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Richard Cohen

Social Security Slam-Dunk

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, December 21, 2004; Page A25

Why do I think that the Social Security crisis -- "the crisis is now," President Bush said recently -- is the domestic version of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Could it be that I am hearing the same sense of false urgency? Could it be that the predicted insolvency of the Social Security system is something other than -- yes -- "a slam-dunk"? I wonder.

My cynicism -- like yours -- has been earned the hard way. George Bush has a charming tendency to make up his mind first and then seek the evidence for his decision. This is how he went about deciding to go to war in Iraq -- telling Don Rumsfeld to produce a war plan in the days right after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, even though there was no evidence Iraq was responsible. It did not matter. Bush wanted war with Iraq, Bush got it -- and now we're stuck with it.

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Is it going to be the same with Social Security? No doubt something has to be done. Eventually the Social Security system is going to start paying out more money than it's taking in. But no one is really sure when that's going to be. As with Mark Twain's death, news of the Great Insolvency has been prematurely reported, with the date slowly receding as the amazing American economy keeps growing and pumping out funds. Still, sooner or later, the system has to be fixed.

Sooner or later, though, is not a crisis. But Bush needs a crisis -- just as he needed WMD -- to justify what he wants to do: radically overhaul the Social Security system. This is because he believes, as do all good conservatives, that the government should not do what private enterprise can do better and cheaper -- assuming, of course, that private enterprise can make us more comfy in our retirements than the government can. That's a big assumption, and there is precious little, aside from fervent ideology, to support it. If you believe that the market economy always performs best, take a look at the airline industry. It serves neither its customers nor its owners.

Frankly, I am agnostic about private savings accounts. My own has worked pretty well, but that's not because I consciously made wise investments. It is rather because I was damned lucky, having foolishly invested disproportionately in my own company, which -- by holding down my own salary, among other things -- has become beloved by Wall Street. As for most Americans, the data suggest that they do not manage their own funds in a professional manner. When it comes to 401(k) plans, which have been around for more than 25 years, some companies now limit investment options because their employees have been so dumb about making investments. That's understandable. After all, most of us are far too busy making a living and living a life (raising kids, walking the dog, playing computer solitaire) to figure out what a derivative is.

The trouble with Bush's Social Security plan is that it is almost entirely driven by ideology. For instance, one obvious way to pump some cash into the Social Security trust fund is to raise taxes -- not on you and me, mate, but on the rich. But as with income taxes, the rich shall not be touched in this administration and so common sense is off the table.

Similarly, to ensure that Americans approaching retirement will get the benefits they were expecting and at the same time divert money into personal retirement accounts, about $2 trillion will be borrowed. For some reason, this additional debt will not become a burden to any one of us nor, for the same mysterious reason, will it affect interest rates or be noticed by the very people who have been driving down the value of the dollar. This is as certain as finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

I do not want to belabor the analogy to WMD, but really it is almost impossible to do so. The same exaggerations, false claims of crisis and ideological fantasies -- $2 trillion in additional debt simply not mattering is the functional equivalent of U.S. troops being welcomed by ecstatic Iraqis -- are being seen once again. A president who wanted war with Iraq no matter what now wants to overhaul the Social Security system no matter what. Last time, I raised my hand and enlisted. This time, it's staying on my wallet.


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