Messaging is everything

I think this is an excellent post by Bob Somerby and it’s one that I’ve wanted to blog about since I read it. Been a bit short for time, though, and I wanted to put my thoughts down in full, so I’m only getting around to it now.

Somerby starts off by criticizing Lori Montgomery’s execrable “article” on Social Security from the Washington Post. He then moves on to reactions from Digby, Dean Baker and Paul Krugman. Somerby excerpts Krugman’s post, which I’d read before Somerby’s piece, and I’ll do so as well: Krugman:

KRUGMAN (10/30/11): In legal terms, the program is funded not just by today’s payroll taxes, but by accumulated past surpluses—the trust fund. If there’s a year when payroll receipts fall short of benefits, but there are still trillions of dollars in the trust fund, what happens is, precisely, nothing—the program has the funds it needs to operate, without need for any Congressional action.

Alternatively, you can think about Social Security as just part of the federal budget. But in that case, it’s just part of the federal budget; it doesn’t have either surpluses or deficits, no more than the defense budget.

Both views are valid, depending on what questions you’re trying to answer.

What you can’t do is insist that the trust fund is meaningless, because SS is just part of the budget, then claim that some crisis arises when receipts fall short of payments, because SS is a standalone program. Yet that’s exactly what the WaPo claims.

Somerby, continuing directly, writes:

Krugman’s explanation wasn’t “wrong.” It was something worse—it was useless. Krugman has been our side’s greatest hero in the past dozen years, but this is one area where he hasn’t done a good job talking pork to the people. As Krugman noted in his post, he has offered this explanation “repeatedly in the past.” Unfortunately, every time he does so, he offers a chain of reasoning so abstruse that it simply can’t be used to explain this situation to average voters.

Exactly. Exactly exactly exactly. When I read Krugman’s post for the first time, which I did several days before Somerby blogged it, I came away from that post more confused than when I began. The point of decoupling SS from the federal budget, or not decoupling it, and how the noise machine conflates the two, but you can look at it either way… that’s just shitty messaging. The basics of Social Security are simple, which Krugman and Baker no doubt know. Krugman is typically pretty good at masscom and reducing fairly complex issues into understandable sound bites for us folks not so well-informed and capable at math. But he falls drastically short in this instance. I mean, could you explain what that bolded section means? Does it make anything clearer?

Somerby also writes:

Here at THE HOWLER, we’ve come to loathe the moral tone of Digby’s site—the denigration of those people, the broken-souled focus on telling ourselves that we folk over here in our tribe are always morally and intellectually right. In fact, we in our tribe aren’t always right; beyond that, we are among the dumbest, most self-impressed people who ever drew breath on the planet. We’ve had our asses kicked for thirty years by a transparent disinformation machine—by low-grade tribunes like Sean Hannity. In response, people like Digby cut-and-paste incoherent rebuttals and tell us “those people” are racists. This provides our side with soothing therapy—and it doesn’t help progressive interests at all.

Without question, Krugman and Baker have been two of our side’s most admirable players. But they haven’t done a good job making this critical program understandable for average voters.

Maybe a touch hyperbolic. But the bolded section is right on. Liberals, progressive, whatever you wanna call them, have just gotten smoked for the past three decades on these issues. And a huge reason for that is that we suck at the words game. Somerby’s second-to-last graf states:

The good news is, it’s fairly easy to talk pork to the people about the Social Security program, as long as we know how to deal with those trust fund-related deceptions. Kevin Drum knows a major part of the answer; he explained it in this recent post. And Baker keeps explaining one of the ways to talk pork to the people regarding our alleged debt/deficit crisis. This is an area where Baker has helped make a key topic easy-to-explain.

If you’re too lazy for the link, the Drum post is one to which I’ve linked before, discussing the attitudes of young, engaged political people, which are truly disturbing (16% think SS is in very serious financial trouble and probably won’t be there for my parents, 66% think SS is in financial trouble and probably won’t be there for me). Drum muses:

The success of this propaganda campaign is especially impressive because the truth of option 3 (Social Security only needs minor tweaks) is hardly arguable if you have even the barest understanding of Social Security’s finances. I struggle constantly trying to figure out a way to convince people of this in a simple way, so here’s another crack at it:

If we gradually raise the payroll tax from 6.2% to 7.2% and gradually raise the earnings cap from $100,000 to $250,0001 between 2030 and 2050, Social Security will be solvent forever.

That’s it. How much simpler can it be? Certainly this is as easy to understand as raising the retirement age to 67 or changing the COLA formula or whatnot. I don’t have any objection to considering some of that other stuff if and when we ever get around to cutting a deal on Social Security, but we don’t have to if we don’t want to. If you want a simple slogan for the masses, “1 point and 150 grand” does the job just fine. Add one point to Social Security taxes and increase the earnings cap by $150,000 over the course of 20 years. Done.

Simpler. And better. Most people might still need to have the concept of payroll taxes and their regressive nature explained, but this is a helluva lot easier to digest than Krugman’s explanation, or Baker’s, for that matter.

The reason this really catches my attention is because it’s another area in which public relations and politics intersect. Or meld, really. The fact that Social Security is in minor trouble and can be fixed for the forseeable future is indisputable unless you’re paid to think otherwise. And yet, a striking majority of the people in the study Drum referenced have no idea about this and they’re supposed to be relatively engaged and intelligent. Imagine how ill-informed other people must be.

Why are people so poorly informed? Well, because of an awful media system that rewards Serious calls to gash SS and a decades-long disinformation campaign, but crucially, as Somerby outlines, also because we have terrible messaging. Liberal PR practitioners, of which there are many although they may not think of themselves as such, have been shameful at relaying our side’s argument. Somerby knows this; it’s one of his strongest points and one that he hits often. And he’s absolutely right. The discourse on SS has some of the most predictable, easily dispatched zombie lies of any debate and yet we’re still getting our asses kicked.

There must be a better way to combat the plutocrats on this issue. The liberal world needs short, simple explanations of how SS is basically fine. Drum provides one good talking point. We need more of those. Also we need television shows, radio programs, newspaper columns and Intertoobz sites where grifters and frauds get called on their demonstrable bullshit about SS, but that’ll happen when Mark Sanchez leads a Super Bowl-winning drive. The messaging is within our control. And we could be doing so much better.


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