Is Social Security really going to go bankrupt?

Does Congress seriously believe that private pensions somehow, someday, might take its place?

Is the public so angry about Social Security payroll taxes that it would rather see the whole system fall apart than pay a penny more?

The answer to all these questions is no, as Dan Rather, Bruce Morton and their CBS colleagues finally make clear at the very end of their generally informative analysis of the Social Security system on the CBS News special "Social Insecurity," tonight at 10 on Channel 9.

But a lot of red herrings obscure that "no" before the clear assertions, that Congress will never allow bankruptcy to happen; that it isn't even considering substituting private pension efforts for the Social Security system; and that CBS's own poll shows two-thirds of the public would be willing to pay more Social Security taxes if needed, although not happily. b

Most of the elderly interviewed know little about how the system works, but they have the main idea: Money has been taken out of their paychecks all their lives to make sure they have something to live on when they get old or disabled. They feel it would be a gross breach of faith to cut benefits back seriously or let the system go bust.

Rather and cohorts make all the right points to quell the current wave of hysteria and put the matter in perspective: The "bankruptcy" the system now faces is a serious but temporary shortfall of funds, not a permanent collapse; and the tax increases needed to put the system right if that course were chosen, rather than benefit cuts, would be relatively modest.

But you would never suspect that, listening to the start of the show. In the absolutely positive way that anchormen cultivate, Rather asserts that the system is running out of money; it isn't until much later that the point is made that really it will never happen, because Congress won't let it happen.

Elsewhere Rather has people hinting that maybe private pensions can fill the role Social Security is having such difficulties with; except that only about half the workers in the U.S. work in jobs where there are pension systems, even today. The show raises the question of private pensions a few times but never disposes of it, except implicitly in the end -- when it isn't even mentioned as a serious alternative to the various ways of cutting back benefits or increasing revenues.

Still, this well-researched report finally pulls it all together and tells you what the real alternatives are: a cut in the annual cost-of-living adjustment; increasing the age for retirement with full benefits to 68; slowing the growth of basic benefits, or raising the payroll tax by 1.5 percent or so. Since Social Security supports 36 million people, nearly a sixth of the entire population, it's worth a look.