Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels’ best-known quotation is probably the following, a pithy commentary on truth and deliberate lies:
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”
We’ve all heard this quote at one time or another, but–perhaps fittingly–Goebbels never actually said it. The true source of the quote is unknown. Of course, Goebbels was an accomplished liar and might very well have thought such a thing, but he was also smart enough to know that successful propagandists don’t admit to being liars themselves. Rather, they accuse enemy scoundrels of lying, while steadfastly maintaining that their own lies represent the unadorned gospel truth, as Goebbels did in attacking “Churchill’s Lie Factory” in 1941:
“One should not, as a rule, reveal one’s secrets, since one does not know if and when one may need them again. The essential English leadership secret does not depend on particular intelligence. Rather, it depends on a remarkably stupid thick-headedness. The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.”
What preposterous lie was Churchill promulgating that prompted Goebbels’ rapier retort? Churchill was spreading the vicious falsehood that Germany would lose the war, whereas Goebbels knew that it was Churchill who was “fighting for a lost cause.”
Seventy years later, we have a new crop of propagandists claiming moral superiority and lying by calling their enemies liars. This phenomenon is manifesting on several fronts, not the least of which is Social Security.
Tea Party string-puller Dick Armey has railed against the “bloated entitlement scheme” for years, advocating a radical overhaul. In a September speech at the Right Nation 2010 Convention he derided Social Security as “a pay as you go Ponzi scheme,” thus setting the stage for a host of other big liars lying big about Social Security.
For instance, in recent remarks, Fox News blowhard Andrew Napolitano sums up the party line on “this Devil’s pact” with his standard intemperate criticism backed up with manufactured history (and a lot of pure wind), closing with consummate Goebbelsian condemnation. Liberals are fighting for a lost cause. We’re morally and spiritually inferior, perpetually needy dupes who have fallen for the “Ponzi scheme” known as Social Security, etc.
Renowned simpleton Sarah Palin predictably produced a surfeit of cringe-inducing vocalizations during her recent Farcical History Tour, but none more disgraceful than this:
“If you have more recipients than you have payers into the [Social Security] system, it is like a Ponzi scheme that’s going to be upside down in no time at all. We are going to be underwater with Social Security.”
I suppose asking Palin where she got the idea that Social Security has more recipients than payers would be considered a “gotcha question,” but I can’t let it pass without pointing out that Social Security has three payers for every recipient, or three times as many as are paying into your IRA and 401(k). But notice that expression again: “Ponzi scheme.”
Then there’s Nevada Rep. Joe Heck and his now-infamous smearing of Social Security as a “pyramid scheme.” Heck is now backpedaling furiously, but he’s the exception to the right wing rule, which is to lie big, stick to it, and keep up their lies even at the risk of looking ridiculous.”
The expression “Ponzi scheme” refers to the sort of fraudulent pyramid arrangements made famous by Charles Ponzi, a swindler who defrauded thousands in 1920 by concocting an arbitrage scheme to exploit international differences in postage rates and convincing others to invest millions by promising them up to 100% returns. What made it fraudulent was that the postal arbitrage wasn’t all that profitable, and early investors’ returns were in fact being funded by later investors’ contributions.
For critics of Social Security, the similarities to Ponzi schemes are great, and the differences are inconsequential. But the mere fact that new “investors” in Social Security are in large part funding earlier investors (retirees and other beneficiaries) quite simply does not make it a Ponzi scheme, for several critical reasons.
Ponzi’s pyramid collapsed because the underlying enterprise was not exceptionally profitable, and yet he was promising extraordinary returns in as little as ninety days. Social Security is a long term program that invests in government instruments and pays a modest return spread out over many years. Ponzi could not maintain the level of new investors necessary to keep his pyramid inflated beyond a certain breaking point, but Social Security has a naturally increasing participant base which is more than adequate to maintain sufficient funding. Ponzi’s scheme was a get-rich-quick scheme that was never financially sound, which is why it collapsed in a matter of months. In contrast, while other retirement investments have soured and bankrupted millions, Social Security has been paying benefits like clockwork for more than 70 years, as have similar programs across the industrialized world. And still, Dick Armey and his ilk persist in scaring the bejeezus out of retirees and everyone else, claiming that Social Security is fundamentally fraudulent.
Now, Dick Armey has done far worse in his career than merely legitimizing this “big lie,” that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. In the late Nineties, he championed the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, thereby permitting banks to trade in mortgage-backed securities and setting the stage for the biggest financial calamity since the Great Depression. We’re not only still feeling the pain from this gargantuan scheme, ironically, our Social Security system has also been jeopardized by it.
Charles Ponzi wouldn’t have had the audacity to perpetrate such a massive fraud, nor Goebbels the mendacity to defend it. But for Dick Armey, Sarah Palin, Anthony Napolitano, and others too numerous to list here, it’s all in a day’s work.
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