Social Security

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(HOST) President Bush has identified sweeping changes to the Social Security system as one of the top priorities for his second term. But are the changes needed? Commentator Allen Gilbert doesn’t think so.

After his victory in November’s election, President Bush told the nation that he had earned valuable political capital, and that he was going to spend it. One of the first purchases? Major changes to Social Security.

As more details of his plan have come out, it’s clear that the President has adopted an Iraq War-type strategy for his Social Security makeover. Declare a crisis, announce a plan to address the crisis, sell the plan by appealing to people’s fears and insecurities and then declare victory. Details, evidence, dissenting views – none of these can deter progress toward the overarching goal of a radical restructuring of the Social Security system.

It’s a good plan – for the simple reason that it’s the only plan that might work. By playing to people’s fears, the President is once again using a wedge strategy. In his mind, that’s how battles are won – by dividing, not uniting.

The fact of the matter is, the sky isn’t falling over Social Security. There are no weapons of financial mass destruction behind the FICA tax that’s withheld from our paychecks. That’s the conclusion of a recent New Yorker article.

Here are the numbers. More money is going into the Social Security Trust Fund right now than is needed to pay benefits. This will continue to be true for another 25 years. The surplus money is invested in government bonds. After 2028, however, Social Security will stop taking in more than it’s paying out. So it’s going to have to call in the money that it’s lent the government. Those funds will keep Social Security chugging along for another 15 to 25 years.

After then, and only after then, is there a problem. For at that point, somewhere between 2042 and 2052, less money will be going into the system than going out. That’s worth worrying about, but it’s nothing that can’t be fixed with relatively small adjustments now to withholding rates, withholding caps or retirement eligibility.

The President’s plan for “personal investment accounts” does nothing to fix the long-term problem of the draw-down of the Social Security Trust Fund. But “personal investment accounts” sound great. And talking about Social Security “deficits” diverts people from the real problem at hand: our huge – really huge – ongoing federal budget deficits. Scare people about something that might possibly be a problem 50 years from now so they don’t focus on the here-and-now – the real, honest-to-goodness red-ink deficits that we, and our kids, will be stuck with for years to come. The deficits are the costs of tax breaks for the wealthy, and the cost of the war in Iraq. But the President isn’t talking about them.

Henrik Hertzberg noted in The New Yorker that “The idea behind Social Security…is that none of us, of any age, should be obliged to live in a society where minimal dignity and the minimal decencies are denied to any of our fellow-citizens at the end of life.”

President Bush’s plan stabs at the heart of that idea. It should be scrapped.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues.

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