In his State of the Union address, George W. Bush said tonight that the future of Social Security depends on an "open, candid review of the options" available to fix it. It would help if the president were open and candid himself.
The Bush administration has ginned up a phony "crisis" over Social Security and then -- and this is the truly brazen part -- suggested a "solution" that does less than nothing to solve the problem it predicts. Social Security isn't going "bankrupt," as the president said tonight. Nor is it going broke in 20 years, as the president suggested to the Parliament-like jeers of Democrats. But in 2053, according to Congressional Budget Office projections, the Social Security system will need more money than it's likely to have if it's going to cover 100 percent of the benefits it's likely to have to pay. Even then, the system won't be broke. It will continue to take in Social Security taxes, enough taxes, the CBO says, to pay about 81 percent of the benefits that it will be required to pay.
So that's the problem. Beginning in 2053, Social Security will either need to supplement its income or cut its expenses. It would be easy -- mathematically, if not politically -- to do either. The government could supplement Social Security's income by raising taxes or diverting funds from other programs, or it could cut Social Security expenses by reducing benefits. But George Bush doesn't like those kinds of choices. Again and again over the last four years, he has cut taxes and increased spending. When Joe Biden and John Kerry suggested that Bush pay for the war in Iraq by rolling back some of his tax cuts, the White House refused. Bush wanted the war, and he wanted the tax cuts, and he got both.
His Social Security proposal is of a piece. Bush said all sorts of options for repairing the system are "on the table," but then he took one off: The idea of raising Social Security taxes is not one he'll consider. Bush wants to let younger workers divert some of their Social Security taxes to individual investment accounts, but to do that he would need to come up with a way to pay the current benefits those taxes cover. He won't raise other taxes to do that, so the "transition costs" will simply be added -- by the trillion -- to the massive budget deficit Bush has built up over the last four years.
So when Bush talked tonight about confronting the problem with "honesty and courage," when he talked about "building a better world for our children and grandchildren," when he talked about Social Security as a "symbol of trust" between the generations -- well, it all rang a little hollow. The only thing Bush is building for our children is a debt they'll have to pay. The "symbol of trust" has already been broken, just not in the way he'd like you to think.