By Jared Bernstein
The Washington Post (12/29/17)
I have a simple request to journalists, columnist, pundits, and others writing about forthcoming efforts of Republicans to cut Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the anti-poverty programs that make up our safety net. Call such efforts “cuts.” Do not call them “reforms,” “changes,” “overhauls,” “fixes,” “reshaping,” “modernizing,” or any other euphemism that could easily be misconstrued. At least, do not do so without also clearly defining what they really are, which is cuts.
While D.C. insiders speak the unique creole of our swamp, there’s no reason to expect general readers to intuitively understand that when House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) says he plans to “reform” entitlements, he means to cut them. Journalists, in particular, should not do Ryan et al.’s bidding by assuming readers get the meaning behind the words.
Examples abound. To be fair, these are often otherwise informative pieces, but they sometimes adapt the intentionally obfuscating language of those who would cut these programs.
Those advocating cuts to these programs have every right to make their case. But they’ve no right to mislead, which is, of course, the reason they employ such gilded language. And the media has no right to help them do so. To the contrary, it has an obligation to cut through their linguistic fog.
A recent Congressional Quarterly piece (no public link) probed the interesting political disagreement between Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on the wisdom of going after the safety net in an election year. In describing Ryan’s agenda, the piece noted (my bold, in all cases below) that “the Wisconsin Republican has detailed an ambitious effort to dramatically reshape Medicare, Medicaid and welfare programs that the GOP has long targeted as ripe for reforms. … Ryan has said he plans to use the budget reconciliation process for entitlement changes.”
CNN: “The House GOP caucus plans to work on entitlement reform next year as a way to ‘tackle the debt and the deficit,’ according to House Speaker Paul Ryan. … Ryan also noted that, in addition to health care, the GOP plans to work on reforming the US welfare system.” To its credit, the piece later cites Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) saying these reforms are really cuts, but why set this up as “he said, she said?” Ryan is talking about cuts, plain and simple, but lacks to courage to say so. His position should not be accommodated.
This Politico report talks about Ryan’s “obsession” with “fixing” the “ballooning entitlement state” and “tinkering with the social safety net.” Who could possibly be against “fixing” something! And “tinkering” certainly sounds awfully benign, especially in contrast to Ryan and the Republican’s actual, articulated plans to significantly cut programs that help low-income households.
Let me be clear. I’m not arguing against such cuts, at least not yet (that comes in a moment). Those advocating cuts to these programs have every right to make their case. But they’ve no right to mislead, which is, of course, the reason they employ such gilded language. And the media has no right to help them do so. To the contrary, it has an obligation to cut through their linguistic fog.
Along with the euphemisms for cuts, here are some other words and arguments politicians use to prevent us from understanding what they’re actually talking about. …