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In a word, demagoguery
Scripps Howard News Service


May 04, 2005

Despite political risks up to his eyebrows, President Bush has spelled out an additional means by which Social Security can be saved and sustained, and what response did we get from congressional Democrats?

Demagoguery, in a word. Dishonest demagoguery, in two words. Irresponsible, dishonest demagoguery in three.

The demagoguery starts with the scare tactic of telling people Bush wants to cut benefits to the middle class, as Nancy Pelosi, Democratic leader of the House, said in an interview on ABC with George Stephanopoulos.

"I don't know what the middle class ever did to President Bush, but he has it in for them," she intoned, as if the president would soon be out torching homes in middle-class neighborhoods.

The fact is, the president proposed to have benefits for all categories of recipients grow, only he wants benefits to grow less quickly for those who need those benefits least. He would accomplish this end by tying increases for the best-off among us to inflation and for the poorest among us to both inflation and wages. Even decades from now, middle-class recipients will be getting just as much as today relative to the cost of living, although less than if the present formula stayed intact.

If Pelosi doesn't understand as much, she should, and she surely can't be so ill-informed as to believe that "the Social Security trust fund will be able to pay 100 percent of benefits until the year 2052," as she also said to Stephanopoulos, citing the Congressional Budget Office as her source.

Crunch time is just 12 years off. That's when income from the payroll tax will be insufficient to pay the benefits. I recently heard a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation explain that the shortfall in 2017 will go as high as $18 billion, will go up to $30 billion the next year, then to about $100 billion in another few years, then five years later, to about $200 billion. In constant dollars, the shortfall over the next three-quarters of a century will be on the order of $27 trillion.

That's real money, and here is where you are not going to find it: the Social Security "trust fund." When people talk about the trust fund and bonds and interest on the bonds, they are referring to an unfunded liability, to what amounts to IOUs, to money that the federal government owes Social Security but will have to repay through such a device as borrowing, as Pelosi herself indicated in later comments in the ABC interview. When you say something one minute and something contrary the next, that's called dishonesty.

Which brings us to irresponsibility. To fix Social Security, you will have to resort to ever-higher taxes, ever-higher deficit spending, cut other government programs drastically _ or else you will have to adjust the future benefit structure. Pushed on ABC to give the Democratic solution, Pelosi ducked, dodged, danced and did back-flips, neglecting to provide an answer. On Fox News, Chris Wallace sought to get Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to answer the question, and Leahy could come up with nothing better than wanting to "sit down and have a true bipartisan negotiation."

To put it differently, no comment, or at least no meaningful comment that deals with some tough realities, engages in a thoughtful, good-faith debate with the president and that thereby does right by the American people. Bush's latest plan can be challenged on a variety of grounds, but would begin to close the gap between Social Security income and outgo without calamitous taxing or borrowing or pain to the poor.

It also points to policy principles that could help address Medicare and other entitlements for the elderly as we slowly become a nation of Floridas, to use a demographic description I once ran across. Given the dramatic change in the shrinking proportion of young workers to retired workers, we will ultimately be impoverishing the young to benefit the elderly unless something gives. The president's proposal for individual retirement accounts will have a host of benefits, but won't be near enough to do the financial job even in the long run.

The Democratic game is to score political points to the detriment of George Bush, but the game is also to the detriment of a program serving millions of the elderly, to the detriment of future generations and to the detriment of solving what could be the largest domestic issue of the century, entitlements for the elderly.


Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)

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