Spinsanity: Countering rhetoric with reason
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Posts - August 6-12

8/9 - Brendan: A useless Social Security stalemate (permanent link)
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The Social Security debate is starting to look like the beginning of World War I, with both sides digging trenches and fortifying for the long haul. The problem is that this means the public isn't being given the information it needs for people to reach their own conclusions.

Right now, the debate is focusing on whether the Treasury bonds held in the Social Security trust fund constitute "real" assets. President Bush and his Social Security commission, in their effort to drum up support for privatization under misleading pretenses, have been trying to demolish any claimed value of the trust fund bonds. Their critics, not wanting to concede the point for tactical reasons, are fighting back.

The problem is that, as Bob Somerby has argued at the Daily Howler, the issue is largely irrelevant, except on a symbolic level.

The bonds constitute promises by the federal government to pay back the Social Security administration for funds it used in part for spending and in part to pay down government debt. Are these real? Well, they're promises made by the federal government - but even if you accept that the promise makes them "real", the money to meet those obligations has to come from somewhere.

Under current assumptions about economic growth, that means benefit cuts, eligibility restrictions, Social Security tax increases and/or using general revenue to ensure the solvency of the program.

Alternatively, under a move to a partially privatized system, as Bush proposes, there are major issues that need to be addressed - principally transition costs and rate of return issues.

The transition costs of switching to a partially privatized system are high. Allowing current workers, who are partially subsidizing current retirees, to divert 2% of the total employer/employee contribution of 12.4% would bring forward the date at which the program moves into an operating deficit from 2016 to 2007. Financing this transition with general revenue would require funds far beyond what's available after the tax cut.

Moreover, the putatively higher rates of return under a privatized system are often spun as the average annual stock market or bond return. However, these returns are diminished by administrative costs, which are especially high if workers are given lots of investment choices. Investments are also subject to major risk, among other things. People who retire during a stock market downturn could see very low or even negative returns.

These are some of the important - and difficult - issues that no politician wants to deal with, but that everyone should know about.

Instead, we're still arguing about how "real" the trust fund is - Paul Krugman just devoted another New York Times column to the issue yesterday. Enough. Let's move on to the real issues.

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Related links:
-David Horowitz's "ideological fog machine" (Ben Fritz, 8/8)
-Faking consensus and framing tradeoffs on Social Security privatization (Bryan Keefer, 7/26)
-Social Security report spin (Ben Fritz, 7/19)
-Limbaugh deceptive on Social Security (Brendan Nyhan, 7/10)

8/9 - Brendan: Terry McAuliffe's ridiculous extrapolations (permanent link)
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If you want to see how jargon can promote subrational impulses, here's a great example.

Today, we'll look at how Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic National Committee chairman and former fundraiser extraordinaire, uses a technique we'll call strawman extrapolation.

This is from McAuliffe giving the Democratic response to President Bush's radio address Saturday:

For five years now, Congress has delayed and obstructed on the Patients' Bill of Rights. Meanwhile, Americans have been stuck outside in the waiting room, virtually powerless against HMO abuse and neglect. For every day that we wait, nearly 50,000 Americans experience a denial or delay of health care at the hands of their insurer.
Their approach to a Patients' Bill of Rights makes you wonder: what would the original Bill of Rights look like if George W. Bush and Republican leaders had been with the Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention? Would they have supported freedom of speech and religion? Would they have protected Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures?

Check out how this works. McAuliffe takes a fact - Congress has not passed the version of the Patient's Bill of Rights he prefers in the five years since it was first introduced. Then he spins it his way - they "delayed and obstructed" it. Based on that, he draws outlandish extrapolations, as if somehow the GOP's actions on the Patient's Bill of Rights means that there is a question whether the party would have opposed the actual Bill of Rights. Then, finally, he beats on the GOP straw man who would have the gall to question the Bill of Rights by raising questions about support for popular amendments.

McAuliffe is not only making a subrational appeal to Democratic supporters, but more importantly encouraging more strawman extrapolation rhetoric at a time when it is already far too common in American politics. People are illogically twisted into some extreme position, and then attacked mercilessly based on the fiction that has been created. This was common, for example, in the response to my column on Ann Coulter.

(In addition to all this, it should be noted that McAuliffe makes a major factual error - the Bill of Rights was drafted after the Constitutional Convention - and deceptively attacks Bush in part for things that happened before he became president.)

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Related links:
-The response to my Coulter column (Brendan Nyhan, 7/19)
-Intent in the Florida mess (Brendan Nyhan, 6/14)

8/8 - Ben: David Horowitz's "ideological fog machine" (permanent link)
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David Horowitz: class warrior?

Not quite the image most people have of conservative pundit David Horowitz. In his column in Salon Tuesday, however, the onetime radical leftist follows his typical pattern of putting himself on the side of the little guy against the "Neanderthals" and "Marxists" of the Democratic Party. In this case, Horowitz purports to be fighting for working people against those who oppose Social Security privatization. The only side Horowitz ends up on, however, is that of name-calling and distortion.

Let's get the name-calling out of the way first. Among the epithets Horowitz hurls at those who disagree with him are "socialists," "religious fanatics of the Seattle-Genoa sect," "Neanderthals," "ideological storm troopers," and... well, you get the picture.

The distortions? Again, we'll spare you the complete rundown, but here are a couple of examples. In trying to contrast the returns of private investments with Social Security, Horowitz states that "[a] five-year certificate of deposit at your local savings bank will earn you five percent per year - twice as much as your present Social Security account."

That, however, is only true for the rare average person. While Horowitz purports to be defending lower-income people, he neglects the fact that Social Security benefits are partially progressive - the poor get somewhat higher benefits proportionate to their income than wealthy people, meaning that low-income people typically get a higher return than two percent. (source: Social Security Administration)

Just one paragraph later, Horowitz states that unlike a private account, if a taxpayer dies, "the government keeps the money" she or he has paid into Social Security. In fact, however, in many cases, children or spouses are eligible for "survivor benefits" based on the Social Security taxes the dead person has paid. (source once again: Social Security Administration)

Horowitz bases his arguments on this factual error twice. Near the end of his piece, he observes that the average black male dies at 67, which will soon become the minimum age for receiving Social Security benefits. As a result, he incorrectly states that "the government takes 12.4 percent of the wages every black man earns, knowing that on average it will never pay him back a dime - the government will get it all."

We do have one point of agreement with Horowitz, however. He concludes his article by stating that the only way out of the distortions in the Social Security debate is for "the American people [to] keep their heads clear of the ideological fog machine." That sounds like good advice; readers should heed it, and watch out for the cloud rolling in from Horowitz's direction.

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Related links:
-Faking consensus and framing tradeoffs on Social Security privatization (Bryan Keefer, 7/26)
-Social Security report spin (Ben Fritz, 7/19)
-Limbaugh deceptive on Social Security (Brendan Nyhan, 7/10)

8/6 - Brendan: Painting the Democrats as the isolationists (permanent link)
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Last week, the Wall Street Journal editorial board and Donald Lambro of the Washington Times offered virtually identical charges of isolationism and unilateralism against Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) and the Democrats in Congress.

The charges mirrored White House talking points designed to counter Daschle's recent criticism of President Bush's foreign policy as isolationist. It is extremely likely that these editorials were at least inspired by the White House - they mirror its spin very closely, and were timed too perfectly.

Lambro writes that "a White House strategy meeting" focused on responding to charges of isolationism resulted in "a new strategy that accuses the Democrats of not only being isolationist but anti-Hispanic."

For whatever reason, the Monday Journal editorial titled "The Daschle Isolationists" directly mirrored this spin campaign, arguing that "the Daschle Democrats have been handcuffing U.S. global leadership." Note the attempt to create a new trope with the phrase "the Daschle Democrats", which is repeated again later in the piece.

What is the Journal's evidence? Daschle has refused to say if he'll allow a vote this year on fast-track legislation (requiring an up or down vote on a trade agreement); the Democrats led a push for new safety standards for Mexican trucks entering the US under a provision of the North American Free Trade Agreement; and they have not held a hearing on the nomination of Bush's choice for ambassador to the United Nations.

These are perfectly legitimate arguments on their own - neither party is a paragon of internationalism on every issue (nor they should they necessarily be). However, the purpose of this argument is not to make an intellectual point. This is a classic attempt to confuse an issue by manufacturing a parallel criticism of the opposition.

The same day (July 30) the editorial appeared, the President's spokesperson, Ari Fleischer, read from the same talking points during his press briefing when asked about a vote favoring strict standards for Mexican trucks. He called it "a victory for the isolationists" and "unilateralist" - a line that was echoed by others in the administration.

On Thursday, Lambro, a reporter for the Washington Times, wrote a very similar column that purports to recount the development of this strategy. But, as he details the events, Lambro apparently starts believing the spin he's analyzing. He claims that Daschle and the Democrats are in a "drift toward isolationism." Later, he blames "Daschle & Co." for the lack of a UN ambassador before reaching complete cognitive collapse:

Thus, the White House has hit back with a brilliant counteroffensive. It is not Mr. Bush and the Republicans but the Daschle Democrats who are the isolationists who want to keep the U.S. out of the global economy and who singled out hard-working Mexican truck-drivers to be punished.

Surely the world is more complex than this. Surely Mr. Lambro and the Journal can parse spin with more sophistication than to simply repeat one side's talking points on cue. And surely both can make arguments without using intentionally stigmatizing tropes like "the Daschle Democrats".

Update - 8/12 2:52 PM EST: Confirming that Lambro and the Journal were repeating White House talking points, Dan Bartlett, Deputy Assistant to the President, made exactly the same argument they used in an interview with guest host John McCaslin on the Rush Limbaugh Show Friday. In a rejoinder to Daschle's criticism of the President's foreign policy Thursday, Bartlett said the following:

Senator Daschle himself voted against the Kyoto protocol ... is against opening free trade ... has been opposed to enforcing NAFTA ... [and] is holding up the nomination, the confirmation vote on our ambassador to the U.N. It seems like his actions are speaking louder than his words when it comes to who's being protectionist and isolationist in this country.

Subscribe to our email list and you'll always know who's trying to spin you.

Related links:
-North goes down in the first (Brendan Nyhan, 7/30)
-Double Standards and Spin: Liberal Attacks on Bush's Foreign Policy (Ben Fritz, 7/30)
-Limbaugh's Daschle "devil analogy" (Brendan Nyhan, 7/21)

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