Move over Gingrich, Frank Luntz is the new Goebbels
Topic: Facts and Figures
Back in the 1996 Newt Gingrich put together an outline for the Republican Party on how to frame issues by using language called Language: A Key Mechanism of Control
. He had a list of positive words that Republicans should use when describing their own policies, and a list of negative words to use for describing Democrats and their policies. The purpose was to get all Republicans framing issues in the same way, and ensure that all of the Republican politicians were using their words in the most "persuasive" and "effective" way.
Now Dr. Frank Luntz is taking Republican propaganda to the next level. Who is Dr. Luntz? Dr. Luntz is founder of Luntz Research Companies
, an organization that advises corporations and "conservative" politicians on how to frame issues and select words. Luntz conducts polls and does other forms of market research to determine how the public views issues and assess the dominant public beliefs. Luntz then advises clientele on how to play to existing perceptions/misperceptions.
For Luntz it is not about determining facts, it's about determining perception. It is about playing to beliefs.
An internal document produced by Luntz Research Companies for the Republican Party was leaked onto the Internet and has been making its way around the blog circuit. Right click on the following link: Luntz Document
and select "Save As" to save a copy of the file.
This propaganda coaching document covers many topics, and is well worth a full read in order to see the tactics behind the Republican machine: you will be impressed with how closely Republican rhetoric over the past 3 or 4 months follows these guidelines.
Of the many topics covered by the document, I'd like to focus on Social Security.
Some of the major suggestions made by Luntz are to:
- Use the word personalize instead of privatize
- Replace the idea of Social Security with the idea of Retirement Security
- Reinforce the idea that the government cannot be trusted with Social Security funds
- Appeal to people's emotions instead of using facts
- Associate the President's plan with financial security
- State that the government has taken this money from tax payers and Republicans want to return it to them
- Appeal to the children. Talk as much as possible about children and grandchildren
- Drive home that the system is going bankrupt
- Appeal to bipartisanship. Claim that the Republicans want to work on a bipartisan basis
There are so many issues to discuss about this that it's hard to know where to begin, but first I'd like to make a connection to demonstrate just how this document has been put to use.
Regarding the term "privatization" Luntz states:
DMUP the word "privatize" from your lexicon forever, but always link reform options to the success of programs like the Federal Thrift Savings Plan, IRAs and 401(K) plans.
In fact, as it now stands, 48% of Americans believe that people retiring before they do will benefit the most from Social Security, while only 17% believe that they personally will benefit the most. That's why it is so important to replace the word "privatize" with the word "personalize."
Personalizing Social Security has a 17% higher favorability rating than privatizing it. That is, 51% of Americans believe personalizing the program is a good idea, while only 34% believe privatizing is.
41% of Americans prefer a PERSONAL retirement account to an INDIVIDUAL retirement account.
If necessary do what I do, and institute a strict policy among your staff that anytime someone uses either "privatize" or "individual" in the context of Social Security they must pay you $50. It works.
Now, having seen the way in which Republicans as a whole have been instructed to tailor their language, watch the following clip of US Senator Rick Santorum as he is questioned during a "town hall" meeting on February 22, 2005. Click the image below to view the clip.
As you can see, the lexicon is both in effect and receives applause. Interestingly, the Senator stated that "no corporation is taking over this money"
and that "you are going to hold this money"
. That's interesting because I thought that all investment was a means of giving money to someone else to hold. I think that Wall Street would be interested to learn how people can invest in stocks without corporations "taking over the money". If what the Senator says is true then it puts our entire investment system into question, because after all, the act of purchasing an initial offering of stock is indeed the act of transferring funds to a corporation for them to use as they see fit.
If "we are going to hold this money" that would imply that its going to be under our bed in a shoebox getting zero interest.
At any rate, that's beside the point. The point is that its both interesting and somewhat scary to see these tactics at work, and this is just one example, but this isn't simply advice given to the President, this is a total party-wide system of verbal coaching, coordination and propaganda. These memos aren't designed to advise the President, they are designed to advise every Republican member of the House and Senate on how to "speak with one voice" and, more importantly, "tell the people what they want to hear".
Now to move to some other quotes from the document:
One of the really interesting approaches that Luntz suggests is to use the following type of statement when addressing the public:
I ask you to focus on the facts, study the issue, and then make up your own mind. When it comes to financial literacy and Social Security, the more you know, the better off we'll be.
This is interesting because in fact Luntz advises Republicans not to get too involved in the facts, but rather to appeal to people's emotions. Basically, the tactic here is for the Republicans not
to present facts, but rather to tell people that they want them to independently research the information for themselves.
This does a number of things. First of all, the reason that the Republicans shouldn't present facts is because they don't have many real facts in their favor. By telling people to research it themselves, it gives the impression that the Republicans are confident that the facts support their case, but in reality they mostly rely on the fact that most people won't actually take the time to really research and understand the facts. Additionally, this can put people who try to present facts at a disadvantage. A common Republican tactic for years has been to accuse Democrats and "liberals" of being "intellectual elitists", such that when they do try to present facts, which can be a daunting task sometimes, the Republicans can then accuse them of intellectual elitism and trying to misrepresent reality with complex numbers. Presenting facts can sometimes lead people to feel as though they are being talked down to. Republicans rely on this by not presenting facts, telling people that they should come to their own conclusions, and then appealing to emotion. As soon as other people try to present facts to that same audience, many will then feel talked down to or will simply be disinterested in the more technical aspects of analyzing the situation. It's an attempt to setup a no-win situation for anyone presenting factual information.
The Overview of the section on Social Security starts out:
Those who define the issue determine the outcome
This chapter is unlike any language text I have ever written because Social Security is unlike any other government program. Sure, you will find the traditional "words that work" boxes sprinkled throughout the document and helpful hints about what phrases to emphasize and what language to avoid. But this is a much more conversational document because Social Security is so personal and so much a part of the American psyche that it simply can't be dealt with in the traditional manner. It is not enough to say the right words. You need to feel it as well.
A "truism" that Luntz states should be the core of the Republican message is:
It's YOUR money. YOU earned it. YOU sacrificed for it. The government TOOK it from you. Now its YOUR chance to take control of YOUR retirement. Remember, its YOUR future. It's YOUR life. And from now on it should be YOUR Social Security.
A suggested "Perfect Statement":
Under the current system, people who are just entering the work force today will earn almost no interest on the money they put in over their lifetimes. That's right, almost no interest. And even workers in their forties will receive a paltry two percent return on their Social Security benefits. That's less than the inflation rate.... Our nation's workers deserve better.
As I will show in other examples, this document doesn't even present factually correct talking points to Republicans, and thus it's no wonder that they have been making no many misstatements.
The reality is that there is no real way to calculate a "rate of return" on Social Security at all, because its not a traditional investment system, it's an insurance system. The "rate of return" for Social Security is like the "rate of return" on your home insurance. If you never file a claim then you have a negative rate of return. If your house burns down then you have a high rate of return. The rate of return is totally dependant on what services from Social Security you use, how long you live, and what your income levels were when you were working. People with a lower income get higher relative benefits once they retire, so poor people get a higher "rate of return" than the rich. More on this will be addressed shortly.
Although Luntz does advise Republicans to rely on emotional appeals, there is obviously a need for at least some facts. Luntz suggests to stick to "four straightforward facts":
First, when Social Security was first created, men made up the vast majority of the workforce and had a life expectancy not much more than 60 years. Today, in a majority of households, both men a women are working, and our life expectancy has risen more than 10 years. We are living longer, healthier, more productive lives and that trend is going to accelerate as we continue to lead the world in medical breakthroughs. But while that is great for us here today, that's not great for an antiquated Social Security system.
There are a number of problems here. First of all, the fact that more women work today actually helps the Social Security system, it doesn't hurt it. Women were still able to draw retirement benefits from their husbands when they died in the past, which meant you had more people drawing benefits that didn't pay in than is the case today. Secondly, living more productive lives should alleviate
problems with Social Security, not make them worse. The real problem is that while we are leading more productive lives, the pay for the bottom 85% of the population hasn't increased one bit since 1970 in inflation adjusted terms, while pay for the top 1% has sky rocketed. The reality is that: yes, we are all more productive, but we
aren't seeing those gains, hence the Social Security funding problems in the first place. And lastly, the US is declining in its role of leading the world in medical breakthroughs.
Second, it is a fact that in the 1950s Social Security had about 16 workers paid in for every person drawing out. Today, the ratio is just 3 to 1, and when our kids retire, it will be down to two workers for each beneficiary. The burden we will be placing on the workforce is unimaginable, and it's getting worse. Think you taxes are too high now? Imagine what they will be in the future if we don't make the necessary changes in the present.
This is a highly misleading statement for reasons that I have demonstrated in other articles on this website:
Social Security: Bush's Lies vs. Reality
The Truth About Social Security
The truth is that the ratio of workers to beneficiaries has been 3 to 1 for more than 30 years.
Third, it is a fact that the expansive Baby Boomer generation continues to age- and the oldest of them turn 60 next year. Because of that, the number of workers in America has increased since the 1950s, but the number of retirees has increased much faster.
I'm not even sure that this statement makes sense or what it's point is supposed to be. Its actually a let down considering this guy is supposed to be a propaganda master.
And fourth, it is a fact that the return on your Social Security dollars is a paltry two percent (actually 1.6%). That's it - two percent. That's not even more than inflation! That's not enough to retire with a nest egg. That's not enough to retire with a sense of security. To me, depending on a two-percent rate of return over the lifetime of paying into Social Security is more of a risk then trying an alternative approach.
This statement is a complete farce. First of all, as has been stated, its impossible truly calculate a "rate of return" for Social Security, but there have been calculations done that show what some averages are.
According to The Hill
A Treasury Department paper written in 1995 looked at data from Social Security beneficiaries and concluded, "Social Security net returns are strongly progressive." For working males, the rate of return was 5.5 percent. Social Security's rate of return for lower-income males was 6.17 percent and for higher income males, 5.04 percent.
In June 2001, Social Security economists and actuaries wrote a paper, referred to as Note 144, on rates of return for hypothetical workers. They concluded that low-income "two earner couples" born in 1955 will earn a 3.2 percent rate of return, a medium income bracket would earn just a 2.15 percent rate of return, and a high income bracket couple would earn just 1.49 percent.
Note 144 also states that making rate-of-return comparisons with private investment plans is inadequate because Social Security offers benefits that most private plans do not, such as guaranteed cost-of-living adjustments based on the consumer price index and benefits for life in the event of disability.
Even the extremely low hypothetical "rates of return" mentioned by Luntz are already adjusted for inflation, yet he claims otherwise.
Furthermore, the Social Security Commission
explicitly states that trying to calculate a "rate of return" for Social Security is really mostly meaningless:
In September 1998, the General Accounting Office reported that there was substantial disagreement about whether it is appropriate to apply the rate of return concept to the Social Security program. The GAO report said:
Supporters of such an application point out that a rate of return would provide individuals information about the return they receive on their contributions to the program. However, others contend that it is inappropriate to use rate of return estimates for Social Security because the program is designed to pursue social insurance goals, such as ensuring that low-wage earners have adequate income in their old age or that dependent survivors are adequately provided for. In addition, calculations for rates of return rely on a number of assumptions that affect the resulting estimates. For individuals, the actual rates of return can vary substantially from the estimates due to various uncertainties, such as a worker's actual retirement age and future earnings.
SSA strongly agrees that it is inappropriate to apply individual rate of return estimates to Social Security. Social Security, like other social insurance programs such as Medicare, is not designed in a way that it could be appropriately evaluated by individual rate of return estimates. The program is designed to provide adequate income for workers and their families when the worker retires, becomes disabled, or dies. Historically, the program has been judged by the extent to which benefits replace pre-retirement earnings and how much those benefits help reduce poverty, not by estimates of the individual rate of return on contributions.
Furthermore, the program's full value cannot be accounted for when using individual rate of return estimates. Social Security is more than a social insurance program that protects people when they retire. It also protects workers against other risks over which they have little control. Almost 3 in 10 of today's 20 year-olds will become disabled before age 67 and 1 in 6 Americans will die before reaching age 67. Individuals benefit from Social Security not just through their own worker benefits but through the protection provided to workers' families against these risks. Currently millions of Americans are directly benefiting from that protection: about 1 in 3 beneficiaries is not a retiree but a disabled worker, dependent of a disabled worker or a survivor of a worker who has died.
Our ability to inform workers of the rate of return on their Social Security contributions is limited for several reasons. For example, the Social Security program is a family program that, generally, provides greater benefits to workers with larger families. But our records do not include family linkages until benefit applications have been filed. Similarly, replacement rates for lower income workers are greater than for workers with higher incomes. Without knowing lifetime average earnings or the size of a worker's family, any information provided in the Social Security Statement could significantly misstate many workers' actual rate of return. Moreover, any rate of return estimate would be extremely sensitive to periods of unemployment and other related factors.
So, interestingly, right now, Social Security is an extremely family friendly program that helps low income large families the most. More to the point, Social Security isn't
a retirement system! No one has ever claimed that people should rely on Social Security as their only means of retirement. Its a SECURITY SYSTEM, not
a retirement system.
I found this next quote to be a particularly nice gem:
Let's face it - seniors love to talk about their kids and grandkids, so talk about them. Tell them about the opportunity America has to insure their retirement security. This point, though simple, is extraordinarily powerful, ESPECIALLY with older women... It is the ONLY way that you can sell them on this proposal.
I think that speaks for itself.
The last example that I'm going to highlight touches on a very fundamental issue, that of the ability to pass your "personal Social Security" investments on to your heirs. As an example of "words that works", Luntz puts forward the following:
It's their money but the problem is the federal government has spent it. Now we need a tangible asset alongside Social Security so people can point to it and say "that's MINE, and if I don't live to collect my Social Security that's inheritable wealth". It's something that they can depend upon in their old age.
Actually, the fact that the current system is a collective pooling system is exactly what makes it superior for its intended purpose, which is caring for the elderly and disabled. Part of the way that Social Security works, as has been said, is like an insurance program, where everyone pays into the pot, and only those that survive to collect benefits get paid out of it. That means that a part of the funding comes from the fact that not everyone collects. Removing that aspect from it significantly reduces the viability of the program and the amount of money in the pot to pay the benefits of seniors. Right now Social Security can be collected by dependants in the event of a death, such that if you die your children under 18 would get your benefit, or your wife could get your benefit. By making it inheritable it guarantees that there will be less money per beneficiary, because some of the money is going to be taken out of the pot to be passed on to people who would ordinarily not be beneficiaries.
In short, like every insurance program, the strength of the system is that it pools risk. Exactly what is weak about the Bush proposal is that it individualizes risk.
Their proposal is the equivalent of saying that when you pay for your car insurance, that if you die in a non car related way that all the money you paid into the system would be paid back out to an heir. Okay.... that sounds nice...., but that would mean that the cost of insurance would either have to go up dramatically or else benefits would have to be reduced. Once you eliminate risk pooling, the whole system is shot.
That is also another reason why even making privatization optional hurts the entire overall system, because the more people pay in, the lower overall risk is and the greater that overall benefits can be. Once you start reducing the size of the pool the whole system becomes more problematic.
Well, that is enough analysis of this document in regard to Social Security. I highly recommend that you download the document and read it through yourself, then simply watch TV and read the news and you will see that on many issues, not just Social Security, the Republicans are speaking from this playbook in ways that have been devised to be intentionally deceptive.
Posted by rationalrevolution.net
at 1:05 PM EST
Updated: Thursday, February 24, 2005 3:20 PM EST