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Patchwork Repairs Won’t Save Social Security

Bush isn’t waiting for the ceiling to fall in

Few people care to be told that the family homestead they stand to inherit might not be standing when it’s time for them to move in–especially if they know that were likely to be true. And even if there were widening cracks in the foundation and dangerous shorts in the wiring, most of us would rather make patchwork repairs than face up to the inconvenience and expense of a major renovation. That’s just human nature. Yet the national homestead we know as Social Security desperately needs modernization if it’s going to survive and President Bush is bidding to be the prime contractor on the job. Being a practical politician, the president surely understands he faces a tough job selling this to members of Congress–from both parties. Most Americans understand that the Social Security structure designed in 1935 by Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal architects cannot accommodate the huge influx of retirees and disabled people who will need it 20 years down the road. Emotionally, though, many Americans worry about overhauling a system that has served us well for so long. President Bush is proposing that we strengthen Social Security now before it becomes a full-blown crisis. That crisis will begin next year when the first baby boomers begin to retire. It will accelerate in 2018 when Social Security payments begin to exceed the Social Security payroll taxes paid into the system. If this is allowed to go on unchecked, the system will be bankrupt by 2042 just as today’s twenty-somethings begin to retire. These are the facts and as Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, facts are hard things. Social Security is funded on a pay-as-you-go basis with payroll taxes from current workers covering the retirement payments to current retirees. There is no trust fund or bank account with tax money in it. Yet America’s retiree population is growing much faster than its working population and by mid-century there simply won’t be enough workers to support the retirees. The personal retirement accounts at the heart of the president’s modernization plan not only would save Social Security from going broke, but such accounts would harness the power of America’s free-enterprise system. Personal accounts would give younger American significant choice in how their payroll deductions are invested and allow them to build bigger nest eggs than they ever could under the present system, while leaving Social Security benefits untouched for current retirees. President Bush is proposing that up to one-third of a worker’s current 12.4% Social Security taxes could be invested in a personal retirement account. Like existing investment accounts, this personal account would be managed by professionals and would belong to the worker making the investment. Unlike standard Social Security benefits, a personal retirement account is the personal property of the retiree and can be left to the retiree’s children or grandchildren as an inheritance. While the President insists he is willing to listen to alternative plans for Social Security modernization, he has made it clear that he opposes increasing the payroll tax rates or slashing benefits. Like Ronald Reagan, he understands that Americans already are taxed enough and do not need to pay more. And like Harry Truman, President Bush understands that some houses can’t be saved without investing in a major overhaul. When Truman moved into the White House, he discovered the executive mansion was in dreadful shape. He decided to move out and order a massive renovation–a decision helped along by a consulting engineer who told him the ceiling of the state dining room was being held up largely by force of habit. President Bush isn’t waiting for the ceiling to fall in before moving to modernize Social Security. That alone should entitle him to a fair hearing from Congress and the American public.

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Written By

Mr. Lessner is a senior associate at Capital City Partners, a Washington consulting firm. He is the former executive director of the American Conservative Union and editorial pager editor of The Union Leader of Manchester, N.H., and holds a doctorate in history from Baylor University.

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