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by Nicholas Wilbur (

In any other election, a presidential candidate who isolated the senior citizen demographic by attacking Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” would be deemed unelectable by the media, disowned by their party and tarred and feathered by the base.

Not Rick Perry. Not this Republican Party. Not today’s conservatives. Instead, they’ve invited him over for tea.

Rather than retreat from the provocative language, which even Karl Rove said was “toxic” for a presidential contender, the Texas governor doubled down on his claim during the Sept. 7 GOP primary debate.

“It is a Ponzi scheme to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years old today, ‘You’re paying into a program that’s going to be there,’ ” he said. “Anybody that’s for the status quo with Social Security today is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids, and it’s not right.”

He did it again during the Sept. 12 debate.

Not surprisingly, reporters, broadcasters and bloggers on the Left were appalled at the claim, and they went to work immediately trying to correct it.

After the Sept. 7 debate, Media Matters ran the headline, “Social Security Is Not A Ponzi Scheme.”

In The Washington Monthly, Steve Benen wrote a similar post titled, “It’s not a Ponzi scheme.”

Teresa Ghilarducci, the chair of Economic Policy Analysis at the New School for Social Research, wrote a piece in The New York Times, “Social Security is Not a Fly-by-Night Ponzi Scheme,” in which she clarified that “A Ponzi scheme is a short-term criminal enterprise. Social Security is a rock-solid social insurance program that protects millions of Americans.”

In The Washington Post, Jonathan Bernstein wrote a piece titled, “Perry’s Ponzi Scheme Rhetoric,” in which he said, “Perry either doesn’t understand Social Security, doesn’t understand Ponzi schemes or is simply not telling the truth.”

WAPO’s Ezra Klein included a Venn diagram in his article explaining the differences between Social Security and a Ponzi scheme.

And Lawrence O’Donnell went so far as to say, “It is impossible to win a presidential election in America while demonizing Social Security.”

Unfortunately for liberal pundits, journalists, analysts and other truth seekers, what they think, say and write doesn’t matter – particularly to conservatives. They should know by now that their viewpoints mean nothing to rightwingers, even if what they say is completely, unequivocally true.

Conservatives today believe The New York Times is a bastion of socialism. It’s safe to say that Media Matters won’t be a primary source of information for them. Of the sources that do influence their opinion, this is what conservatives woke up to the morning after the primary debate.

In The American Prospect, Catholic World Report editor George Neumayr said “(Mitt) Romney, though smooth enough for most of the debate, played a dangerous game by cheap-shotting Perry on Social Security.

How dare Perry call Social Security a “Ponzi scheme,” said Romney, who presented himself as a champion of Social Security and Perry as a destroyer of it. But Social Security is a Ponzi scheme for the young and Perry properly stood by his remark and calls for Social Security reform.

In The National Review, Hadley Arkes, the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, said of Perry: “He didn’t budge from the claim that Social Security was a Ponzi scheme, and everyone knew that there won’t be enough money to pick up the obligations that will be accumulating.”

Also in The National Review, Republican media consultant Alex Castellanos wrote that “his Ponzi-scheme caricature of Social Security, despite the upcoming media furor, won’t hurt him – because Americans know it is true: There is no ‘fund’ in the Social Security Fund, just a bankrupt, intergenerational transfer of wealth.”

The headline on read, “Calling Social Security a ‘Ponzi scheme’ isn’t radical, it’s the truth.”

Even House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), though much softer in his presentation of his viewpoint, supported Perry’s stance: “I think that the point the governor is trying to make is the math doesn’t lie and the numbers don’t add up.”

Sarah Palin backed Perry’s call for ending “the status quo” of these “insolvent” programs. Former Fox News psychobabbler Glenn Beck said, “Perry was right.” And Rush Limbaugh asked the rhetorical question on his radio show, “If (Social Security) isn’t a Ponzi scheme, what is it?”

In a short, conservatives agreed.

Surprisingly, so did many in the mainstream media.

After the debate, NBC ran the headline “SC retirees agree with Perry on Social Security as Ponzi scheme.”

ABC published a report titled, “Picking Apart the ‘Ponzi Scheme’: Is Rick Perry Right?” which stated that, “While Perry’s choice of words may not be completely accurate, they are not entirely off-base either.”

Young people are paying into a system with the promise of receiving retirement benefits later in life when, in fact, the system in its current form may not be able to pay those benefits starting in 2036.

Even the liberal Chris Matthews, host of Hardball, admitted after the GOP debate that, “It is a Ponzi scheme in the sense that the money that’s paid out every day is coming from people who paid in that day.”

Far from being the extreme, politically suicidal gaffe some thought it would be, Perry’s provocative Ponzi scheme rhetoric actually is being embraced – and embraced most of all by the conservative media outlets whose readers will pick the next Republican nominee.

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’?”

Privatization is the one plan both GOP frontrunners have embraced as a long-term fix to Social Security.

And that’s an argument the Left can win.

– via

Originally posted to on Thu Sep 15, 2011 at 12:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Social Security Defenders.

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Comment Preferences

  •  This is the way the RW paves the way (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    hester, whaddaya, Marie

    by throwing acid in the face of an effective program and then calling it ugly.  The counter is to let people know that their parents, grandparents and perhaps even great grandparents will become their responsibilities if SS is ended.  Oh, and there will be no inheritances for those who come from the longevity-gene pool. Your home will have to be their home because the churches will not be able to care for all of them.
    The Soylent Green project will be a privatized one, of course.  

  •  They all lie (0+ / 0-)

    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.

    What personal account?  I thought we all knew by now FDR was full of shit and the money went into the general operating fund and is gone.

    ...a presidential candidate who isolated the senior citizen demographic by attacking Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme”

    Seniors are not the issue.  It will probably remain solvent for most of them.  If you're under 35 you've been robbed.  I guess we could try to get that money from someone else but how long will that last?

    Pretending that FDR's lockboxes exist and are waiting for everyone is not a winning strategy. Focusing on current seniors, who will be paid under any proposed fix, is not a winning strategy.  Democrats must propose a plan make Social Security solvent again- or the Republicans will.  The can has reached the end of the road.

    •  How is... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Johnny Q, whaddaya

      Social Security not solvent when it brings in more revenue than it pays out?

      The 'Free Market' will decide. It will decide that the United States cannot consume 25% of the world's resources and the upper 1% cannot control 50% of the wealth.

      by RichM on Thu Sep 15, 2011 at 12:31:01 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Correction (0+ / 0-)

        Soon to be insolvent (2017), according to the trustees.

        •  Nope--The year to pay 77% of benefits is 2036 (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          RichM, Marie

          Nowhere near insolvent. And, as long as FICA revenues equal or exceed benefits payable, it's a pay as you go system and that works fine. Give up the idea that younger workers are getting robbed. It's false. Read up on social insurance on SSA's website.

          Note--A lot of information regarding the finances of the SS system on Wiki's SS article is incorrect. As I said, check SSA's website. The National Academy of Social Insurance has excellent information on this subject.

      •  Rich M - SocSec was cash flow negative (0+ / 0-)

        last year and will be again in F2011. The issue is the Trust Fund, what it represents, and how SocSec would be any different if there was no Trust Fund. There is no question that the Trillions collected to pay benefits to the boomers has been spent by Dem and GOP administrations alike.

        "let's talk about that"

        by VClib on Thu Sep 15, 2011 at 12:51:31 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  so what? (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          whaddaya, Bruce Webb, Marie

          !!!NEWS FLASH!!!

          Hey world! Guess what! The money you give the US government when you buy a bond gets spent!!!

          Bet you didn't know that, huh! Man, are you stupid to buy US treasuries!!! There's nothing there!!! It's all a Ponzi scheme! Worthless IOU's!


          •  Oddball - I am not suggesing the IOU's (0+ / 0-)

            are worthless or that the SocSec System is a Ponzi scheme. However, given that the SocSec Trust Fund will be cash flow negative for the foreseeable future how would the federal government's cash budget be any different if the Trust Fund did not own any IOU's?

            "let's talk about that"

            by VClib on Thu Sep 15, 2011 at 01:52:08 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  Actually, your remark says exactly that (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              Remember the negative cash flow is caused in part by the President's payroll tax holiday. Were it not in place, revenues would be equal to benefits. Don't forget that the missing payroll taxes are being replaced by general revenues. Otherwise, any system with 2.6 Trillion bucks in the bank (in Treasuries payable as cash on demand) is in better shape than any other federal program or private insurance fund, for that matter.

    •  Social Security is mandatory (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      whaddaya, Marie

      I do not understand why this is so difficult.

      A "ponzi" scheme inherently relies on continually recruiting new investors - and it collapses because it no longer has the ability to recruit new investors.

      Social Security simply does not work that way... No one recruits anyone for Social Security -- if you're born here, you pay into SS.  End of story.

      Demographics can shift, and I don't discount that at some future point - you have to tweak either the benefits or revenue side of the equation, but that's fundamentally different from a ponzi scheme where you essentially just run out of new suckers.

      If this nation ever runs out of people -- Social Security is the least of our worries...  I thought it was overrated, but in the movie Children of Men - it wasn't the end of a retirement safety net that caused the collapse of society -- it was the fact that, holy shit -- our very species is about 25 years from going extinct.

      There are no guarantees in life, but Social Security is probably about as close as anyone can reasonably expect.... and for the record, I'm just a handful of years beyond that age 35 cusp you mentioned.

      Full Disclosure: I am an unpaid shill for every paranoid delusion that lurks under your bed - but more than willing to cash any checks sent my way

      by zonk on Thu Sep 15, 2011 at 01:41:39 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Conservatives are Better Framers than Liberals (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pot, whaddaya, MuddyPolitics

    The liberal mind set prevents them from being persuasive to the public. That is because facts and logic alone do not persuade. Rather, to be persuasive you need emotion and ethics as well. Conservatives understood this since they built up their think tank system back in the 60s and 70s. Liberals are persuaded by the "Age of Enlightenment" They have a strong belief that logic and facts will eventually persuade the public to go along with them. In fact, many believe that it is immoral to use moral arguments in debates. Thus, liberals are handicapped when debating conservatives.

    •  Conservatives have a willing acomplice and a (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      whaddaya, Nice Ogre

      different population to manipulate. Liberals, at their best, speak to our better angels in the cause of collective action and law to address inequality and injustice. Conservatives use ideas like rugged individualism,  personal achievement and freedom as their calling cards. Guess which "sounds" better? The accomplice, media, has been worse historically, but not much worse.

      All problems contain the seeds of their own solutions and all solutions contain the seeds of the next set of problem. - Jonas Salk

      by the fan man on Thu Sep 15, 2011 at 12:43:23 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Nice Ogre... (0+ / 0-)

      You're familiar with Lakoff, I see. Good stuff, that.

  •  So why is the right so much better at framing… (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Could it be because, as Bella Absug (a grand liberal if I ever saw one), said: "Liberals! They're always divided, always fighting each other…" or, more simply that liberals are "petty" and "very little men" later in the same paragraph.

    If we don't get what we need at a very minimum, it will be because far too many of us are throwing a fit because we can't get what we want, now. We respond by announcing to the world how dissatisfied we are with the President, fouling polls by "disapproving" of his policies, anything it takes to make us feel like we are not selling out. Meanwhile the other side acts more like family - blood bath within but don't attack one of them. What wins is positive unity - regardless of our various opinions. Whatever it takes, even if we have to all walk around with Obamabot shirts on, clenching teeth if need be. Sure what we want is not petty, but harming ourselves in the name of personal honor over issues IS petty, petty, petty, freaking petty. The Democratic base has become a bunch of Laputians.

    I'ts not so much framing as creating a convincing atmosphere, a perspective - something the masses respond to far more than mundane reason. Obama is trying to set the tone. His success has more to do with how united we are in responding than anything he does. The masses don't climb on an empty bandwagon.

    Without heroes we are all losers with nothing to aspire to.

    by qua on Thu Sep 15, 2011 at 01:12:21 PM PDT

  •  Left couldn't frame the Mona Lisa (0+ / 0-)

    if they were standing in front of it and taking a picture.

    What separates us, divides us, and diminishes the human spirit.

    by equern on Thu Sep 15, 2011 at 01:17:41 PM PDT

  •  What we need to do (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    whaddaya, MuddyPolitics

    I do not understand HOW many people here think change is going to occur.

    That fairies are going to wave wands over President Obama and he is suddenly going to morph into the president he campaigned as?

    Ain't gonna happen.

    That the media is suddenly going to lap up every word a left-leaning blogger writes?

    Ain't gonna happen.

    That the Democratic party is going to revolt under Obama and start spouting ideas, frames and memes that don't come from "official" sources?

    Aint gonna happen.

    But that doesn't mean that we're powerless to make change happen.

    We could...

    1) Write en masse to the DNC telling them if they don't start listening to our concerns about framing issues we're going to put up a sign that says "don't call us, we'll call you" ...

    2) Knock on Chuck Shumer's door...wasn't he the one Harry Reid designated as carrying the water for Democrats in the Senate for responding to GOP buffoonery? You could hear crickets over the silence that's come from his office...

    3) Protest in the streets (now THERE's a novel idea!)...

    4) Organize and form committees and task forces to help us come up with better frames of things that concern us and send them to our allies to help get the word out...

    5) Form better networks with our allies so that our views and opinions are more unified...

    6) And...I don't know...what are some of your ideas?

    But let's have IDEAS about how to change things, and not b*tch sessions! Whining only goes good with cheese.

    What can we DO to help?

    What separates us, divides us, and diminishes the human spirit.

    by equern on Thu Sep 15, 2011 at 01:27:42 PM PDT

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