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Social Security Remains Star in the Gloom

By Froma Harrop

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The stock market hasn't been this nasty since the 1970s. House prices continue their dive, and consumer confidence has gone splat. The rocketing federal budget deficit will probably orbit Mars by the time the government finishes cleaning up the mess left by the housing bubble it so blithely let fester.

Good job, fellas. The Bush administration doesn't have a heckuva lot of credibility left on economic matters. But some members think they have one little ideological game left to play. Scare people out of their wits about Social Security.

For Americans up their eyeballs in debt -- or whose dreams of leisure rested on rising house prices -- Social Security remains a star of stability in the rising gloom. Fortunately, Social Security is doing just fine.

But the financial geniuses in the Bush administration still want to mess with it. And the only way they can stampede the public into doing something stupid to Social Security is to portray the program as a very sick patient needing to be saved.

Economist Dean Baker has spent long years trying to save Social Security from its would-be surgeons. A founder and director of the progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research, Baker continually tracks the tireless efforts to undermine confidence in the program -- often helped by liberals swept up in the phony panic.

Consider the comments following the Bush administration's new report on Social Security and Medicare. "In fewer than 10 years," Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson warns, "cash flows are projected to turn negative -- meaning that we will draw upon general revenues to support withdrawals from the (Social Security) Trust Funds in order to pay current benefits."

Paulson is referring to 2017, when Social Security payroll taxes may no longer be able to cover benefits owed retirees. To keep the program on track, he says, the tax may have to be raised or the benefits cut.

"I think this is really dishonest," Baker told me. "2017 means zero to the program."

True, the government must dip into the Trust Funds -- which hold the Social Security surplus -- in 2017. "But that's the reason we built up the surplus," Baker notes.

"When we got to 1982, the thing was literally out of money," Baker recalls, "but no one missed a check." Congress and the Reagan administration responded by raising the Social Security payroll taxes and starting to save for the future challenge. Enough money now sits in the Trust Funds to get us to 2041, the program's trustees report.

That the government would someday have to "support withdrawals from the Trust Funds" hasn't been a secret for 25 years. Nor is this merely a matter of Americans repaying themselves, as many conservatives argue.

The money in the Trust Funds, Baker notes, came from the very regressive payroll tax on workers. The general funds that support the withdrawals come from the very progressive income taxes -- which also cover investment income.

What should we do about Social Security?

"I would just say, 'Let's sit on this,'" Baker answers. If come 2030 Americans see problems looming, he adds, "we can do something."

Much could change in over 20 years. Productivity gains have helped fewer workers pay for more retirees in the past and could in the future. And longer life spans may also alter the dynamics.

"How long into their lives should someone born in 2020 work?" Baker asks. "I have no idea."

If politicians want to agonize over retiree benefits, they have their hands full with Medicare. Paying for that program will be a bear of a problem. But they should keep their paws off Social Security.

Presidential candidates, please take note.

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