Sen. Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” This political axiom dates back to the 1980s, when the senator was working on the Social Security Reform Commission. While it is more than 40 years old, the aphorism largely explains the inability of our elected officials to make progress on saving the floundering program.
Here is the problem for policymakers: there is no framework of accepted fact on which to build any consensus about the future of Social Security. Everyone has a fact that is someone else’s myth. So, you are welcome to have your own facts about Social Security. You are even free to have your own definitions of words.
In short, the debate about Social Security reform has devolved into a modern-day Tower of Babel. Without a common language, policymakers cannot really consider solutions because voters don’t really agree on what the problem is.
To illustrate the linguistic dysfunction of the debate, Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL) recently appeared on the MSNBC show “The ReidOut,” in part to express his concerns that Social Security is on track to be insolvent in 2035. The show’s host, Joy Reid, interrupted Donalds at least 10 times, repeatedly claiming, “That’s actually not true”.
It was not a productive exchange of ideas. It was an argument between people who do not agree on the meaning of words.
In the days that followed, MSNBC posted a separate video in which Reid provided some detail behind her adamant opposition to the idea that Social Security will be insolvent in 2035. In that segment, she reasons that “Social Security is not going to be insolvent” because Social Security “will not be bankrupt.”
The argument about bankruptcy is a convenient strawman. The words “bankrupt” and “insolvent" do not mean the exact same thing in the context of Social Security. According to the Social Security Administration, insolvent means that the program is not expected to pay scheduled benefits on a timely basis. Bankrupt is a legal concept that means you are not able to pay debt.
Here is the secret of the strawman. Under current law, Social Security does not have any debt because the promise of future benefits made by the program are not legal obligations of the program according to the U.S. Supreme Court. As a result, it is impossible for the program to go into bankruptcy, at least in the Webster’s Dictionary definition of the word.
The fact that Social Security cannot be bankrupt does not mean that Social Security cannot reach the state of insolvency. That alleged strength actually means the average American who has been paying into Social Security for decades has no legal recourse should the program be unable to meet its future obligations.
MSNBC isn’t fake news. It is pretend news, where news provides entertainment rather than information. The medium pits opposing views in a contentious format, designed to create conflict between engaging personalities, where the winner is the one who can redefine the opponent’s ideas in the most unfavorable light.
The one thing to understand about news as entertainment is that the sound of the bite will always be more important than the fact of it. Watch the clip (“Get Your Phone”), and pity the poor uncle who is subjected to the wrath of Reid.
In a functioning democracy, the media serves in the public forum as the Fourth Estate, a non-biased watchdog of democracy. It is supposed to provide a check and a balance to the power of government by informing the public on issues of the day so that our elected officials can be held accountable by voters.
In this case, it appears that the media has abandoned its social obligation to inform viewers in order to take part in the debate about Social Security as an active participant. This is a line that journalists cannot cross, nor even approach in good conscience given that Social Security serves as a lifeline for millions.
It would be a mistake to ignore MSNBC because its content is picked-up by a range of consolidators like Yahoo, MSN, and the rest. The video rests on YouTube, where it has drawn nearly 100,000 views. Unfortunately, there is a large audience of voters beholden to noise.
For Social Security reform to move forward, we must have an honest discussion about what the numbers actually mean. That conversation has to start with journalists, who should set aside their personal agenda enough to give readers the facts.
In other words, don’t tell viewers what to think. Give them the facts and let them draw their own conclusions.