"It ain't what people don't know that's so dangerous," Will Rogers once famously remarked, "it's what people know -- that just ain't so." The administration of the younger Bush does its best to see that people "don't know" many things. About Social Security, though, Bush and those in his administration work hard to see that people do know things. Unfortunately, they are things that "just ain't so."
For the first time since President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935, America has a president who is using the power of the bully pulpit to serve those who are dedicated to destroying Social Security (although in language reminiscent of Vietnam he speaks of "saving" the system). Precisely why Bush is obsessed with privatization, or "personal accounts," we cannot know, but we can clearly see that his arguments make no sense. They make Americans nervous -- even many Republicans -- as well they should.
Bush says, for example, that the system will have to borrow huge amounts sometime in the distant future. To prevent that, he insists, inexplicably, we need to borrow huge amounts right now. He says the trust funds will be unable to pay full benefits in 2041. Therefore, he says, as soon as possible we must divert money away from the trust funds into personal accounts. Bush says the system is in crisis and will be unable to provide assistance to future retirees. The truth is that Social Security is the most solvent and dependable part of the government. Yet, because of the tax cuts he pressed for that primarily benefit the wealthy, every other part of the federal government is running at a deficit except for Social Security.
Social Security is a true success story. The system operates with unparalleled efficiency, returning more than 99 cents in benefits for every dollar that it takes in. Its administrative costs are far lower than those in any private program, or in any other government program. The trust fund contains not billions of dollars, but trillions, and is still growing. There is no funding crisis here.
Even its opponents admit that Social Security will be generating huge surpluses for many years to come. Despite this, Bush tries to frighten the American people by saying that the "crisis" is with Social Security, not with the enormous shortfalls that are here and now in the rest of his budget, deficits that are building up an astronomical national debt.
There may be a shortage in the trust fund at some distant future date, but not of the magnitude Bush claims and that his potentially dangerous policies therefore seek to remedy. Any funding problems that Social Security might at some future point really have are trivial, can be easily remedied (I provide a plan to do just this), and pale into insignificance compared to the horrendous financial crisis our president and his associates are creating in our government as a whole. If there is a flaw in the system it is one the president does not address: the regressive nature of the withholding tax. I will shortly suggest a simple reform that can correct this deficiency.
During long years in the Congress and as the presidential nominee of my party, I learned that nearly all successful government programs, or for that matter private industry programs, require a little fine tuning from time to time. So it is with Social Security. But there is no crisis here and there won't be at any future time. No American Congress will ever permit this essential part of our lives to go on the rocks. Congress members are not eager to commit political suicide.
Excerpted from the new book, Social Security and the Golden Age: An Essay on the New American Demographic, by George McGovern, published by Fulcrum Publishing, available in your local bookstore or at www.fulcrumbooks.com