By Dick Morris
March 30, 2005
The problem has always been that the president only tells us half the story. He warns us that the system is failing and trumpets the virtues of privatization, but doesn't propose any solution to the core question: the shortfall in the system's revenues.
Only by addressing this core question can he win the credibility to go on to the further diversion of revenues implicit in privatization.
But how to cut Social Security and live to tell about it? The key is choice. Lots and lots and lots of individual choice.
Call it "Designer Social Security" - create a system that gives us each options that let us create a system that is right for us.
We are all adults. We get the point that the Social Security system can't pay us the benefits now on the books with the revenues slated to flow in during the coming decades. We know that something has got to give. That's why we are hesitant to buy into privatization in the first place until Bush explains how he will solve the basic problems of the system.
So offer us options. For example:
Option B - No increase in taxes. A later retirement age. The current level of benefits.
Option C - An increase in taxes. No change in retirement age. The current level of benefits. (For those who can document higher income levels, there could be a further option of an increase in the ceiling of taxation or a raise in the rate.)
Throw the Bush choices into the mix - private investments in exchange for an added tax hike, benefit cut or increased retirement age.
The extent of the various changes should all be calibrated to achieve the central goal: solvency for Social Security.
By giving us options, we are being treated as adults, able to make our own choices. The congressional Republicans have "ruled out" a tax increase. But maybe we want one in order to get the current level of benefits. The AARP may oppose any cut in benefits or delay in the retirement age, but we may prefer that to an increase in taxes.
Give us our choices. Let us make the decision.
Why do we have to live in a world where so intimate a decision as personal retirement is made for us by government - in a one-size-for-all plan?
We each have different values that we attach to these variables. Some want to retire sooner, others later. Some need higher benefit levels than others. Some value lower payroll taxes more than the average person might.
Why not give us choices?
Of course, if Bush offers us choices, he will also escape political damage when we make the choices. It will not be by his fiat that our taxes go up or our benefits drop. It will be by our informed choice, coupled with the inexorable demographics of the retirement population and their financial impact on the Social Security system. We will accept that.
Individual choice for how to deal with Social Security's insolvency: That's how Bush can break the logjam.
Only by explaining how the system itself will survive does the president escape the suspicion of the elderly that he is planning to scuttle it.
Look for his new book, "Because He Could" about Bill Clinton.
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