February 18, 2005

February 18, 2005 | Commentary on Social Security

Rock the Vote: Keeping it Unreal on Social Security

"Get GEAR" blares the ad on RocktheVote.com. And what's the latest "gear" available from the self-proclaimed leader of youth politics? A brand new t-shirt with this less-than-edgy message: "I [Heart] Social Security."

That's the gist of the activist group's latest PR push: the ludicrous notion that young people think Social Security needs no real reform. With this shirt, Rock the Vote has officially "jumped the shark," forfeiting whatever remaining credibility it had as a voice of America's youth.

Conventional wisdom holds that, among all age groups, the young most strongly favor fixing Social Security by letting workers invest some of their retirement taxes in personal investment accounts. This wisdom is conventional for a good reason: For years on end, poll after poll has found it to be the case. That's not surprising, though. Younger workers stand to lose the most under our current Social Security system and would reap the greatest benefits from the personal accounts proposed by President Bush and various members of Congress.

But that doesn't suit Hans Riemer. Prior to joining Rock the Vote as its first-ever political director, he fronted the 2030 Center, a now defunct advocacy group dedicated to opposing Social Security reform.

Under Riemer's leadership, Rock the Vote earlier this year joined with AARP to commission a nationwide poll on "Public Attitudes Towards Social Security and Private Accounts." Far from a scientific study of popular opinion, this study adopted a hopelessly flawed methodology. To produce the desired, anti-reform "conclusion," it deliberately framed questions to elicit a particular response and then combined dissimilar responses into one group.

Rock the Vote's press release about this poll trumpets three conditions under which variously 63, 70, or 65 percent of young voters would oppose a system of personal accounts. If this were a legitimate study, it would be remarkable news and could have the potential to derail the reform effort. But the underlying polling data belie their spin.

The poll actually found that only 31 percent of younger voters believe Social Security will "be there" for them when they retire. Sixty-eight percent of young voters favor investing some of their payroll taxes in personal retirement accounts.

That's the normal finding. But it doesn't suit Rock the Vote's agenda. Of necessity, then, the poll zeroed in on those who actually favor reform and bombarded them with negative information until they consented to oppose personal accounts.

Young workers with the temerity to "generally favor" reform that would let them fund personal accounts were presented with various bad scenarios (for example, "private accounts will create losers as well as winners, and the losers may need additional help from the government") and asked if this information would make them rethink their position. Then they were asked about Bad Scenario B. And so on, through nine "questions," each presenting a hypothetical downside to reform. Eventually, most of the poll's respondents gave in to this persistent badgering and switched their support.

At that point, Rock the Vote and AARP lumped together anyone who "no longer favored" personal accounts with the group that initially opposed the reform plan. Voila! They were able to cobble together (er, find) staggering majorities opposing reform.

Of course, this is bad polling science. But it gave the folks paying for the poll the results they wanted.

Worse, though, is the fact that Rock the Vote would betray its professed constituency for the sake of a partisan platform. This issue, more than any other, has a real generational component. A youth organization should try to protect the younger generation by delivering honest information, rather than trading in half-truths and half-baked slogans like "I [Heart] Social Security."

Anyone who has been paying attention over the last few years should know that the theoretically non-partisan Rock the Vote does little more than parrot DNC talking points. During the 2004 election cycle, the issues featured on RocktheVote.com (such as bogus claims of plans to reinstate the draft) were all spun to encourage young voters to reject President Bush.

Of course, legitimate post-election polls found that 45 percent of voters under 30 pulled the lever for Bush. Could it be that the MTV demographic turns to sources other than self-anointed "youth politics" organizations for political guidance?

As a 25-year-old deeply worried about my future if Congress does NOT fix Social Security via personal retirement accounts, I seriously doubt Rock the Vote's propaganda on this issue will convince many of my contemporaries to adopt its position … much less buy its t-shirt.

Keith Miller, a 2003 graduate of Hillsdale College, is a researcher at the Heritage Foundation.

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