Fiscal folly

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LET'S SAY you're 10 to 15 years away from retiring. Here's a financial plan you absolutely should not follow:

Go from saving to spending so much more than you're taking in that you're sinking deeper and deeper into debt.

In addition, take on a big responsibility that involves a lot of new spending, the amount and duration of which are open-ended.

Make sure your income from now to retirement won't be as high as it could be.

Borrow a big chunk from your retirement plan - cutting the income you'll be able to depend on once you stop working - so that you can invest in stocks, with the long-term but very uncertain hope that you'll offset the certain losses.

Why are we bothering you with this financial foolishness? To ask if there's really much difference between this obvious folly and President Bush's fiscal plans for the nation:

Spend more than your income: Mr. Bush has already turned a 10-year federal budget surplus of almost $5.6 billion projected at the outset of his administration into more than $1 trillion in accumulated debt so far this decade, an almost $7 billion reversal of fortune - including another record budget deficit this fiscal year, the Congressional Budget Office announced this week.

Take on a new, costly, long-term responsibility: The open-ended bill from the war in Iraq is one of the main factors driving this fiscal year's record deficit. The CBO now says the nation will accumulate more than $1 trillion in new debt over the next decade, but that projection rises to almost $2 trillion with the likely cost of the Iraq war and the fight against terrorism.

Scale back income: Because of Mr. Bush's record tax cuts, federal tax revenues as a share of the gross domestic product have plummeted and the losses now account for about half the current budget deficit. With the likely cost of Iraq and the cost of the president's plan to make permanent these tax cuts, the CBO says, the projected 10-year budget deficit leaps to almost $4 trillion. And that's even without fixing the alternative minimum tax - for which there are growing pressures - which would take the deficit to more than $4 trillion.

Borrow to put your retirement savings at market risk: This is the coup de grace. The president wants to add $2 trillion in debt to this vat of red ink to finance the losses to the Social Security system resulting from his plan to allow workers to divert some of their payroll taxes to private stock accounts. Long-term guaranteed benefits would be lower - and only possibly offset by gains from the risky stock investments.

And all this is taking place 10 to 15 years before baby boomers are checking out of workplaces in droves and tapping Social Security and Medicare entitlements.

Mr. Bush's team, of course, is aware of the pending demographic shift, but how is the administration preparing the nation's books for it? The president's focus lately has been on making the false case for a Social Security crisis in 2018, when the system likely will have to start paying out more than it is taking in by tapping its huge reserve of Treasury bonds.

There is a big urgent crisis here - at the Treasury, not Social Security. And this administration seems intent on doing almost everything possible to make it worse.

In an editorial Thursday, federal budget data were misstated. Under President Bush, a 2001 projection of a 10-year budget surplus of almost $5.6 trillion has turned into more than $1 trillion in newly accumulated debt so far, an almost $7 trillion reversal. The Sun regrets the error.
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