All you need do to provoke a torrent of citizen emotion is to question cost-of-living adjustments for the nation's 38 million Social Security recipients.

During recent negotiations to reduce the budget deficit, several schemes were discussed to cut the inflation-adjustment for the elderly in this most famous of the New Deal programs, as well as COLAs for the civil and military pension programs. The latter provide benefits more generous than does Social Security.

The most seriously debated proposition would have reduced the 1988 cost-of-living increment for Social Security recipients from a scheduled 4.2 percent to 2 percent. A variation of the plan would have allowed the full 4.2 percent for elderly persons below the poverty line. More broadly, the issue is whether an overgenerous Congress went too far in starting automatic COLAs for federal pension programs in 1962 and for Social Security retirees in 1972.

Between 1970 and 1982, according to the National Committee on Public Employee Pension Systems, Civil Service retirees received COLAs that were 50 percent higher than the inflation rate over that period. And those COLAs were paid from general tax revenues, not from the Civil Service Retirement Fund, whereas Social Security COLAs are paid out of the Social Security Trust Fund.

Little thought was given 15 and 25 years ago to the effect of compound interest on the deficit or on the escalation of indexed benefits. As each year's COLA is compounded on the prior year's base, which includes pension payment plus COLA, a statistical colossus gets built up. Some retired federal officials have pensions topping their own best salary -- or that of the head of their former departments. Certain retired congressmen get more than the speaker of the House. Imagine what could happen with a return of double-digit inflation!

In a recent interview, New York Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo argued that a distinction must be made between those who need extra COLA money to keep level with inflation and those who don't. But in a letter to me, Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) makes strong objection to cutting Social Security COLAs. ''What's wrong {with a means test} is that it would make Social Security a welfare program and not a program based on social insurance and payments made into the trust fund by workers during the many years of working life,'' Proxmire contends.

The reality is that the New Deal bargain made by the system with its participants -- the original ''contract'' that the system's early managers such as former administrator Robert M. Ball hold to be inviolate -- never included COLAs. That was a congressional add-on -- a Nixon-inspired political ploy whose economic implications for the rest of the country were never fully assessed.

Social Security now appears to be untouchable. The venerable Rep. Claude Pepper of Florida has built a pro-elderly political force of awesome power that seems certain to defeat efforts to nibble at COLAs.

At one point in the recent budget negotiations, Democratic and Republican members of Congress considered showing up at the White House with a COLA-cutting program, buttressed with the widest possible political support.

''We were all going to march in together and confront Reagan,'' said one of the congressional team. (Reagan had said that everything is on the table except Social Security.) ''We not only would be unanimous among ourselves, but we'd bring along the chairman of the Republican National Committee and the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, persuade Reagan of the need, then all link arms in front of the TV cameras and declare a total, bipartisan program for doing what's needed.''

What happened? These hard-nosed political leaders, who knew that without changes in Social Security and other COLAs they would not have a deficit-reduction package Wall Street would find credible, had second thoughts.

''If we sold it to Reagan, the markets would be euphoric,'' said a key Democrat. ''But then, we had to be realistic: we could pledge bipartisan support while looking into the TV cameras on the White House lawn. But did we have it? We concluded that when we got back to the Hill, the average congressman or senator would follow not our lead, he'd follow Claude Pepper.''

Their shrewd assessment was that the defeat of the plan would have been worse -- from a financial-market point of view -- than not having touched Social Security and other pensions at all. So Social Security defenders survived one more crisis, and the system is safe, for now.

But the national economy is not, as the financial markets are trying to signal. Perhaps a more practical way to deal with the problem is to leave the COLAs alone and fully tax Social Security benefits (now partially taxed) at the individual recipient's rate. But I wouldn't bet on that happening, either.