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Bartleby Democrats

Friday, February 4, 2005; Page A16

HERMAN MELVILLE'S "Bartleby, the Scrivener" tells the tale of a lawyer's assistant who inexplicably stops doing his job, instead spending his days staring blankly at a brick wall. "I'd prefer not to," he invariably tells his employer when asked to copy a paper, go to the post office or even answer a question. "No: at present I would prefer not to make any change at all," Bartleby says when asked to leave. In their response to President Bush's State of the Union address Wednesday night -- indeed, in much of their reaction to Mr. Bush's push on Social Security -- the Democrats share a disturbing resemblance to Bartleby.

Unlike Bartleby, the Democrats' maddening passivity can be excused in part by the administration's maddening evasion of hard choices. The accounts proposed by the president would not, in themselves, extend the solvency of the Social Security system by a single day. Mr. Bush not only presented his private accounts to the country as risk-free, he made none of the tough calls about what should be done to achieve solvency.

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At least, though, the president did spell out some possible changes and acknowledge that they won't be "easy." The Democrats' general response so far is a combination of exaggerated rhetoric and silence about alternatives. Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) makes an important point about the dangers of "Social Security roulette," but where, exactly, is his responsible alternative for making Social Security solvent? Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry set the responsibility bar low during the campaign, when he vowed that there would be no cuts in benefits on his watch if he were elected president. He had little more to offer on "Meet the Press" last weekend. "I do not believe we have to raise the retirement age," Mr. Kerry said. "I am absolutely opposed to cutting benefits, and I believe we can save Social Security in any number of ways, Tim, other than what President Bush wants to do." And those would be?

In fact, there are responsible ways, consistent with Democratic principles, to "fix" Social Security, but elected Democrats have tended to run from them as if they were leaking vials of anthrax. A plan by Democratic economists Peter Diamond and Peter Orszag features a thoughtfully calibrated combination of tax increases and benefit cuts -- meaning that no Democratic politician wants anything to do with it, even though the Diamond-Orszag plan would make the system more progressive and put it on a sustainable footing even beyond the traditional 75-year horizon.

Some Democratic politicians, such as Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), have launched a helpful effort to broaden the Social Security debate to address the bigger question of the nation's paltry personal savings rate and the decline of pensions with guaranteed benefits. Gene Sperling, a Clinton administration colleague of Mr. Emanuel's who is now with the Center for American Progress, is promoting a plan that would provide universal, subsidized 401(k) retirement accounts for workers; this would be paid for by lowering, but not entirely repealing, the estate tax. The Sperling plan would help put Social Security on a stronger footing by imposing a 3 percent surtax on income over $200,000 -- though some benefit cuts would also be needed.

These may not be the right answers; they certainly would meet resistance from Republicans dead set against anything with a whiff of tax increase. The president is as wrong to take tax increases off the table as are Democrats who rule out any benefit cuts. But more constructive involvement on the part of the Democrats, and less Bartlebian disengagement, would be better not only for the party but for the country, too.

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