SYNOPSIS: Bush Gives SS away to top campaign contributors . . . and lies about it.
To: Mitch Daniels, Office of Management and Budget
Dear Mitch: I have a suggestion. It's dishonest and irresponsible -- but I suspect that doesn't bother you. And it would help you squirm out of a problem that we both know isn't going away.
True, your bobbing and weaving have been impressive. Some people have actually bought your line that the surplus has vanished because of Congressional big spending, even though the spending numbers have hardly changed since your previous, bullish projection. And most reporters, bless their tiny little heads, have written about the budget shortfall as if it were a temporary problem; they haven't looked at Table 3 of your own report, which despite all your cooking of the books projects only a razor-thin non-Social-Security surplus for the next five years.
But there's more trouble ahead. You bullied the Congressional Budget Office into delaying its own budget projection until next week, so that you could get your numbers out first. Still, when the C.B.O. numbers come out everyone knows that they will look considerably worse than yours.
And of course we both know that the truth is actually even worse than that, because the C.B.O. must pretend to believe what politicians tell it. For example, when you claim that you can provide prescription drug insurance for a third of what anyone else thinks it will cost, or that you won't adjust the alternative minimum tax even when millions of irate voters ask why their tax cut has been snatched away, the C.B.O. duly puts those claims into its numbers.
It's a good thing that reporters were too lazy to read last week's report by the International Monetary Fund. I admit, "2001 Article IV Consultation" isn't a very catchy title, but the contents are hot stuff. Basically what the I.M.F. said was "Liar, liar, pants on fire." When the I.M.F. staff points out the truth, such as the fact that the "$1.35 trillion" tax cut will actually cost at least $2.5 trillion, it becomes all too obvious that you'll be raiding the Social Security surplus year after year, with no end in sight.
So here's my suggestion: Declare that the defense budget is actually part of Social Security. The military provides security to society, doesn't it? Then you can say with a straight face that there isn't any Social Security surplus; including defense spending, the program is actually in deficit! And that will get you off the hook, because you won't have to worry about protecting a surplus that you have declared doesn't exist.
My idea is, of course, just an expanded version of your administration's Medicare scam. Medicare's hospital insurance program is run the same way as Social Security: it collects revenue from payroll taxes, and it is accumulating a trust fund to help pay benefits when the baby boomers retire. If you treated the hospital insurance surplus the same way you treat the Social Security surplus -- which you should, since the two programs work the same way -- it would already be obvious that you are paying for the tax cut with money that was supposed to be reserved for future retirees.
However, Medicare also runs a supplemental insurance program. This program has always been paid for out of general revenue -- just like defense -- but your administration insists that it must be lumped in with hospital insurance. That lets you declare that there is no Medicare surplus, and use the hospital insurance surplus to pay for tax cuts.
Some people have pointed out that this is a very strange way to make policy. Even aside from the blatantly dishonest accounting, surely a country with an aging population should be putting money aside to pay for future retiree health care. But you've done a good job of shouting those people down. So I don't see why you can't do the same thing when you start billing the costs of missile defense to the Social Security Administration.
In the end, we both know, the truth will become apparent. Eventually there will be no disguising the fact that thanks to the tax cut the nation has failed to make adequate preparations for the demographic deluge, that money that was supposed to be accumulated to pay retirement benefits has been used instead to provide big tax cuts to the very, very affluent.
But then that's been the plan all along, hasn't it?
Originally published in The New York Times, 8.24.01