The White House's Careless Language on Entitlements

The White House's Careless Language on Entitlements

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The Obama administration could use a little of the Clinton administration's lawyerly phrase-making.  

The other day White House spokesman Jay Carney called for better budget policy, proclaiming that, "over the past weeks and months the president repeatedly called for substantial deficit reduction through both long-term entitlement changes and revenues through tax reform, with additional measures to spark jobs and strengthen our recovery."  Liberal groups reasonably fear this statement shows the Obama administration actually wants to slash Social Security and Medicare.

Earlier in the administration it would have been easy to refute the fear that the administration wants to cut entitlements.  President Obama went to the wall to enact a major expansion in the entitlement to health insurance.  He and his advisors (particularly OMB Director Peter Orszag) continually insisted that the so-called "entitlement" problem was really a health care cost control problem, and that the answer therefore was to make the health care system more efficient.  (See, e.g. p9).

In February, current OMB Director Jack Lew rejected the idea that Social Security is a cause of deficits

In fact, it is possible to reduce the budgetary impact of entitlement programs without reducing the entitlements themselves.  For example, increasing Social Security payroll collections would help finance the program without reducing benefits.  There are many ways to reduce the costs of medical care; all of them would reduce the budgetary burden of the Medicare program and many of them would have quite limited effects on the benefits received by enrollees.  So it is possible to "make entitlement programs more efficient" or "strengthen the financing of entitlement programs" without changing the actual entitlements: the promised social protections from Social Security, Medicare, and other programs.

But when the administration calls for "long-term entitlement changes" it seems to be calling for a change in the entitlement itself: the promised protection.  It is easy enough to use the language I suggested -- but they do not.

Is this on purpose or sloppiness?  I don't know.  Surely the administration's leaders must know that the language they are using scares its core supporters to death.  It looks like they are preparing to sell out the most basic policy accomplishments and beliefs of their own party.  Different language would make it easier for people like me to argue that the administration is making analytically justified distinctions: distinctions that value both budget control and the necessary role of government.

So I'd like to believe they're being sloppy.  But then I look at the language about "revenues through tax reform."  That looks pretty careful.  They're trying very hard not to say "revenue increases," and I have to presume that's because they're trying not to anger those citizens who don't like tax hikes.  Even on wealthier Americans.

It appears there are three possibilities.  The Obama administration is sensitive only to the views of its opponents.  It has forgotten the difference between improving the budgetary effect of entitlement programs and cutting entitlement benefits.  Or it has slipped into sloppy inside-the-beltway language, forgetting that language matters.  I'm a person who believes that Social Security and Medicare help make this country different from, and better than what it was in 1929.  So I hope they are only being careless and incompetent.  That could be fixed.  If they are paying attention to their message and its effects.

Joseph White is Director of the Center for Policy Studies at Case Western Reserve University.

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