There is no Social Security crisis


Mark Follman
January 22, 2005 4:40AM (UTC)

It's not news at this point -- many people have been explaining for some time now why there is no Social Security crisis, from Paul Krugman to Josh Marshall to Scott Rosenberg to There Is No Crisis.com. But it needs to become news -- bears repeating again and again -- so long as the Bush administration aims to eviscerate the bedrock program's funding under the phony banner of clear and present danger. ("Disaster is imminent, we must act now." Sound familiar?)

There is no Social Security crisis. Despite the fact that President Bush held an "economic summit" last month and declared it his job to "explain to Congress as clearly as I can: The crisis is now." This time it's Hendrik Hertzberg's turn to explain why there is not now, and probably won't ever be, a Social Security crisis:

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"This year, the Social Security system -- the payroll tax, which brings money in, and the pension program, which sends money out -- will bring in about $180 billion more than it sends out. It will go on bringing in more than it sends out until 2028, at which point it will begin to draw on the $3.5 trillion surplus it will by then have accumulated. The surplus runs out in 2042, right around the time George W. Bush turns ninety-six. After that, even if nothing has changed, the system's income will continue to cover seventy-three per cent of its outgo.

"That's using the Social Security Administration's economic and demographic assumptions, which are habitually pessimistic. Using the assumptions of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the surplus runs out in 2052. And if one uses the economic growth assumptions that Bush's own budget office uses when it calculates the effects of his own tax cuts, the surplus runs out in -- er, maybe never.

"The 'crisis,' therefore, is not 'now.' It's as bogus as the Alliance for Worker Retirement Security -- which, in reality, is an 'astroturf,' or fake-grassroots, front for the National Association of Manufacturers. There is no Social Security crisis, and there is not likely to be one."

Pesky little facts aside, it's clear that the war over the future of Social Security will, as much as anything, be about the battle over perception. Hertzberg notes that the Bush administration's much-hyped "crisis" looks "suspiciously like the Social Security equivalent of W.M.D.s."

And Derrick A. Max, the executive director of the above mentioned Alliance for Worker Retirement Security, doesn't disagree. "The final months of the 2004 presidential election were fought on the wisdom and implementation of George W. Bush's doctrine of preemption -- which boiled down to 'getting the enemy before they get us'," he said, just days after Bush was reelected. "Surprisingly, the debate over preemption wasn't limited to the war in Iraq or even to the broader war on terror, but was at the center of the debate over the future of Social Security."

Surprisingly, indeed.

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Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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