Framing Pensions

One reason it’s important for more Americans to understand framing is that it’s so easy to use words and phrases that sound neutral but actually contain ideological bias. Do you know if journalists are taught framing theory in college? If you have knowledge or experience with this, please let me know. I think journalists should be taught this if they aren’t already.

The phrase I have in mind is “unfunded pension liabilities.” If you search online for this phrase, you’ll find it in countless articles.

This probably is a politically-neutral term among accountants. After all, in accounting, a liability is just a minus on the spreadsheet. For example, my phone bill is a monthly liability in my budget. That doesn’t make it bad; it just means it needs to be paid.

The words "unfunded" and "liabilities" add unfortunate connotations to "pension."
The words “unfunded” and “liabilities” add unfortunate connotations to “pension.”

But since conservatives have made government debt a major issue, the words unfunded and liabilities when applied to pension serve the conservative narrative of reckless overspending by government. Because the word liability does mean bad and risk to be avoided in the world where we non-accountants live, it implies that pensions are somehow bad. This reduces resistance to abolishing pensions and replacing them with retirement-savings plans that may or may not provide the hoped-for income in retirement.

Given a nationwide campaign against pensions, it’s important to reframe the issue. What should progressives say when, e.g., the mayor of Omaha argues that pensions should be replaced with 401(k)s and 403(b)s?

As George Lakoff argues in this latest Huffington Post article, “Pensions are delayed payments of wages for work already done, and taking away pensions is theft.” The wages have been delayed to increase the workers’ security in retirement. To ensure that retired workers have a measure of financial security is a way that we Americans support each other and ensure broadly-shared prosperity. To renege on pensions is is irresponsible and wrong, and we should say so.

When well-meaning people (or pension opponents) say “unfunded pension liability,” we could say, “The liability isn’t the pension but the failure to fund the pension. We have to ensure that retired workers get what they’re owed and can enjoy the freedom and security they’ve earned in retirement.”

How do you think progressives should defend pensions?

One thought on “Framing Pensions”

  1. Progressives should say that pensions are liabilities only in the sense that they may not yet have been paid. Pensions are a contract between workers and employers, not an option to be honored only if it’s convenient for employers. If pensions are unfunded, it’s because of wrongdoing by the employer, who should be forced to return missing monies.

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