The Social Security Stump

The big social security news in yesterday’s papers was that President Bush’s plan for private accounts will have no affect whatsoever on the system’s long-term financial problems. This isn’t a paraphrase or an inference. One Bush aide went so far as to tell the LA Times, “the individual accounts would do nothing to solve the system’s long-term financial problems.”

But just as President Bush used to open his speeches about Iraq by talking about 9/11 and al Qaeda, even though he knew there was no relationship between them, he now begins his stump speech on private accounts with a diagram of the dire “mathematical problem” facing social security.

In Bush’s 2003 State of the Union he said, “Before September the 11th, many in the world believed that Saddam Hussein could be contained. But chemical agents, lethal viruses and shadowy terrorist networks are not easily contained…If Saddam Hussein does not fully disarm, for the safety of our people and for the peace of the world, we will lead a coalition to disarm him.”

Notice how September 11th and “shadowy terrorist networks” are linked to the invasion of Iraq, but not directly. This, of course, is not an original observation.


But look at how Bush talked about Social Security in his 2005 State of the Union: “The system, however, on its current path, is headed toward bankruptcy…As we fix Social Security, we also have the responsibility to make the system a better deal for younger workers. And the best way to reach that goal is through voluntary personal retirement accounts.”

The system is “headed towards bankruptcy” = “problem”/ “shadowy terrorist networks”“Personal retirement accounts” = “Something we should do”/”invade Iraq”

“Something we should do” is not the same as “something we should do to solve the problem.” Just as invading Iraq was not, in fact, a substantive response to 9/11 and al Qaeda, so we now learn that personal retirement accounts are not a substantive response to Social Security supposedly heading towards bankruptcy (in fact, in both cases, the non-solution is likely to make the original problem worse).

Like the Iraq invasion, privatizing social security is just something the president wants to do. The trick of his associative rhetoric is to convince you it’s something he has to do.