Connect the Dots

SYNOPSIS: Social Security is NOT in crisis, and Bush only wants to "reform" (ie. dismantle) it for ideological reasons

Remember the "bring out your dead" scene in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"? It's the one where the old man declares, "I'm not dead!" "Yes, he is," insists his younger companion, who persuades the undertaker to hit the old man over the head and cart him away.

Now you understand the Bush administration's policy toward Social Security.

Ordinarily, the annual trustees' report on Social Security is released at a morning press conference, and simultaneously posted on the Web; this gives reporters a chance to read the material and discuss it with outside experts before filing their articles. Last week, however, the first copies were made available late in the afternoon, leaving hardly any time for analysis. One wag joked that the information was being closely held to keep it out of the hands of terrorists.

But the real reason was surely to avoid too much attention to the report's unwelcome conclusion: that Social Security is in very good shape. True, the rest of the government is running big deficits, and borrowing heavily from the retirement fund but Social Security isn't the source of that problem.

The introductory summary which, unlike the report itself, is mainly a political document does its best to make the worst of a good situation. But the bottom line is that the long-run sustainability of Social Security looks better than ever. The staff of the Social Security Administration, using conservative assumptions, now says that the system could operate without any changes at all no cuts in benefits, no additional revenue until 2041, three years longer than it projected last year.

I hope this satisfies readers who, when I criticize bogus arguments for privatizing Social Security, demand to hear my answer to the crisis. There isn't any crisis: the system looks good for 40 years, and with a bit of extra resources can survive indefinitely.

More specifically: The long-run actuarial shortfall of Social Security is less than half the revenue that will be lost due to last year's tax cut. The common perception that the tax cut was no big deal, but that Social Security faces a terrible crisis, is completely upside down. But the powerful forces that want to dismantle Social Security won't take yes for an answer; they insist that the system is doomed.

Never mind the rhetoric about retirement security; the real reason for the attack on Social Security is ideology. Here's what Edward Fuelner, president of the Heritage Foundation, wrote to supporters: ". . . today's policies are a product of the Great Society of the 1960s, which grew out of the New Deal of the 1930s, which was an assault on founding principles articulated in the 18th century. . . . Connecting the historical dots is no small task." For Great Society, read Medicare; for New Deal, read Social Security. And the real task is to connect the contemporary dots.

For Heritage is the intellectual engine driving today's conservative movement. The foundation's Web site proudly quotes Karl Rove: "We stole from every publication we could; we stole several key staff persons; we want to steal more of your ideas." Indeed, before Elaine Chao became secretary of labor and hence a trustee of Social Security she was a fellow at Heritage. And the influence of Heritage spreads far and wide, from employees like Virginia Thomas (wife of the Supreme Court justice) to the stable of columnists featured on its opinion site, most notably Ann Coulter ("We need to execute John Walker in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed too").

And it won't surprise readers of my last column to hear that Heritage was founded with financial backing from Joseph Coors and Richard Mellon Scaife.

But I digress. The important thing is to understand what's really going on here. The ideological powers behind the current administration want to do away with Social Security not to offer retirees a better deal, but because they are opposed to the program in principle. Unfortunately, that's an argument that won't work in the political arena; Social Security is very popular. So the strategy they have adopted is to declare that the program is already dead, or nearly so. If the facts say, on the contrary, that Social Security is very much alive, the administration doesn't want to hear about it. And it doesn't want you to hear about it, either.

Originally published in The New York Times, 4.2.02