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Touching the ‘third rail’

“We have not had the courage to stand up and look Americans in the face,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry said when he was asked about Social Security at the Republican presidential candidates’ debate this week. “It has been called a Ponzi scheme by many people long before me. But no one’s had the courage to stand up and say, ‘Here is how we’re going to reform it.’”|By Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times

“We have not had the courage to stand up and look Americans in the face,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry said when he was asked about Social Security at the Republican presidential candidates’ debate this week. “It has been called a Ponzi scheme by many people long before me. But no one’s had the courage to stand up and say, ‘Here is how we’re going to reform it.’”

Including, it turns out, Rick Perry. In all the sound and fury over Social Security over the last few weeks, the Texas governor has never actually spelled out how he would fix the program. Nor have most of the other candidates who trumpet their purported courage in saying that Social Security is in trouble.

That’s what’s been wrong with the noisy GOP “debate” on our national pension plan. It’s been all chest-thumping and Ponzi-scheming ó lots of attitude but little substance. It’s provided little clarity for voters who want to know what these potential presidents would do if elected.

Not that President Obama has done much better; he’s tiptoed around endorsing specific proposals too.
If Social Security is no longer the third rail of American politics (meaning “fatal to anyone who touches it”), somebody forgot to tell our leading politicians.

In fact, it doesn’t take much courage to tell voters that Social Security faces a fiscal squeeze. They know that already. Poll after poll shows most voters have absorbed the message that the program is “heading for a crisis” unless changes are made. More than 80 percent agreed with that description in one survey this year.

The reason is well known too: Social Security uses taxes paid by current workers to pay retirees, and after millions of baby boomers retire, there will be fewer workers paying in for every retiree who’s taking out.

Does that make Social Security a Ponzi scheme? Not really. Unlike a Ponzi scheme, Social Security is open about how it works: Anyone who’s paying attention knows it’s a pay-as-you-go system. And unlike a Ponzi scheme, Social Security should be pretty easy to fix.

At some point ó currently estimated at 25 years from now, in 2036 ó Social Security will be able to pay only 77 percent of the benefits it has promised. It won’t be flat broke, but it will be like a bankrupt company, able to keep operating but unable to pay all of its bills.

It’s not hard to figure out how to fix that. You can raise taxes, or reduce future benefits, or do some of each. Democrats tend to lean toward tax increases, and Republicans tend to lean toward benefit trims ó when they’re willing to admit that they have any thoughts on the issue, that is.

That’s where courage comes in. The hard part, for politicians, is telling voters what painful steps they back, which means spelling out who would pay what share of the cost.

Perry hasn’t done that. Instead, the Texas governor started out with a position that was radical but clear: He said it was a mistake to enact Social Security and Medicare in the first place and implied that both should be dismantled.

“Why is the federal government even in the pension program or the healthcare delivery program?” he asked in a television interview last year. “Let the states do it.”

After his position drew fire in the last few weeks from candidate Mitt Romney, Perry backtracked. “America’s goal must be to fix Social Security by making it more financially sound,” he wrote in an op-ed for USA Today. How? He didn’t say.

Then, in Monday’s debate in Tampa, Fla., Perry tried to have it both ways. He promised that Social Security will be there for the elderly ó “slam dunk guaranteed” ó except he’d still like to think about replacing it. “The issue is: Are there ways to move the states into Social Security for state employees or for retirees?” he asked.

Romney, to his credit, has been more specific ó and more consistent. In his pre-campaign book, he endorsed two basic options for fixing Social Security: increasing the retirement age and reducing future benefits for upper-income earners. He rejected raising taxes. (Romney also said he favors individual retirement accounts, a perennial GOP idea, but individual accounts wouldn’t fix the system’s current fiscal problems.)

In his book, Romney made a sustained argument for raising the retirement age ó a measure that is, in effect, a benefit cut for anyone whose eligibility is delayed. But polls have shown that raising the retirement age is unpopular. That may be a reason you haven’t heard Romney talk much about his proposals; he’d rather talk about Perry’s instead.
What about Obama?

In his 2008 campaign, the president offered a traditional Democratic solution to the problem: raise payroll taxes on upper-income workers. “I believe that cutting benefits is not the right answer, and that raising the retirement age is not the best option,” he said then. And that’s about as specific as he’s been.

Last year, the co-chairmen of Obama’s own deficit-reduction commission, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, proposed a plan with options from both sides of the menu: increase payroll taxes, raise the retirement age, reduce future benefits for high-income earners and trim cost-of-living increases for current recipients.

The reactions were predictable. Democrats howled at the idea of trimming current benefits. Republicans dismissed the idea of increasing taxes. A few hardy politicians in the center praised the proposal, but none of them were running for president. Obama thanked Simpson and Bowles for their work, but he didn’t endorse their plan.

If we fix Social Security between now and 2036, the solution is likely to look something like what Simpson and Bowles proposed ó after suitable wrangling over how big each component should be.

Meanwhile, let’s have a truce on calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme, promising voters that benefits will never be cut, or claiming that it takes courage to talk about the subject at all.

Most Americans already agree that Social Security needs to be fixed. The courage will come in showing them how.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at

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