1:29 PM EDT, September 13, 2011
If there was still any doubt that Social Security is the proverbial third rail of American politics — that is, potentially deadly to the touch — Gov. Rick Perry has provided the electrifying answer: You don't mess with the monthly checks, Texan.
At a presidential debate in California last week, Mr. Perry decried Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years old today, you're paying into a program that's going to be there. Anybody that's for the status quo with Social Security today is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids, and it's not right."
In those two sentences, the governor took a relatively simple problem (a potential deficit in the retirement system in a quarter-century) and inflated it into a criminal enterprise on par with Bernard Madoff and Charles Ponzi. Small wonder he's getting ripped by his fellow Republican presidential candidates, including at a subsequent debate in Tampa on Monday night.
The result? He's sounding a bit of a retreat — but also ripping right back. When former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney raised the Ponzi scheme reference at the Florida debate and questioned whether Mr. Perry still wanted to turn the program over to the states (as he asserted in his book, "Fed Up!"), it was the Texan accusing the New Englander of trying to scare seniors.
So for anyone keeping score at home, here's the latest on Social Security: Overstate the problem, and you're scaring seniors. Anybody questioning that overstatement? Obviously, he or she is trying to scare seniors. In summary, any talk about Social Security is frightening — but probably not so much to seniors (who, last we checked, are not as easily driven to a state of terror as some people seem to assume).
The real scare is to anyone expecting an honest debate from candidates aspiring to the nation's highest office about the successful and financially solvent Social Security program. They can't seem to do it — and that would just seem ludicrous if it were not so disappointing.
Admittedly, conservatives aren't big fans of Social Security or any other government-run social insurance program, and that's nothing new. They weren't 76 years ago, when it was created as part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal to make sure that the nation's elderly weren't consigned to poverty in their final years.
The only real issue is how big a benefit should be provided by Social Security and how it should be financed. The nation's demographics are changing, and the existing formula will not work — at least not for those who retire in 2038 or beyond, according to the most recent analysis. Too many beneficiaries are living too long and are supported by too few workers for the status quo to last.
But the problem is relatively easy to solve. One can raise taxes or reduce the benefit or some combination of both. For instance, delaying retirement age for the next generation, which is sure to live longer and healthier than its predecessors, might be prudent. Capping cost-of-living adjustments might be helpful, too. And increasing the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes would increase revenue and make the system more fair.
The sooner such a solution is agreed upon, the less drastic the change will need to be. But even with no change, future retirees would receive an estimated 80 percent of benefits. Ponzi victims never had it so good.
Social Security isn't even the biggest financial problem facing Washington these days. The Medicaid and Medicare shortfalls are worse and looming closer — but then, we've seen how badly the current Congress deals with matters of taxes and spending.
Mr. Perry can't run away from his outrageous claim, nor can Mr. Romney deny his own record of public skepticism about the program. But the bottom line is that Social Security isn't in any real danger, no matter who becomes the GOP's nominee — it makes too much sense, and has provided too large a benefit to the nation, for even the most bone-headed politician to kill it.
Without Social Security, Americans would enter their twilight years without sufficient financial support. That would be disastrous for them, their families and for the nation's economy, as the program now represents about 7 percent of the gross domestic product. If only as a forced savings program, Social Security works to assure the elderly and disabled are not eating dog food and living on the streets.
Republicans shouldn't be frightened of Social Security so much as scared of their own empty rhetoric (including their disdain for how the trust fund surplus is used to pay for other government programs and isn't sitting in a vault somewhere). A more honest conversation about Social Security would be helpful. But those who can't muster one probably deserve the political electroshock treatment.
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