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Editorials



 



Comparatively Major

Sun, 10 Apr 2005 8:09:24 GMT

"IF YOU'RE SO smart, why aren't you president?" the first President Bush used to ask aides. We've been finding ourselves with a similarly exasperated reaction to the folks who have been arguing that Social Security represents a minor, easily solved piece of the long-term budget problem: "If it's so easy, why don't you fix it?"



Dishonest Debate

Sun, 10 Apr 2005 8:09:24 GMT

ONE CAN DEBATE the merits of creating personal accounts in Social Security but not the case for fixing the program's solvency problems. Over the next 75 years, as the Social Security trustees reported on Wednesday, the program has a projected deficit of $4 trillion; the longer the nation waits to address this problem, the nastier the tax hikes or benefit reductions that will result. But that's not the impression conveyed by some Democratic leaders. The trustees' report, according to Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), "confirms that the so-called Social Security crisis exists in only one place: the minds of Republicans." The senator's desire to score political points is understandable. His willingness to do so by implying that Social Security is healthy is not.



Social Security Breakdown

Sun, 10 Apr 2005 8:09:24 GMT

THE PRECARIOUS state of President Bush's push to overhaul Social Security raises the prospect of two unwelcome outcomes. The first is that reform will be shelved altogether, and the program's undisputed unaffordability ignored once again. The second is that the unaffordability will be made worse by some cotton-candy additions dressed up as reform. One pushes the problem down the road, when everyone knows it will be more painful to solve. The other pushes the problem down the road and makes it worse in the process. You could think of Example A as the Clinton health care plan; Example B is last year's exorbitant Medicare "reform."



An Opening on Social Security

Sun, 10 Apr 2005 8:09:24 GMT

ONLY IN THE context of the glacial political minuet over Social Security could President Bush's comments last week that he might, perhaps, be open to the notion of raising the Social Security earnings cap be considered bold. Mr. Bush cracked that door open the tiniest bit, repeating his previous insistence that the 12.4 percent payroll tax could not be budged, but noting that "all the other issues are on the table." Asked specifically whether he would consider increasing the amount of earnings subject to the tax, Mr. Bush added, "I've been asked this question a lot, and the answer is, I'm interested in good ideas."



The Risks in Personal Accounts

Sun, 10 Apr 2005 8:09:24 GMT

NEWLY ELECTED to a second term and possessed of a mandate to cut the "nanny state," Margaret Thatcher set out in 1984 to privatize Britain's state pension system. The result stands as a warning to the Bush administration. The Thatcher reforms empowered unscrupulous salesmen to press inappropriate savings accounts on unsophisticated workers; regulators ultimately required payment of some $24 billion in compensation to the victims. Last year 500,000 Britons who had opted out of the government pension system in favor of private accounts returned ruefully to nanny.



Mr. Bush's Personal Accounts

Sun, 10 Apr 2005 8:09:24 GMT

WHETHER SOCIAL Security is in "crisis" or not, everyone agrees that the system faces a deficit. There is less agreement, however, on whether the personal Social Security accounts advocated by President Bush in the State of the Union speech would reduce the funding problem. The administration's critics have seized on comments in a briefing given by a senior official: "Personal accounts would have a net neutral effect on the fiscal situation of Social Security," the official conceded. Armed with such quotations, Mr. Bush's opponents accuse him of pushing an irrelevant non-solution for ideological or political reasons.



Bartleby Democrats

Sun, 10 Apr 2005 8:09:24 GMT

HERMAN MELVILLE'S "Bartleby, the Scrivener" tells the tale of a lawyer's assistant who inexplicably stops doing his job, instead spending his days staring blankly at a brick wall. "I'd prefer not to," he invariably tells his employer when asked to copy a paper, go to the post office or even answer a question. "No: at present I would prefer not to make any change at all," Bartleby says when asked to leave. In their response to President Bush's State of the Union address Wednesday night -- indeed, in much of their reaction to Mr. Bush's push on Social Security -- the Democrats share a disturbing resemblance to Bartleby.



State of the Union

Sun, 10 Apr 2005 8:09:24 GMT

LAST NIGHT'S State of the Union address was to be the moment, so the country was told, when President Bush would spell out his plans for Social Security. That turned out to be true, in part. Mr. Bush's speech, combined with additional information put out by the White House, for the first time described the size and structure of the private retirement accounts the president envisions. But Mr. Bush and his aides offered no specifics on the more difficult question of what changes would be made elsewhere in Social Security to make the program solvent. Mr. Bush acknowledged that hard choices will have to be made. But rather than leading on that central issue, he simply offered a list of what he described as other people's ideas. He made a persuasive case that the Social Security program needs to be put on a stronger financial footing, but he wouldn't say how that should be done.



No Social Security 'Crisis'

Sun, 10 Apr 2005 8:09:24 GMT

"THE CRISIS is now," President Bush says of Social Security. Both aspects of that declaration are incorrect; both also contain nuggets of truth. Social Security faces a long-term deficit that is significant, if not nearly as staggering as the accompanying shortfall in Medicare. Over the next 75 years, the projected shortfall is $3.7 trillion, although the president prefers to use an even scarier number, $10.5 trillion, the gap forecast over an infinite horizon. Left untouched, the Social Security program, sometime in the next 40 or 50 years, is projected to run out of money to pay the full retirement benefits it has promised.



Social Security Rhetoric

Sun, 10 Apr 2005 8:09:24 GMT

THE CHAIRMAN of the Democratic National Committee has many talents, chief among them the ability to separate donors from their money, but no one's ever mistaken Terence R. McAuliffe for a policy wonk. And for good reason: Mr. McAuliffe's recent foray into the weeds of the Social Security debate was the kind of ill-informed demagoguery that discourages responsible politicians from confronting the problem.



Social Security

Sun, 10 Apr 2005 8:09:24 GMT

Old age is at once the most certain, and for many people the most tragic, of all hazards. There is no tragedy in growing old, but there is tragedy in growing old without means of support



How Much to Cut?

Sun, 10 Apr 2005 8:09:24 GMT

AS IT INCHES its way toward a Social Security proposal, the Bush administration appears ready to control the rising cost of benefits for retirees. Some sort of cost control is likely to be part of any honest reform to the system, and the Bush proposal has some logic. According to a White House e-mail circulating last week, the administration wants to break the link between Social Security benefits and the general increase in earnings in the country, a proposal that formed part of the leading recommendation from the Social Security commission in Mr. Bush's first term. If the commission's plan were implemented, the average earner who works until the age of 65 would get a tenth less than under the current system if he or she retired in 2022. By 2042, it would be a quarter less; by 2075, just over half of what's promised by the current system.



The Bigger Problem

Sun, 10 Apr 2005 8:09:24 GMT

THE PROGRAM NOW consumes one-eighth of the federal budget; in 10 years that share is expected to grow to one-fifth. It will consume more money this year than enters the Treasury through payroll taxes. By 2019, if current spending patterns hold, the trust fund that finances the biggest part of the program will be out of cash.



A Deficit of Detail

Sun, 10 Apr 2005 8:09:24 GMT

AT HIS NEWS conference yesterday, President Bush restated his reasons for wanting to reform Social Security. His starting principles are admirable: He assures people at or near retirement that their pensions won't be cut, and he rightly insists that Social Security is projected to go bust and that the best way to minimize the cost of a solution is to respond early. This call to action puts Mr. Bush ahead of many congressional Democrats, who cling to the irresponsible view that little or no Social Security reform is necessary and that all future benefits are untouchable. But the president has yet to build a case for the type of solution he appears to want. He seems determined to stay above the detail and to limit himself to vague statements of principle. Details, however, can make the difference between desirable reform and the sort that compounds the problem.



The Cost of Reform

Sun, 10 Apr 2005 8:09:24 GMT

THE DEBATE over Social Security has begun with an argument that highlights the difference between idealized visions of reform and the imperfect real world. The argument concerns the transition costs associated with partial privatization. The administration and its allies say that these costs should not be counted; critics regard this as accounting trickery worthy of Enron. In theory, the administration has the better argument. In the real world, however, the critics may be right.



Debate Ducking

Sun, 10 Apr 2005 8:09:24 GMT

AMERICANS -- at least those who didn't tune into baseball -- had their final chance Wednesday night to see the two major candidates for president face to face. President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry both appeared confident and competent, and they presented sharp contrasts on issues ranging from abortion to economic policy. Neither, it seemed to us, managed to transcend the cramped format to offer much of a thematic vision of leadership. Both, when confronted with the hardest questions, simply ducked.



Debate Ducking

Sun, 10 Apr 2005 8:09:24 GMT

AMERICANS -- at least those who didn't tune into baseball -- had their final chance last night to see the two major candidates for president face-to-face. President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic nominee, both appeared confident and competent, and they presented sharp contrasts on issues ranging from abortion to economic policy. Neither, it seemed to us, managed to transcend the cramped format to offer much of a thematic vision of leadership. Both, when confronted with the hardest questions, simply ducked.



Regrettable Reactions

Sun, 10 Apr 2005 8:09:24 GMT

FOR ALL THE front-page headlines, there wasn't anything particularly surprising in Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan's warning Wednesday that the government can't afford the Social Security benefits it has promised and that benefits will need to be curtailed. He's sounded this alarm before, correctly so. Sadly, there also wasn't anything surprising in the reaction of the presidential candidates, both President Bush and his Democratic rivals, to Mr. Greenspan's statements: All of them scurried as far as possible from any hint of endorsing a change in benefits, however reasonable. It's a measure of the irresponsibility of both political parties regarding the entitlements debate that a proposal for rather minor adjustments in Social Security would be treated like such a -- well, like such a dangerous third rail.



A Chance for Discussion

Sun, 10 Apr 2005 8:09:24 GMT

AMONG THE many unexpected consequences of the recent elections has been a renewed interest in a subject many had thought politically untouchable. Defying conventional political wisdom, a number of Republicans brought up the subject of Social Security reform during the campaign -- albeit not necessarily explaining what, exactly, that reform would entail -- and nevertheless managed to avoid defeat. At the same time, a period of brief respite in the electoral cycle has just begun. Given all of the other issues that loom ahead, this may be the last chance to talk calmly about Social Security for a long time, and the opportunity shouldn't be missed.



Poor Start on Social Security

Sun, 10 Apr 2005 8:09:24 GMT

THE PRESIDENT'S Social Security advisory commission has issued a combative and somewhat skewed report that overstates both the deficiencies of the current system and likely strengths of the partial privatization alternative that the commissioners were chosen to promote. Their mostly Democratic critics have responded in kind, denouncing them for trying to destroy the program, even as they themselves minimize some of its genuine problems.