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Social Security

Making Social Security Safe

Thursday, April 9, 1998; Page A24

The Social Security forum in which the president participated Tuesday – the first of four that are planned this year – was a serious, substantive discussion of a subject that has hitherto been supposed to be politically taboo. The more of that the better as the parties embark on the restructuring of a system on which a seventh of the country depends.

A range of opinion was represented in the session, but there was more agreement than not, in part because there wasn't a lot of posturing in which one side or the other suggests a way to fix the system at no or negligible cost. The president, to the contrary, called attention to the trade-offs that will be required to finance the retirement not just of the baby boomers but the generation to follow. That's good. It's what people need to understand.

There has been a lot of talk about how "privatization" might be the salvation of the system – giving people all or some of their Social Security taxes to invest instead of sluicing the money through the government. But that is a riskier proposition than the privatizers allow. Mr. Clinton said the right place to start was at the other end, with a set of guarantees, a "benefit certain," as he put it. Then maybe a layer of compulsory savings and individual investment could be added on top. He thought it could be done without a further increase in the payroll tax, but warned that if part of the current tax is diverted to individual savings accounts, that will make it all the harder to finance the guarantees.

Mr. Clinton didn't spell out a plan, but that's not what the administration needed to do at this point. What it needed to do was provide both parties with political cover so that they will consider the subject safe to debate.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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