now is a Ponzi Scheme.

    Perry wants to get rid of a government savings program, give it to Wall Street, and turn it into a Ponzi Scheme.

    That is the ONLY thing this is about.

    Projection is where Rethugs accuse Democrats of TRYING to do evil that Rethugs have been ACTUALLY succeeding at doing for decades.

  50. 50
    Jennifer says:

    Here’s the appropriate frame:

    1. You go to work at a place owned by one of the “producers” or owners in this society; he or she decides how much your labor is worth (usually not very much).
    2. You purchase your food, housing, and other necessities from other “producers” or owners who get to decide how much these necessities are worth (usually a lot).
    3. There are a few safeguards in the system – for example, Congress can decide that minimum wages should be higher. Unless the “producers” buy Congress and pay them to keep wages low (happens all the time).
    4. Even though wages are lower than they should be, and prices are higher than they should be, you are at least guaranteed some income when you’re too old or too ill to work, through Social Security. Except that now the “producers” or owners and the guys they own in Congress have decided that it costs too much.
    5. When the “producers” or owners manage to do away with Social Security, they won’t increase your wages so you can save for your old age or illness, and they won’t cut prices on what they sell you even though their expenses will go way down after Social Security is ended.
    6. Instead, the “producers” or owners will be able to show you once and for all what your “place” is in this society: you are here to provide them with wealth, and once you are too old or sick to continue to provide them with wealth, you have no value and should die. Anything else would cut into the amount of wealth they can accumulate and so is unacceptable.
    7. Any questions?

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