This time, Factcheck focuses on metaphors used by the AARP in a recent ad. The obvious problem, however, is that metaphors are deeply subjective. There are no facts to check - the whole issue comes down to a matter of perspective. It's exactly the sort of ideological issue that we went to great lengths to not take a position on at Spinsanity. (We did analyze the most outrageous PR-influenced attempts to twist language and manipulate the public, but this ad hardly falls into that category.)
Here's the AARP ad in question:
Plumber: Yep, looks like the drain is clogged. Only one way to fix it. We're going to have to tear down the entire house.
Plumber: Go ahead, guys!
On Screen: Demolition crew wrecks house with sledgehammer, jackhammer, backhoe, wrecking ball.
Announcer: If you had a problem with the sink, you wouldn't tear down the entire house. So why dismantle Social Security when it can be fixed with just a few moderate changes?
Reform is necessary, but diverting money into private accounts is just too drastic, could add up to two trillion dollars in more debt and lead to huge benefit cuts. For more visit AARP.org. Paid for by the AARP.
That's it. Pretty outrageous, huh?
Here's Factcheck's analysis -- subjective claim #1:
Comparing Social Security's problems to a clogged sink understates matters considerably. In fact, as we've often noted, the current Social Security tax structure can't support all the benefits that have been promised. According to Social Security's chief actuary, the current level of Social Security taxes will be able to support only 73 percent of the currently promised level of benefits when the systems trust funds become exhausted. That's currently projected to happen in the year 2042. A new report is due out later this week, which may revise those numbers up or down slightly. Either way, that's more serious than a clogged drain.
Note that this depends entirely on accepting the assumptions underlying the 2042 estimate. The Congressional Budget Office projects the trust fund won't be exhausted until 2052. And if the economy does well, the date could get pushed back even further. There's just no right answer to whether the "clogged sink" is the right metaphor or not.
Subjective claim #2:
The ad further claims that the current system "can be fixed with just a few moderate changes." In fact, fixing the current system will require some fairly sizeable tax increases, cuts in future benefit levels, or some combination of the two. For details, see our earlier article and decide for yourself how moderate such changes seem.
This all depends on how you define "fix" and "moderate," as I explained earlier. Why we should assume that Factcheck's definitions of those terms are the right answers?
Subjective claims #3-5:
Creation of individual accounts would be a big change, but would hardly "dismantle" Social Security as the AARP ad claims. As proposed by the President, the individual accounts would be voluntary. Those who choose not to participate would remain in the current system, and so would all who are currently age 55 or older.
Also, individual accounts wouldn't by themselves "lead to huge benefit cuts" as the ad claims. Future benefit levels will indeed have to be reduced unless taxes are increased to pay for them, something the President has said he's against. But that's true regardless of whether or not individual accounts are created.
It is also true that those who choose to participate in individual accounts would have to accept a reduction in the level of their own guaranteed future benefits, but that would be their choice, and it would be in exchange for the chance to get a higher level of future benefits overall should the investments in the accounts yield returns higher than three percent a year above inflation.
Again, note the highly subjective definition of "dismantle." But the middle paragraph above really takes the cake. It is true that "individual accounts wouldn't by themselves 'lead to huge benefit cuts'" and that "Future benefit levels will indeed have to be reduced unless taxes are increased to pay for them ... regardless of whether or not individual accounts are created," but both statements are almost willfully obscure.
Let's review. The AARP stated that private accounts "could ... lead to huge benefit cuts." The operative word is could. In fact, this is a reasonable claim, although AARP doesn't back it up in the ad. First, President Bush has explicitly proposed private accounts as a sweetener to make it possible to change the way benefits are calculated for everyone (see the Wehner memo if you don't believe me). That calculation would have the effect of reducing benefits from what was originally promised by as much as 40%. It is true that we could create private accounts and not implement benefit cuts, but that would make the situation worse, as Wehner himself points out.
Moreover, private accounts require massive borrowing that will put enormous pressure on the federal budget over the next several decades. That borrowing will make income tax increases more likely, and make it harder to increase Social Security revenue through higher payroll taxes. If more of the burden of alleviating the shortfall has to be borne by benefit cuts, then the potential for "huge" ones is higher.
The culmination of the absurdity comes when Factcheck purports to try to propose the "correct" metaphor:
Both sides are using exaggerated metaphors in this debate. Where AARP presents Social Security as having nothing worse than a stopped-up drain, the other side has depicted it as a doomed Titanic about the strike an iceberg and sink to the bottom. Neither picture is accurate.
What would be an accurate metaphor? Since others are having so much fun with this, we'll give it a try.
The kitchen-sink metaphor is wrong because Social Security's problems grow steadily worse over time and threaten the entire benefit structure. The entire house is crumbing from within, so delaying a solution only makes the eventual repair more difficult and expensive. We would compare the problem to a termite infestation rather than a clogged sink or a sudden collision with an iceberg.
Furthermore, individual accounts by themselves don't constitute a wrecking ball as the AARP implies, any more than individual accounts alone would save the system as the President's supporters claim. It is true as the AARP ad says that substantial borrowing would be needed to create such accounts. So we would characterize the creation of such accounts as adding a new wing to that termite-infested house, while taking out a new mortgage to pay for it. The new wing may or may not be worth the expense, but the termites are still there.
We're not sure that the image of building a new addition to a slowly deteriorating home would make a very good TV ad, but it would give a better picture of reality than either sides' ads have shown so far.
I don't even know what to say about this. It demeans the term to call it factchecking. What a mess.