Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Think tanks and language: "It's 'Private' vs. 'Personal' in Social Security Debate" (NYT)

The New York Times > Washington > It's 'Private' vs. 'Personal' in Social Security Debate

Short but fascinating news analysis in the NYT today which cites a few think tanks over the question of language in the Bush administration social security "reform" proposal:

"'To most people 'privatization' means you're going to take the program out of the federal government and put it in the hands of private individuals totally,' said Representative Jim McCrery, the Louisiana Republican who is chairman of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security. 'That's not what I'm proposing, and it's not what the president is proposing.

'Accounts are not private in the sense that that individual has complete control over those accounts. He doesn't. His investment choices are very limited. He can't take the money out for any reason other than retirement. And he must annuitize a certain portion of it upon retirement.'

In short, a frustrated Mr. McCrery said: 'They are not private accounts. They are personal accounts.'

The Republican National Committee distributed to reporters a definition of 'privatize' and why it should not apply to the proposal.

Democrats and their allies counter that such individual investment accounts have been described as a form of 'privatization' for many years - by the very people advocating them. The Cato Institute, the research center that has long pushed for the accounts, called its effort the Project on Social Security Privatization until a few years ago.

Michael Tanner, an expert on the issue at Cato, said the organization decided to change the name independently of the Republican Party, but added, 'We were all probably reading the same polls.'

Peter Orszag of the Brookings Institution, a critic of Mr. Bush's approach to private accounts, said: 'I do find this a bit Orwellian. It's taking a term and saying you're not allowed to use this, even though it was widely used for years.'

The two sides agree that the language struggle is fueled by polls and pollsters, who say public opinion can swing significantly when the word 'privatize' is used."

Notice how the NYT identifies the think tanks not as "conservative" or "liberal," but with respect to their particular position on this single issue.

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