SYNOPSIS: Final Bush slam.
It started with a good deed. Back in the 1980's Congress decided to act responsibly, making early provision for a crisis that, though predictable, was still 30 years away.
Until the 1980's Social Security had been run on a pure pay-as-you-go basis: just about all of each year's tax receipts were used to pay current benefits. But by 1980 it was already clear that, beginning some 30 years later, this system would run into big trouble. The baby boomers are the villains: once the boomers start to retire, the number of workers paying into Social Security will plateau, while the number of retirees the system must support will soar. Right now there are about 3.4 workers for every retiree; by 2030 there will be only two. So a pay-as-you-go system would be forced into drastic tax increases, drastic benefit cuts, or both.
What Congress did in the 1980's was to raise Social Security taxes — a moderate increase, two percentage points — in order to ward off much more severe consequences later. In the runup to the demographic crisis the system would build up a large reserve, postponing the day of reckoning, perhaps even putting it off entirely. It may not be a permanent solution, but it has given us a lot of breathing room. The system can run as is until at least 2037; modest additional measures could easily extend its life to 2050 and beyond.
But any political action that takes such a long view risks being undermined by later politicians, who will be tempted to raid the cookie jar. Which brings us to the current dispute.
George W. Bush wants to rescind that two-point tax increase. True, he doesn't propose to give it back in cash, but he wants to put it into personal accounts, which would belong mainly to young workers and therefore be unavailable to support the currently middle-aged workers that reserve was supposed to protect. And?
For surely there must be an "and." If the money that was supposed to provide benefits to the baby boomers is being used for another purpose, we have to do something else — cut benefits, transfer in additional money from other sources, something. Right?
But Mr. Bush has never finished his sentence. His ads continue to proclaim that he will put Social Security on a sound financial footing — but his proposal does nothing, literally nothing, to shore up the system's finances. It doesn't even try. This isn't even a debatable issue — there are no measures to debate.
I'm not sure why the press corps has done such a bad job of making this clear. Maybe reporters just don't dare say that the governor has no clothes, that a key proposal by the man who may well be president contains no measures that even try to do what he claims that proposal will do.
Even now most coverage makes excuses for Mr. Bush's non-plan, saying that it doesn't threaten the benefits of today's retirees because there is still enough money to maintain benefits at current levels for 20 years or so. But that's moving the goal posts. The whole demand for reform of Social Security has been driven by charges that the system is unsustainable in the long run — now, suddenly, we're supposed to accept a "reform" that actually cuts the system's remaining life by 14 years?
Anyway, what do you think would really happen? Would the Social Security Administration really continue to pay full benefits for the next two decades — then suddenly, one day, make an announcement: "Sorry, folks, the money's all gone. We're cutting benefits 40 percent, effective immediately"? The reality is that the pressure to cut benefits would begin as soon as the diversion of taxes into individual accounts was put into effect; many of today's retirees would feel the pinch.
Maybe, if Mr. Bush wins, he will reveal a secret plan — one that pretty much has to involve benefit cuts, because where else can he find the money? (The budget surplus will have been eliminated by tax cuts.) Or maybe he will tell a bipartisan commission to devise a plan, and then blame the Democrats for the commission's inability to find a way to create something from nothing.
It's ironic. The responsible actions of Congress in the 1980's set the stage, it turns out, for a blatantly irresponsible political ploy. But you know the saying: No good deed goes unpunished.
Originally published in The New York Times, 11.5.00