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Third-Rail Politics | The Nation

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Third-Rail Politics

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George W. Bush has raised the stakes for Election 2000 by calling for the privatization of Social Security. He claims it is needed because, without reform, Social Security will go belly up by the middle of the century. Polls show that young Americans fear that Social Security won't be there for them.

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But reports of Social Security's demise are much exaggerated. The program ain't broke. If the economy grows in the next fifty years as fast as it has in the past fifty, Social Security will meet its commitments without reform. Even if one assumes, as the official projections do, that the economy will grow as slowly as it did in the thirties, a few very manageable changes--such as raising or eliminating the cap on earnings subject to Social Security--would fill the projected shortfall four decades from now.

Bush masks his reforms in generalities, basking in praise for his courage while ducking all specifics. But the thrust of his plan is clear. He would carve out private, individual accounts by raking off about one-sixth of Social Security payroll taxes. By definition, he would decrease shared security and increase individual risk. He would reduce the benefits guaranteed for life against inflation and increase the risks people would take in the market.

Ironically, this worsens the problem Bush purports to solve: the challenge of paying for the boomers' retirement. Bush promises that those near or in retirement will retain their guaranteed benefits. Then he takes away one-sixth of Social Security money to create private accounts for the next generation. Bush says he'll use the projected budget surplus to cover the staggering "transition costs," but with Alan Greenspan beating the economy into submission, Bush committed to a major tax cut for the country club set and more money needed to preserve and strengthen Medicare--which is the real entitlement crisis--he'll need a miracle to pay the tab.

Carving private accounts out of Social Security will hurt the widowed and the disabled, whose benefits will be cut, while the fees of Wall Street firms managing small accounts will eat up large portions of the returns working people receive on their investments. Asked if people will fare as well under his system as the current one, Bush accurately responded, "Maybe, maybe not."

Bush's handlers believe he can reassure seniors while appealing to younger voters attracted to the dot-com market. Ironically, those younger voters get the shaft under his plan--having to pay for their parents' guaranteed retirement and their own private accounts at the same time. Under most bipartisan "reform" plans, they get lower guaranteed benefits and a higher retirement age.

The issue will be a centerpiece of the campaign debate because it dovetails with the basic message that each candidate is trying to peddle. Bush presents himself as a bipartisan "reformer with results," willing to take on encrusted institutions to make needed change. And he will dismiss Gore's attacks as the bleatings of a partisan trollop willing to say anything just to get elected. For Gore, defending Social Security and Medicare is the best illustration of his pledge to "fight for you." And Bush's plan reinforces Gore's charge that the Governor represents "risk." It's easy to dismiss this as just politics, but Bush's scheme represents the most serious potential assault on Social Security since the forties. He has adopted reforms peddled not just by Republicans but by Blue Dog and New Democrats, the money wing of the party. If he is elected, they will give him bipartisan cover and possibly enough votes to actually enact this wrong-headed reform.

Bush has stepped on the third rail of American politics believing that it is no longer highly charged. For those who care about sustaining a shared security system for America's elderly, it will be important to insure that he gets burned.

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