Tuesday, March 22, 2005

It's 'Private' vs. 'Personal' in Social Security Debate

The New York Times
March 22, 2005
It's 'Private' vs. 'Personal' in Social Security Debate

WASHINGTON, March 21 - What's in a name? Would a personal account by any other name smell as sweet?

Apparently not, according to strategists in the two political parties.

In the Social Security debate, one of the most ferocious struggles is over language, whether President Bush is proposing to create "personal" or "private" accounts in the program, whether he is really proposing the "privatization" of Social Security.

Mr. Bush complained last week that " 'privatization' is a trick word," intended to "scare people." Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, interrupted a news conference to correct a reporter who asked about "personal" accounts.

"It's 'privatization,' " Mr. Reid said, adding that "personal accounts" was "the Republican term."

The staff of the House Franking Commission, which regulates the political content of Congressional mail that goes out at taxpayer expense, has weighed in with advice on which versions of the word "privatize" can be used to describe the president's plan. (The distinction revolves around the difference between "full" and "partial" privatization.)

This is not simply a semantic exercise. Real issues are at stake, the sides agree. Mr. Bush has proposed letting younger workers divert part of their payroll taxes into private (or personal) investment accounts.

Democrats say that amounts to a fundamental revision of the 70-year-old program, draining huge sums of money from it, reducing the government's role and exposing individuals to far more risk - in short, at least partly "privatizing" it.

Republicans say it is no such thing.

"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.

"What it conveys is putting your retirement up to the mercy of private-sector forces that you may or may not have any control over," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who works for a coalition of groups that oppose Mr. Bush's plan. "It conveys a fundamental change in a program that works."

Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant who has performed extensive work with focus groups on language, said:

" 'Private' is exclusive. 'Private' is limiting. 'Private' is something that's not available to all.

" 'Personal' is encompassing. It's individual. It's ownership. In the end, you need the combination of 'personal' and 'security.' "

A recent poll found that it made no difference whether the accounts were described as personal or private, and Robert Blendon, an expert on public opinion at Harvard, theorized that the public reacted more to the way the argument was framed than the use of a few words.

Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster, noted that a recent poll that his firm helped conduct for National Public Radio highlighted that effect. When asked, "Do you favor or oppose President Bush's proposal to create voluntary personal retirement accounts as part of the Social Security system?" 41 percent favored it, 49 percent opposed.

When asked, "Do you favor or oppose President Bush's proposal to privatize Social Security and divert part of the Social Security system into private accounts?" 34 percent said they favored it, and 58 percent opposed.

"Calling it a personal retirement account is stronger across the board," Mr. Bolger said. "Whereas 'privatization' hurts across the board."