What’s on people’s minds today? More media outlets have turned to Dr. Frank Luntz to understand the hopes and fears of American than to any other political pollster. In addition to being an adviser to some of the most powerful Republicans in America, Luntz was a consultant to NBC’s THE WEST WING, worked for several Fortune 100 companies and four different billionaires. Luntz is the wordsmith who championed such catchy phrases as “The Clear Skies Initiative” and “The Death Tax.” David Brancaccio sits down with Luntz to discuss polling of Americans, the significance of the craft of language and what he sees as the difference between Republicans and Democrats.
During the last 15 years, Congress has given itself pay raises totaling more than $68,000 and catapulted its members into the top 5% of wage earners in America at an annual salary of over $158,000. Today, almost no one in America has better heath and retirement benefits than members of Congress. In a nation where some serving in the military rely on handouts to feed their families, where military veterans sometimes have to wait up to a year for a doctor appointment, and where over 40 million people remain uninsured, NOW questions whether our representatives should be taking far better care of themselves than they are of the rest of the country.
What does it mean to be happy? As the nation begins its Independence Day celebrations, Bill Moyers sits down with philosopher and ethicist Sissela Bok, to talk about the meaning of happiness to Americans today and what the founding fathers really meant by “the pursuit of happiness.” You can access the original Web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.
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MOYERS: Welcome to NOW. Actually, welcome to now and then, because 228 years ago today — the second of July, 1776 — those patriots meeting in Philadelphia voted to cut the colonies loose from Great Britain. Two days later, on the fourth, they adopted the Declaration of Independence with its exaltation of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
We’ll talk a little later in this broadcast with one of our foremost philosophers about the pursuit of happiness today, but first, consider this: just four months from tonight the experiment in self-government gets another test. Check your calendar. It’s just four months until the second of November, Election Day. So naturally, George W. Bush and John Kerry are on the campaign trail this weekend in hot pursuit of happiness as defined by ambition and power. Right now the outcome is up for grabs. The polls show that much of the public knows very little about Kerry, even as the President’s popularity has hit a new low.
BRANCACCIO: And when the going gets tough, Republicans call in the master. No one has been more successful at the rhetoric of political seduction than Frank Luntz. He’s a magician with a gift for the politics of words and what words best connect with the hearts and minds of the public, especially voters. When others talk, it’s often Frank Luntz speaking.
BUSH: This new approach is based on this common sense idea, that economic growth is key to environmental progress.
BRANCACCIO: “Common-sense environmental policies,” the “Clear Skies Initiative,” the “death tax” are all catchy phrases channeled by the Bush administration and championed by one man: Frank Luntz, wordsmith, public opinion researcher, and political analyst. He’s a very influential Republican who knows that with the right words, you can frame a debate before it’s started.
And just last week, a new Luntz political memo leaked out. This one provides a strategy for explaining the “policy of preemption and the war in Iraq” and it advises Republicans that “no speech about homeland security or Iraq should begin without a reference to 9/11.”
Something the Vice President had already mastered.
CHENEY: Our mission in Iraq is a great undertaking that is part of a larger mission that the United States accepted now more than two years ago. September 11, 2001 changed everything for this country.
BRANCACCIO: You may hear the voice of Frank Luntz in some of that rhetoric. He joins us now.
Frank Luntz doesn’t just advise politicians. He was a consultant to the television series THE WEST WING and has worked for several FORTUNE 100 companies. Frank Luntz, welcome to NOW.
LUNTZ: It’s a pleasure.
BRANCACCIO: The reputation is that the Democrats don’t get this ability to frame political language. But the Republicans are very good at it. Is this ’cause of you? Your magical ear, as it’s been described?
LUNTZ: Well, it’s funny because I actually have trouble hearing in some cases. That for me I’m picking up information in focus groups. I don’t hear that well in bars which is where a lot of political people get their language and their alcohol.
I think that the Democrats have always done a better job at setting the context than Republicans. And that’s because they explain the “why” of the problem. If you just go in and you provide three or four solutions when someone asks you a question, you haven’t set the context.
You haven’t explained why you believe what you believe or why you support what you support. And that’s where the Democrats have always been good. Bill Clinton was the best context setter of the 20th century. He never gave you a full answer. He never told you what he was gonna do. But he always told you why he was gonna do it. And I think that’s why he ended up so popular.
BRANCACCIO: And if you’re good at setting the context and at deploying the information in a set order, can you convince a voter what to think?
LUNTZ: That’s a good question. But the way that I look at it is not to convince the voter what to think, it’s to convince the voter that what they think is correct. Some of this is not a matter of re-educating them. Some of this is a matter of just explaining that their gut instincts are correct.
That they should not be fooled by either what they see or what they hear. That what they feel is what is correct. And that’s a lot of it, by the way. It’s not just language. It’s style, it’s presentation.
Look, the fact that I’m not wearing a tie means that the viewing audience will assume that I’m casual. They will also assume that I’m not intellectual because I’ve got this kind of shirt on. How we present ourselves has as much impact as what we say. And I tried back in the past to bring that kind of knowledge into politics.
And you also gotta bring it to the CEOs as well. And I know you wanna talk politics. But corporate America is even worse off than the politicians. The average CEO cannot communicate their way out of a paper bag. The average CEO only knows facts, figures, statistics and what to say on a balance sheet. And so there’s no resonance. There’s no empathy. There’s no understanding of the anger and frustration that some Americans feel towards corporate America. The politicians are beginning to get it because they use focus groups and polls and dial sessions. The CEOs, they just speak from their head and it’s not coming from their heart.
BRANCACCIO: Do you see what needs to be done as a manipulation? In other words, messing with people’s heads?
LUNTZ: No, I’ve heard that before. And it’s not messing with their heads because it’s these thoughts, these ideas, these assumptions already exist. I would not… I do not believe in calling something that is white, I won’t call it black.
I do not believe in calling something that’s up, calling it down. This is not Orwellian. This is listening to what you care about. This is understanding who you are, what you believe, all your life experiences and then explaining things in that way. Look, if we were to do this interview and you asked me questions in English and I responded in Greek, none of your viewers with the exception of three or four people in L.A. are gonna understand me.
That’s all that I do is I help people understand politics or products or services. It’s an explanation. It’s an education, not a manipulation.
BRANCACCIO: But it’s not just translation out of the Greek, out of the fancy language into the plain English which I’m all for, plain English. You know there’s a memo circulating that is attributed to you that talks about the need, among other things, for politicians to always mention the terrible events of September 11th.
LUNTZ: And what’s wrong with that?
BRANCACCIO: Nothing at all, but…
LUNTZ: What’s wrong…
BRANCACCIO: …before mentioning Iraq.
LUNTZ: But what is wrong with mentioning why these things took place? What is wrong with mentioning the fact that there are enemies to America? What is wrong with talking about the fact that it is better to fight this war in Afghanistan and Iraq than fighting it in Washington and New York?
See, that kind of thing in some ways… I find that frustrating if not outrageous that you can’t talk about the root cause. That you can’t talk about the fact that there are people out there that hate America so much. And I know the viewers, some of them, we’re split as a country, 50/50. But 9/11 changed everything. And I think not only do politicians have a right to talk about 9/11, they have a responsibility to talk about 9/11.
BRANCACCIO: Well, what’s cool is you just illustrated a perfect version of what you want a politician to do. And then you just acted it out essentially. And it was… it’s fascinating to watch…
LUNTZ: You say acted it out. It’s what I believe. Maybe for you it’s acting because you’re the host. I’m…
BRANCACCIO: I’m not a real anchorman. I just play one on TV.
LUNTZ: But you do a good job at it. I’m listening to the American people. And this is how they feel. And not just here in New York. You go out to Kansas, you go out to Alabama. You go to places thousands of miles away from here and 9/11 had just as strong an impact on them. And 9/11, we’ve never experienced anything like… this wasn’t Pearl Harbor.
This was worse. Because this was on American territory. This was on right in the center. These were the biggest buildings. These were the icons of American success, of the American economy, of the American free market system. And they don’t exist. Not just two buildings but seven buildings. That was a day that nobody’s ever gonna forget. And that’s a day that we should always, always remember.
BRANCACCIO: When you poll Americans, and you’re the man on this, they will tell you it’s decreasing but certainly in the run up to the war and after the war started, that 9/11 was caused by Iraq. And that percentage of people who believe that has been decreasing it’s now down to about 40 percent… at one point it was more than… so, that’s what they tell you. But then a politician who takes that information…
LUNTZ: No, no, no.
BRANCACCIO: …and tries to conflate the two is doing a disservice perhaps to the facts.
LUNTZ: Okay. But you say caused by. That’s actually not the wording of the research. It’s did Iraq play any role or is there a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda? I don’t even know if it’s Al Qaeda or Al “Kida”. I hear Bush Administration officials call it both.
They don’t say cause. And this is where I focus on words. Is there a relationship? Are these bad people? Was Saddam Hussein a bad person? Is Osama bin Laden a bad person? The answer is absolutely yes.
And we are better off if Osama bin Laden did not exist and I hope we catch him. And we are certainly better off that Saddam Hussein is not in power. So, I pay attention to the words, the exact phrases. And to the American people, they don’t know up or down when it comes to this. But they do know that these are bad people. They know that they have killed Americans. They know that they are a threat to our national security and they want them gone. What’s wrong with that?
BRANCACCIO: What the Bush Administration is up against among many things now is this 9/11 Commission which is pouring cold water on that link between our policy in Iraq and who did 9/11.
LUNTZ: Yeah, but they’re also saying that there are people in Iraq that hate us and would like to do anything they could against us. And the people who caused 9/11 hate us and would like to do anything against us. It doesn’t matter whether they are related. It doesn’t matter whether they are best friends.
It doesn’t matter whether they hung out at a Starbucks and drank coffee together and planned against us. The fact is if there are people who are prepared to use the most God-awful means to hurt this country and the citizens in this country, it’s far better for us to stop them from doing it than try to catch them after they do it. And I don’t even think you disagree on that.
BRANCACCIO: So, there is a point, though…
LUNTZ: By the way, I just used the… at that time I did use a technique on you.
BRANCACCIO: Yeah, tell me about it.
LUNTZ: I asked a rhetorical question that you had no answer to. Which was, you know, isn’t it better that we stopped them before they hurt us? Of course the answer is yes. Ninety-nine percent of your viewers will say the answer is yes.
BRANCACCIO: Which is why I didn’t answer.
BRANCACCIO: It’s a nice rhetorical device. But I wasn’t gonna go there…
LUNTZ: But that’s “The Responsive Chord.” I was taught that by Tony Schwartz, one of the top Democratic media consultants, the guy who created Lyndon Johnson’s famous advertising campaign from ’64. He’s the guy who taught me that sometimes you ask a rhetorical question of which there is no answer.
So, you can criticize me for doing that, for teaching these techniques to politicians and to CEOs. But you can’t criticize me for the language that they use as long as the language is accurate.
BRANCACCIO: Well, that’s what I wanted to understand. As long as the language is accurate. I know you read a lot of George Orwell.
LUNTZ: I love 1984. In fact, the only time ever… Kaminski Park in Chicago where two baseballs were hit out of the stadium. They were both done by Greg Radzinski. The only time ever in the history of that stadium that a player hit two balls out in the same game and I was reading the last 100 pages of 1984.
BRANCACCIO: You were looking down?
LUNTZ: I was looking down and I missed the first home run.
BRANCACCIO: Were you…
LUNTZ: So, 1984 means something to me.
BRANCACCIO: Well, you know what Orwell writes, he says, “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
LUNTZ: And I get that. And you know what? Language, it’s just like fire. It can either heat your home or it can burn it down. In the hands of someone like a Ronald Reagan, it’s used to illustrate a philosophy and a principle. In the hands of less decent politicians, it is used to obscure or even lie. It’s the difference between, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.” And, “It depends on the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
BRANCACCIO: Language, of course, as we’re all taught… and you make money off this. I guess I do, too. Language really does matter. I mean, isn’t it a crime to go to war if it’s later shown that it was based on a false premise?
LUNTZ: Oh, but what is… I mean, this is something where I’ve been critical of the Bush Administration. They’ve offered seven different premises for this. And some of them are just as valid today as they were back then.
BRANCACCIO: Such as?
LUNTZ: The world is a better place without Saddam Hussein. Others, like weapons of mass destruction, have not been validated. We don’t know. Look, we know that there are planes in the desert. We know that there are football fields worth of armaments.
We know that hundreds of thousands of Kurds were gassed and killed. We know what he did in Iran. We know what he’s done to his own people. We know what he tried to do to Israel. We know that this guy has paid for terrorism in the past. Saddam Hussein, in my definition, is a weapon of mass destruction. I will tell you that the Bush Administration won’t use that phrase. They really believe that you should define a WMD the way it is.
BRANCACCIO: They can’t. I mean, they can’t go around saying WMD right now. It’s not gonna work for them for obvious reasons.
LUNTZ: Right. And, in fact that is the one way where they have lost some of their credibility. But, and this is an important but, on some of these other reasons to go to war, the public still supports it. And the public still believes that the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein.
And I’ll tell you something, I think that’s one of the reasons why Howard Dean, in the end, did not become the Democratic nominee. He was not willing to accept that premise. When Saddam Hussein was captured, instead of rejoicing, it almost looked like Dean was disappointed. He communicated ineffectively and even Democrats who hate the war are prepare to say that Saddam is better off in prison or dead.
BRANCACCIO: Frank, talk to me about who hasn’t made up his or her mind about this Presidential election? Who could not have an opinion already?
LUNTZ: I’ve actually tallied that and there are now 11 people in America who haven’t made up their minds. I know your audience to some degree, there isn’t a single person watching and what they’ll say is even if they’ll claim, well, I haven’t made up my mind. Oh, so you might vote for Bush. No, no way. There’s no way I’m voting for Bush but I haven’t made up my mind. Well, that person has made up their mind.
It represents about four percent overall of the country. And only half of them are in truly swing states. So you are really looking at two million of the 105 million Americans who will vote. And when all is said and done we may spend up close to a billion dollars on the election. And we are fighting for the votes of two million people. We’ve never had anything like this before.
It would be far better for you swing voters out there to buy them a steak dinner, they’d appreciate it more than the negative ads that they’re gonna see.
BRANCACCIO: How do you connect with them though? I mean… like how do you resonate with this odd bunch of people frankly who don’t represent the greater…
LUNTZ: And they don’t.
LUNTZ: First off they tend to be more female than male. They tend to be younger. If they’re under age 25 they’re not even voting. If they’re over age 40 they’ve made up their minds. They tend to have just gotten married or had their first child because that’s what causes them… when you get married you start to look at politics differently. When you have your first child that causes a major shift.
They tend to be working women who are both trying to raise a family and hold down a job. They’re not college graduates. They’re not focused on politics, it doesn’t matter to them. And they vote in Presidential elections but not in any others. And you have to empathi… the very first thing you have to do, it’s not about issues, it’s about empathy. They have to know that you care, that you understand them. That you understand the frustrations.
And I’ll tell you something about these women… I haven’t done this publicly before. The number one issue to them is not education, it’s not healthcare, it’s not budgets, it’s not even the war.
BRANCACCIO: What could it be?
LUNTZ: The lack of free time. The number one thing that matters to them is that they don’t have the time that they want for their job, for their kids, for their spouse, for themselves, for their friends. The issue of time matters to them more than anything else in life.
BRANCACCIO: So let’s say you hear that in a focus group.
BRANCACCIO: And you start to notice…
LUNTZ: And I did hear it. Yeah.
BRANCACCIO: So what do you do as a politician to show that you understand just that issue?
LUNTZ: You speak to them that way. You actually ask the question, “So, I want to talk to the ladies in the room. I want you to…” The “women in the room” is how I would put it. “I want you to tell me what really matters to you. Don’t just give me issues. What’s your greatest challenge? Because I think I know what it is. And I just… let’s ask the men first what you think it is.”
So you ask three or four men, they all give the wrong answer because men have no idea what women are really concerned about. And then you say, “Well, I’m gonna throw this out, I want you to tell me if I’m right or not. Ladies here, I’d say that your lack of free time is one of the greatest challenges.” And they’ll all sit there and they’ll raise their hands and they’ll all nod yes.
At that moment you have bonded with those women. At that moment when they hear that you understand the challenges that face them they’re ready to listen to your solution.
BRANCACCIO: So then I get up and I say, “My fellow Americans…”
BRANCACCIO: “If elected…”
LUNTZ: You start that way and you’re already done. You’re finished. My fellow Americans…
BRANCACCIO: “I would put leisure in every pot.”
LUNTZ: Or, “I am not a crook.” Any of that. That just comes across as being political.
BRANCACCIO: So what do you do? What do you do?
LUNTZ: Well, I mean look you’re dressed this way too. I mean this is PBS and you’re not wearing a tie. So you’re cutting against the grain. This is a more intellectual place. People come to this channel, they expect politicians to be dressed that way. You’ve already dressed down, you’ve already taken the first step, which is you don’t look like a politician. And then you don’t want to sound like a politician.
You basically want the women to say, “You know what, he gets it. He gets the hassles and he’s gonna try to do something about it.” And they’ll say, “I don’t know if you can, I don’t know if you’ll succeed. But at least you’re listening to me, at least you empathize with me so I’m gonna give you a chance.” And right now no one has created an agenda, what I would call the free time agenda. So it’s up for grabs. Just like these swing voters are.
BRANCACCIO: Well, Frank Luntz, thank you very much for joining us.
LUNTZ: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.
MOYERS: A friend called me not long ago with an idea: Suppose, he said, suppose a lottery were held in Congress, and each lottery selected a certain percentage of our representatives to experience the world as certain other Americans do. One month, one quarter of the Congress draws the lottery and loses health insurance forever, reflecting the number of ordinary Americans who live without it.
Another month, an appropriate percentage of Congress has to put their kids into inner city schools until they graduate. Another month, their kids or grandkids are given eight weeks of boot camp and sent to guard gas stations and ammo dumps in Iraq. Another month, the lottery picks a percentage of politicians to lose their pensions as if they had worked for, say, Enron. And so on. You get the idea.
You can bet your boots, my friend said, that we’d be getting different results from Congress than we are getting now.
Could this happen? Not likely. And if you want to know why not, listen to Sylvia Chase on the cocoon that is Congress. Our report was produced by Naomi Spinrad.
CHASE: The symbol of democracy. The United States Capitol and within it, the hallowed halls of Congress. From its very first session back in 1789, Congress decided what to pay itself. They’re still at it.
STEVENS: This is not a pay raise. It’s an increase that is required by law.
CHASE: “Required by law” because Congress made it that way. We’re a nation founded on the principle that power is derived from the consent of the governed, but did anyone in the audience tonight get a memo back in the ’80s that Congress was restructuring its pay and pension package? They called it “reform.” But in the last 15 years, the House of Representatives has taken pay raises no less than nine times and the Senate, ten times.
FEINGOLD: On January 1, 2000, members received a $4,600 pay raise. On January 1, 2001, members received a $3,800 pay raise. On January 1, 2002, members received a $4,900 pay raise. On January 1, 2003, members received a $5,000 pay raise. And unless we stop it, on January 1, 2004, members will receive a $3,400 pay raise.
CHASE: They voted themselves an automatic annual salary increase?
SEPP: That’s absolutely right. And the only way the increase can be stopped is if they stand up and declare, “We don’t want to take the pay raise this year.”
CHASE: Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union.
SEPP: The salaries were set on an automatic course to increase year after year based on a cost of living measurement that was defined in the legislation.
CHASE: So, back in ’88, Congress was making how much money?
CHASE: And today?
CHASE: There are solid arguments to be made for paying Congress well. In the main, these are clever, aggressive, creative people who could probably be top-paid executives in private enterprise. But they’ve opted for a kind of public service that gives them power and privilege. It also puts a comfortable distance between themselves and most working Americans, half of whom make $35,000 a year or less. At $158,100 a year, Congress has pitched itself into the top 5% of U.S. wage earners.
PINGREE: Well, I think a lot of Americans who are just barely making ends meet would say that is a lot of money.
CHASE: Chellie Pingree, President of Common Cause. Her group promotes open government and ethics.
PINGREE: There are many people who work there to which the salary doesn’t make any difference. To which $158,000 is nothing compared to the other investments, the other things that they have going on at the same time.
CHASE: There are at least 40 millionaires in the Senate and 120 of them in the House, according to some counts. Finding out exactly who is worth how much is hard, because Congress makes disclosure rules vague, confusing, almost secret. What we do know is when it comes to voting other people’s wages and benefits, Congress is far less generous than it is to itself.
Take the military. Nobody expects a private in the army to earn what a congressperson does. But no one expects a military family to be dependent on charity, either. But many are and that is why a food bank is located right on the grounds of the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego.
FOOD PANTRY VOLUNTEER: Every family gets 2 cans of vegetables for each dinner meal. We’ve got different forms of potatoes… we have Rice-a-Roni, rice. The value of what we would give a family is anywhere up to 250-300 dollars.
CHASE: In San Diego, where 100,000 military personnel live with their dependents, family pay can be as low as $2723 a month, at least two thousand short of the local living standard for a family of four.
This Camp Pendleton Marine Company has been in Fallujah, Iraq since March. Three have been killed; more than 50 wounded. Will their sacrifice be met with care and welcome after discharge?
Independent congressman Bernie Sanders says don’t count on it.
SANDERS: There are veterans in my state of Vermont and all over this country who when they walk into a VA hospital or clinic today, you know what they are told? They say, “Well, thank you very much for your service to this country, we’re gonna put you on a waiting list. And maybe in three or four or five months we’ll be able to see you for the health care.”
CHASE: Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi himself had to admit to Congress that health care for vets is a billion dollars underfunded.
But, oh the bounty available to members of Congress, even the President and cabinet. They have access to the finest military hospitals, Bethesda Naval or Walter Reed Army Hospital. And if a member of Congress isn’t feeling well, he or she can make an on-the-spot visit to the attending physician. With 8 offices, it is a kind of Capitol Hill emergency room that is also open to members of Congress for a yearly fee of just $453.32.
But I want you to compare it to the fact that while a vet may have to wait three, four, five, six months, I mean I’ve even heard cases of a year or more.
SANDERS: Absolutely correct.
CHASE: And if you have to go to the doctor, you take the elevator downstairs and walk a few steps and…
SANDERS: No, it’s a disgrace. It is an absolute disgrace. I mean what you’re saying to people is you have got to be prepared to get killed, get wounded, to come back without an arm and a leg, but we are not providing you with the benefits that you need to make your life whole and secure.
CHASE: Of course, if all 293 million Americans were treated as well as each member of Congress, the country would go broke. It’s just that the medical security of Congress looks like over-privilege when compared to the 43-million Americans who have no health coverage at all. For them and their children, the emergency room is the doctor of first resort.
This session, Senate Bill 1843, the Family Care Act, would have simplified access to doctors, hospitals and nutrition for 6 million eligible children. The measure was shunted aside by a Republican leadership that has not even given the bill a hearing.
Yet the path to the pediatrician is wide open to the children of Congress; on average, under the federal insurance system, a family of four pays just $235.48 a month for health coverage.
PINGREE: Many of the difficult issues that we see Congress just sitting on the sidelines not doing anything about and you have to say to yourself, “Why are you there?”
CHASE: Pete Sepp thinks they’re waiting around for their pensions.
SEPP: The most out-of-whack benefit has to be the congressional pension system. It’s overly generous. It’s more generous than most other federal workers and virtually all private sector workers could hope to attain.
CHASE: How generous? It’s hard to know for sure. If you ask for specifics you’ll be refused on grounds of policy and privacy rights. Sepp tried over and over and has toiled for years, gathering and assembling figures from what is on the public record. Still, the best he can do is make an educated guess.
So, what kind of money are we talking about?
SEPP: Well, for a member of Congress who has 25 years of service, take that as an example, that lawmaker would start out at roughly $90,000 in his first year of retirement.
SEPP: Yes. That’s a very good pension benefit.
CHASE: Pete Sepp estimates that set of good pension benefits applies to 84 members still serving in Congress and 300 already retired on pensions. They were elected before 1984. Reforms lowered pensions for less senior members, but they still have a mighty sweet deal. In exchange for smaller pensions, they voted themselves another benefit, a 401K program, with a generous government match for investments up to 5% of their salaries. And they all have this little goody: like their annual salary raises, congresspersons have pension raises too.
SEPP: Over a lifetime, the generosity level only increases, because most private sector pensions do not offer automatic yearly cost of living adjustments the way congressional pensions do.
Fewer than one in ten plans have any kind of formal cost of living adjustments set up out in the private sector.
CHASE: And let’s look at what Congress is doing to help big corporations reduce their pension obligations to their workers. Take the case of IBM, where workers received notice that their pension funds would undergo something called a “cash balance conversion.”
SANDERS: As a result of the conversion to cash balance payments, which is all very, very complicated, the bottom line, the end result is that many workers can lose up to 50 percent of the pensions that they were promised. One day they get a letter and the letter says, “Oh by the way, it’s very complicated, you might not understand it all. We’ve kind of changed around the pension plan that we promised you.”
CHASE: Older IBM workers took to the streets and went to court, charging age discrimination. They won the right to keep their old pensions, but by then the Bush administration had stepped in.
SANDERS: The Treasury department issued regulations allowing these corporations to continue conversion to cash balance payments, despite the fact that we have court decisions that say this is illegal.
CHASE: Sanders wanted to block treasury by amending its appropriations bill and he got everybody’s attention with his “What’s good for the American worker should be good for members of Congress” campaign.
This Congressional Research Service study did not identify legislators by name, but Sanders calculated that if, say, Majority Leader Tom Delay’s pension were converted to cash balance, he’d take a hit of 58.7% from a lifetime payout of $608,143 down to $251,086. Speaker Dennis Hastert would lose 69% of his pension, cutting his lifetime payout from $540,572 to just $164,455.
The Treasury Department has withdrawn its proposed cash balance regulations for corporations, but the issue is still in play, with hearings expected this month. So while many private sector pensions are threatened, congressional pensions are guaranteed by the full faith and credit of the United States of America.
In fact, congressional pensions don’t even stop at the jailhouse door. Unless members commit high crimes, they must be paid.
Like one time Ohio congressman Jim Traficant. He’s currently serving eight years for bribery, tax evasion and racketeering… and receiving an estimated yearly pension of $38,000 — estimated, because Congress makes it very hard to find out. Something within its power to change.
SEPP: Members of Congress could vote right now — it would take them five minutes — to make all of these records public and available to taxpayers. But they’re not gonna do that.
SEPP: Because if the general public knew frequently, consistently, posted in one place the information for how much these people are getting exactly, I think there would be a great deal of outrage.
PINGREE: Congress has an unreasonable amount of security and the ability to know that when they retire, they will be well compensated. Even if they’ve only spent 20 years and are relatively young when they go and are probably in a position to able to make very high salaries somewhere else because of the connections that they’ve had in Congress. And I do think that’s a disconnect. Both the pension and the health care benefits, which are issues Congress doesn’t address.
CHASE: An exception: Republican congressman Howard Coble, who will have neither pension nor health coverage at retirement. In office 20 years now, he promised North Carolina voters he would not take the pension.
COBLE: Most folks are not treated as well in retirement as we in the Congress are. I mean we have a very special plan that’s very favorable.
CHASE: He said “no” to the plan, in large part, because more than 80% of its cost is borne by taxpayers who don’t have the same advantages as Congress.
Have you had cause to regret your decision to run on this idea, “No, I’m not taking the pension?”
COBLE: Oh, yes I have indeed.
CHASE: Well, why haven’t you changed your mind?
COBLE: Well, because I said I wouldn’t do it. And I think there’s something to be said for that. That was my pledge.
CHASE: The Taxpayers Union estimates Coble has cost himself at least a million dollars and retiree health benefits that are linked to the pension. Howard Coble faces old age as so many do, with only Medicare and Social Security plus a modest pension from his Coast Guard service. But last fall, he was notified that enrollment in the pension plan would reopen, briefly.
COBLE: Those who have elected not to take the congressional pension had a 60-day window whereby they could change their mind and sign up for it. And I was tempted to do that when I found out that the only way I could continue with my health plan after I left Congress was signing up for the pension. But it still would have been a violation of my pledge when I said I would not be involved in the pension.
CHASE: We don’t know who might have signed up during that 60-day period. Remember, it’s a secret who’s enrolled.
You can’t find out which of the members up here is even enrolled in the pension plan. We’re not asking how much they get. But you just can’t find out. How do you feel about that?
COBLE: Not… as my late granddaddy used to say, “on easy,” meaning uneasy. He used to say “on easy.” I’m uneasy about that. It ought to… as I say, it’s public information. And I don’t think that’s right. And maybe… this program may result in a change. Who knows?
CHASE: I don’t think so. But I’ll give you a dime. You can call me… or a quarter…
COBLE: Okay, a quarter…
CHASE: …whatever it costs.
COBLE: …35 cents I think now.
CHASE: You call me when it happens, will you?
COBLE: Okay and you won’t hold your breath, Sylvia?
BRANCACCIO: Mr. Coble is at a further disadvantage for being a man of his word. It’s late in the game for him to cash in as a Washington lobbyist. Since 1995, 271 members of Congress have left office only to walk a few blocks to work for one of those K Street lobbying firms where they can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions, leveraging their access to their friends on Capitol Hill.
MOYERS: When you talk with the writer and philosopher Sissela Bok, you can wind up talking about many things in the news today. She may commune with the wisdom of the ages but her subjects are very now, no pun intended. Just look at how the subjects of her books resonate with the headlines of the hour: LYING, SECRETS, A STRATEGY FOR PEACE, MAYHEM: VIOLENCE AS PUBLIC ENTERTAINMENT, and my favorite, COMMON VALUES.
That resonance with our times has made Sissela Bok a widely read and often-quoted public thinker.
Ever since she left her native Sweden to attend the Sorbonne in Paris, married a young American and came to this country to study and live, she has sought to put what she learns to the use of life.
Including, I might add, the raising of three children. She’s taught and lectured at many of our universities and is now a Senior Visiting Fellow at Harvard. I invited her to join me now because I have just finished reading her Lowell Lecture on “The Pursuits of Happiness.” What better time to talk about that subject than on this fourth of July weekend. She has a new book coming out called HAPPINESS.
Thank you for coming.
BOK: Thank you very much.
MOYERS: Do you have a working definition of happiness?
BOK: What I have found is two things. First of all, when you ask people about happiness, they all know exactly what you mean. If they ask me, “What am I writing on?” Happiness, yes, immediately they know what I mean.
All over the world, if people are shown a happy face, they know what that is like. And they know how different that is. I know a little three year old told me recently, “Ha, ha, that’s not a very happy person,” looking at a sad face.
So, on the one hand, there is a kind of underlying definition that everybody more or less shares about feeling good. But then, there are so many other aspects to the definition having to do with whether, for instance, you are thriving or flourishing as a human being.
Whether you have a number of pleasures, and not that many forms of suffering. There are so many definitions, and my view has been, in reading the various definitions, that some of them are at war with one another. We can’t agree with all the definitions.
And the ones I think we have to set aside are the definitions that ask people in practice to do things that are inhumane or dishonest for the sake of their definition of happiness.
MOYERS: Is it hard to be happy if you are aware that you are doing something that is not moral?
BOK: I would tend to think so, it is hard to be happy if you’re aware that it is not moral. Because, that already means you have a conscience. However, I would quickly add, I think that there are some people who are capable of doing things that maybe they’ve heard are not moral, but they don’t care.
And that’s the whole… they could be happy. As one philosopher, the late Bernard Williams, said you know, we could look at some people, and they look rather like animals with shiny fur almost, and gleaming eyes. And they seem to be very happy even though they are doing things that we regard as quite awful.
MOYERS: There is a whole new field of research that’s been opening up in the last few years called happiness research. What are these happiness researchers looking for?
BOK: I’ve been fascinated by those researchers. They conduct studies all over the world, surveys, asking people how they feel, what their experience is. What they care most about. For instance, money, health, various other factors. Then there are brain scientists who look while people are experiencing. For instance, some kind of pain or some kind of happiness or happy thought. Look at what’s happening in the brain.
There are geneticists who look at heredity and ask whether there are certain levels of happiness or unhappiness or tendencies toward those that are inherited. There’s so much going on I would say in the last 20 years, but especially the last ten years. And some people have argued that the study of consciousness and the study of happiness in that context may be the great field of the 21st century.
MOYERS: What are they finding out about that notion of happiness as the difference between talent and expectation or between desire and opportunity?
BOK: That is an important issue. Because certainly people feel powerless if they have some desire, some longing to do something and they are absolutely powerless to move in that direction, that can definitely affect them. Now, philosophers and others have long said, well, maybe in that case you should change your expectation. You shouldn’t worry for example about making so much money. You shouldn’t worry about whether your child gets into such-and-such a college. You should worry more about what really matters. Who you are, what your values are, that’s one way to go, I think.
Another way of course to go is to try to do everything one can in society to increase opportunities of the most basic kind having to do with health and education and income. And that is absolutely essential.
MOYERS: Have our expectations changed over the century?
Particularly living in this constant siege of advertising that accelerates, accentuates and exacerbates our longing for everything we see, wanting all of it that’s out there. What about that? Have expectations changed?
BOK: It does seem that peoples expectations especially when it has to do with income or with objects such as houses, for instance, or automobiles or something like that. Yes, that they change depending on what other people have. And again many philosophers, many religious theorists… other people have argued, yeah, but you don’t have to go that way, there are other ways of being happy.
MOYERS: Someone has said that the unhappiness a person feels is often directly in relationship to his imagined or his exaggerated understanding of other people’s happiness. That you’re so happy, something must be wrong with me.
BOK: There must be something wrong with me.
BOK: People say that. On the other hand, people also say that especially in America there is this attitude, “Oh, yes, we’re all so happy. We all have to be so happy.” People use the word “happy” in different ways in America.
Even, for instance, when they say, “I’ll be happy to do such-and-such.” You wouldn’t use the word “happy” in French or German or some other language if you just say, “Yeah, I’d be glad to do whatever it is you ask me.” So, that’s the notion in America that it is so important to be happy and for everybody else to notice that you are so happy can, indeed, then make a number of people say, “Well, what’s the matter with me if I am not that happy?”
MOYERS: What about that famous observation that most people lead lives of quiet desperation. Do you agree with that?
BOK: Not at all. And this is another thing I’m very glad to be able to gather from the psychological research that’s not being done. They have now done surveys in so many countries all over the world including very poor nations. And fortunately for the survival of human kind that is simply not true. Even people who do not at all have what we would regard as the minimum of life they still can love their children, care for their children, love one another. Have festivities. Have forms of happiness.
However I would quickly add that doesn’t mean as some people seem to say that therefore we don’t have to worry at all about social progress, we don’t have to worry about improving the healthcare, the education and everything else. Of course we do. But the fact is that it is absolutely false. And I think it’s a very elitist view.
Here I am, I am so impressive. And unfortunately most of those people are so miserable. And that also comes from another aspect of thinking about happiness that I also think is false. Namely many people argue that, well, you may think that you’re happy, and most people may think that they’re happy but that’s just because you live in a state of illusion. And I’m gonna tell you or my religion is going to tell you, or my political ideology is going to tell you what real happiness is. And then you will understand how much your present life is really a form of suffering.
MOYERS: And you challenge that.
BOK: And I do challenge that.
BOK: Yes, again. And I do think psychologists and others are right. We have to take seriously what people say about their own lives. And if they say that they are happy that should at least be something very basic to consider.
MOYERS: There are studies which suggest that people with higher incomes and better standards of living who live in democratic societies have a greater sense of contentment, happiness than people who live under oppression, who live in authoritarian societies, and who suffer from inadequate income and living wages.
BOK: Absolutely. That is absolutely true. Even in those other societies the fact is that a number of people still manage to be tolerably happy. But I’ve been interested as a Swede also to see that Scandinavian country, often Scandinavian countries — Holland and Switzerland — often end up at the top of those happiness statistics.
And at first I was really surprised. And I wrote back to my old Uncle in Sweden. I said, “How can this be? Swedes complain so much about everything.” And he told me, “Yes, it is because we can complain and we can get things done. We do have a universal healthcare, we do have good education, we have free dentistry. Yes, we are happier because of that but we will complain.”
MOYERS: Yeah, but the old kick on Sweden used to be boring. You know, everybody’s too contented.
BOK: Yes. Everybody’s too contented. Well, many people in the world would rather be in that situation of being too contented, I think.
MOYERS: It is so hard to weigh our own desire to achieve happiness against the misery, the contrast between misery and opulence that is so evident today.
BOK: Yes. And opulence of course many psychologists are now finding, economists as well — and I think you could read about it in the Bible — opulence was never the thing that actually makes people happy. And if you go back to the Declaration of Independence the pursuit of happiness was never about dying with the most toys, for instance, as the expression goes. Meaning accumulating, accumulating.
MOYERS: What do you think the founders meant when they talked about the pursuit of happiness?
BOK: From what I understand, what they meant was something very different from the very individual pursuit that people now often talk about. They really had in mind… the society that they were shaping, of course, the society pursuing happiness for the entire community. And I think that they might come back to us and say, “Look, this is what still is so important.”
For that reason I think, for instance, what Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said just this Monday in her opinion, essentially saying we have to live up in how we deal with other human beings and their rights to the ideals that we are defending abroad. We have to live up at home to the ideals we are defending abroad. I think they would cheer that comment.
MOYERS: But you open up the contradiction at the heart of the American experience, it seems to me. The hands of Thomas Jefferson that wrote, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” also stroked the breasts and caressed the thighs of a slave woman named Sally Hemmings.
MOYERS: Who bore him six children and whom he never acknowledged. Now, that contradiction… He had to know, don’t you think, that in her love of liberty, her longing for life and her passion for happiness, she was his equal?
BOK: I should think so. And I must say that that is and historians are also saying this is a huge contradiction that could not have made him happy to live with, Thomas Jefferson. And even when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, after all, there were a great many human beings in this country whose life, whose liberty, and whose pursuit of happiness was completely out of the question.
So, yes, that is a huge contra… it’s an ideal that we have to aspire to. And it’s a little like the Declaration of Human Rights, also. All of those rights do not, indeed, get observed right now in any part of the world. But they should.
MOYERS: Well, two of your books resonate today on lying and on secrets. I mean, we are so surrounded by lies and propaganda today. What effect do you think that has on our happiness?
BOK: Two answers to that. First of all, people think that things are getting worse and worse. I think that, in a way, we as citizens of our society and of the international community have always had to try to discern what the truth might be. And secrecy makes it so much harder for citizens. Because if citizens are really kept from information that they should have in deciding, for instance, whether the country should go to war or in deciding about a great many other things.
If the information about that is kept from them, then they are powerless as citizens. And I think that was you know, the tremendous danger and difficulty for us in the Vietnam era. And it is now. So, that’s why I’m so much in agreement with all those people in the press and in the courts and in citizen organizations that are standing up for much greater accountability, transparence and responsibility.
MOYERS: You feared after 9/11 that we would become a very polarized society and we have become a very polarized society. And whether it’s Rush Limbaugh on one side and Michael Moore on the other are hurling propaganda at us. How do you compose your own version of reality every day when we are so under siege from propaganda and lies?
BOK: That is something that I have thought of a lot having written the book LYING. It seems to me that questions of lying just come up all the time. However, I think people who write books and make movies really throwing invectives at the other side of lying, of cheating, of treason, of this and that, they do a great disservice to our community because what we need to do and what has often been the case in the past, we need to think through what we really mean by lie.
How is a lie different, for instance, from a mistake? How is a foolish promise different from a false promise?
We have to learn to see those differences. And also to recognize the huge impact of self-delusion and self-deception. People, once they go in a particular direction, politicians and others, they want to believe that they’re right. And so they can shut out, obliterate information that could otherwise come to them. And, again, we need to sort out what is lying and what is not lying. But I think there’s real damage done to the public discourse when endless accusations cycle back and forth.
MOYERS: To complete the circle, this is the weekend in which all of us, most of us in one way or another, will be in the pursuit of happiness.
MOYERS: What are you going to do that brings you happiness on a weekend like this?
BOK: We hope to have activities with family. And right where we live, in fact, on the Charles River, there are amazing Boston fireworks. And, of course, you know, the music and singing. We are also going to a wedding of two women friends that is taking place on the 4th of July in the Harvard Memorial Church. And that will be a first in many ways.
MOYERS: You mentioned family. You mentioned friends. You mentioned fresh starts.
MOYERS: And those constitute happiness for you?
BOK: They’re certainly… yes. And there will be many other things. I have to mention books and works of art. There would be so much else to include into what constitutes happiness.
MOYERS: You have written so many books I can’t imagine you spending that much time on something that made you unhappy.
BOK: Well, it’s an interesting fact that working on happiness is a kind of… it’s the opposite of a downer. And that has a problem all its own. I noticed that some happiness researchers become very exuberant. And one has to watch that. One has to try to remain realistic.
MOYERS: Sissela Bok, I look forward to your forthcoming book on happiness. Thank you for joining us on NOW.
BOK: Thank you very much.
BRANCACCIO: That’s it for NOW. I’m David Brancaccio. We’ll see you next week.
MOYERS: We’ll be talking about politics and the culture wars in the geographic heartland of America. I’m Bill Moyers. Have a happy fourth of July.
This transcript was entered on August 20, 2015.