"IF YOU'RE SO smart, why aren't you president?" the first President Bush used to ask aides. We've been finding ourselves with a similarly exasperated reaction to the folks who have been arguing that Social Security represents a minor, easily solved piece of the long-term budget problem: "If it's so easy, why don't you fix it?"
It is also true, as we have noted, that the eventual costs of health care entitlements dwarf the projected shortfall in Social Security. It is undeniably true that containing the runaway cost of Medicare -- at a time when health care costs are soaring and the elderly population is growing -- is a more complex and daunting task than making Social Security solvent. And yes, this President Bush can be criticized for hyping the "crisis" in Social Security.
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What we don't follow is why the sum of those truths would argue for the administration and Congress simply forgetting the whole Social Security debate and turning their attention elsewhere. Dean Baker and David Rosnick of the Center for Economic and Policy Research make this argument in a recent paper comparing the relative burdens of Social Security taxes and rising health care costs: "Politicians and commentators who claim to be concerned about the living standards of future generations of workers seem to be misdirecting their energy by focusing on the comparatively minor problem of Social Security," they wrote. "Clearly the inefficiency of the U.S. health care system poses a far larger and more immediate danger to the living standards of our children and grandchildren."
Perhaps so. But if there's a lesson to be learned from the tone and trajectory of the Social Security debate this year, it is how difficult, and how fraught with political peril, it is to fix even this "comparatively minor" problem. Does anyone who's watched the Social Security debate this year imagine that figuring out what to do about health care or Medicare would go just swimmingly? If so, think back to the Clinton health care plan.
Sadly, the Social Security debate so far has served chiefly to underline the difficulty, in a political environment dominated by dogma and short-term self-interest. For the most part, Republicans won't consider any Social Security reform that lacks personal accounts -- or any that includes tax increases. On their side, Democrats won't talk unless personal accounts are off-limits -- and they dare not indicate any willingness to accept cuts in benefits. This is irresponsible, on both sides.
But so, too, would be dropping the subject. If they can't solve this "comparatively minor problem" now, politicians are unlikely to be brave enough, or rash enough, to return to it anytime soon. And we hate to think how they'd face up to a comparatively major challenge.
This is one in a series of editorials examining Social Security and its future. Others can be found at www.washingtonpost.com/opinion.