Defining a Winning Position on Social Security Reform

The following long posts shows how you would strategically create a position that would easily win on Social Security. On a radio show earlier this year, I predicted that Social Security reform was unlikely to happen this year. Strategically, the Republicans have done a poor job positioning the issue, mostly because they insist on using terminology that was either developed by the Democrats (such as safety net) or terms that are easily used against them such "private accounts." On a recent radio show, the host asked me if "personal accounts" was an improvement. I half-joked that both terms were equivalent in the public’s mind because they both begin with a "p." My point was real: people in government think that slight differences in terminology, such as saying "private" or "personal," matter because, when they test ideas through traditional marketing, a slightly different choice it words does matter. However, people taking marketing tests judge terminology in a vacuum. This vacuum does not consider the most important fact in using our rules,how your opposition is likely to react. If you don't consider how your opposition is likely to respond to a repositioning-such as a change in terminology, you are not really measuring the true effects of a change. For example, how hard is it for the Democrats to like the terms "private" and "personal" into one idea by just saying, "We are against privatization of Social Security in personal accounts." All too easy. Strategic positioning in politics involves a good choice of terminology, but it is much more than that. First, it must consider the current position and where you can get to where you want from where you are currently. For example, the term "personal accounts" would have worked if the Republicans hadn't already established a "personal accounts" position. While this seems illogical, using the term "private accounts" initially left an opening for the Democrats to talk about "privatizing Social Security." It was a short distance between "private accounts" and "privatizing." However, if Republicans would have thought about likely Democratic responses in advance and used the term "personal accounts" initially, not similar connection could have been made because there is nothing wrong with "personalizing Social Security," which sounds like a very good idea. However, having already established the "privatizing Social Security" position, the value of the "personal accounts" term is lost because it is too easily connected to the original "private accounts" position. Indeed, no one can find a difference between the two and they both begin with "p." So, what does strategy teach you to do when you go down the wrong path? It teaches you to back up and start over. Instead of working on the positioning of a solution, "private accounts," the Republicans need to work on redefining the problem. This was the original mistake that the Republicans made. The "crisis" that the Republicans are addressing has been defined largely in terms of various dates in the future which marks various predictable transitions states in the (more or less fictitious) Social Security trust fund. Republicans often make this strategic error in position: basing their position on rather arcane financial issues sometime in the future. These governmental financing issues never make sense to the voting public. This is why Republicans stayed out of power for fifty years when their main issue was deficit spending (a losing position that the Democrats have now secured for themselves). Voters are indifferent to these issues until they can be connected with current, tangible problems. Deficit spending didn't matter until it was connected to inflation. It won't matter again until inflation is a problem again. So what is the current, tangible problem with Social Security? The current problem is that millions of young people are paying large amounts into an "insurance" program, which cannot possibly provide any benefit for them in the future. Their money is being taken under false pretenses. Social Security, as currently constructed, is a fraud, a pyramid or Ponzi scheme that is taking people's money with absolutely no mechanism for every returning their investment to them in the future. The Republicans must make the issue the current problem: how the government can justify taking one dime from today's young people under a program that has become a fraud. The issue should be the money being paid today by everyone in their thirties and twenties. This money is a real problem. It is real. Everyone can see it on their paycheck stubs. If I were the Republicans, my strategy would focus attention like a laser on that money being taken from people TODAY that they are going to get no return on it. I would launch a flank attack on the term FICA. People know the term because it takes a big chunk of their paychecks, but they don't know what it means. FICA means "Federal Insurance Contribution Act." Today, however, this term is false labeling. FICA is not an insurance because no future benefit is currently possible for many under the program's structure. Instead Congress should change the term to "Support of the Other People's Retirement Tax," which makes the nice acronym, SOPRT. This is the ultimate in truth in advertising. After making it clear what is really going on, you can make the problem current by further clarifying the situation by dividing current payers into the system into different categories, so they know who they are. Some, like those over 55, would be "qualified for future SOPRT payments." Those between 35 and 55 would be "Possibly qualified for SOME future SOPRT payment." Those under 35 would be "No assured of any future SOPRT payment." I would bring this bill to Congress immediately. Instead of changing Social Security, which is difficult, I would make the debate about "truth in labeling." The Republican position would be one based on a clear philosophy of honest: it is dishonest of government to take so much money from people under false pretenses. I don't know the legalities, but it might even be possible for the president to change something like the labeling on people's paychecks and Social Security statements as a simple administrative procedure since I suspect these things are not written into current laws. Either route would deprive the Democrats of their typical terminology for opposing changes to government programs, that is, calling the proposed program a "risky scheme." There is no change to the existing program other than making it clear exactly where the risks are in the current program. How could the Democrats respond? First, they would try to laugh it off as a publicity stunt. The Republicans should agree. Yes, the idea is to advertise the reality of what Social Security has become. The Republicans could argue that it is their duty as public servants to publicized the situations and let individuals know which group they belong to. If they tried to defend Social Security as a true insurance program, that debate would allow Republicans to highlight the difference between the current "pay as you go" plan and real insurance in which beneficiaries have a real benefit. It would allow then to highlight the laws on the books that prevent insurance companies from promising benefits that they cannot finance. The debate coud move to which people fall into which categories. Arguing future dates of insolvency, Democrats could try to maintain that the lines should be moved for groups of people. This debate is a loser for the Democrats. As long as you are talking facts about the current system, they know that nothing they will say can make the situations for current voters work. This new position on the existing program would allow the discussion of future solutions. The new terminology make it clear which solutions consist of raising the SOPRT rates on those that pay SOPRT in the future or cutting benefits for those who receive SOPRT in the future and which consist of a third way, such as creating a real insurance program where we work our way out of an untenable SOPRT program over time.