Confused about the future of Social Security? Small wonder. One day President Bush is saying the retirement program is going broke and needs radical surgery; another day economists are writing that its finances can be fixed with the economic equivalent of a Band-Aid.
Right or wrong, Bush has decided to make Social Security overhaul a centerpiece of his second term. "So if you're . . . in your mid-twenties," he said on Jan. 11, "I want you to think about a Social Security system that will be flat bust, bankrupt, unless the United States Congress has got the willingness to act now."
Is the system in trouble? And if so, is partial privatization the answer? Outlook asked a variety of Social Security watchers to sort out fact and fiction, hyperbole and reality. On Pages 2 and 3 appear seven perspectives that, together, look at every aspect of an issue that the president wants to make the number one domestic priority for the next few months.
Our aim: To give readers a sense of why Social Security has become a moral and political issue, as well as an economic one. There's no shortage of opinions. Some experts applaud Bush for his willingness to reexamine a 69-year-old program long considered too sacred to touch. "Reasonable people can debate what kinds of reforms are best, but don't let the Ostrich Caucus convince you to put your head in the sand," N. Gregory Mankiw, chairman of Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, said in a speech last Tuesday.
Not so fast, say other experts. What Bush is doing with the Social Security debate, says economic consultant Everett Ehrlich, is akin to drilling a hole in a boat, telling people the boat is sinking and suggesting that everyone put on a hat. The boat is the federal budget, the drill is Bush's tax cut, and the hat is his plan for diverting some Social Security money into private accounts -- a solution disconnected from the problem, Ehrlich says.
By definition, the Social Security debate is filled with uncertainty. All sides rely on Social Security Administration projections stretching out 75 years, a period in which economics, politics and demographics will go through wild, unforeseen changes. When the original legislation was signed in 1935, no one could have forecast World War II, the oil crisis, immigration patterns, HIV/AIDS or medical advances -- all events with profound effects on a retirement plan.
Forecasting the outcome of the coming legislative battle won't be much easier. But at least -- we hope -- you'll be well informed.
-- Steven Mufson, for Outlook