The latest Social Security debate is over whether the problem with the system amounts to a crisis or is "just a problem."
It sure seemed like a crisis the way former President Bill Clinton and others have talked about fixing it ? though, amongst politicians anyway, the desire to fix Social Security has long echoed St. Augustine's prayer for chastity, a virtue best practiced in the future. Lord, help us fix Social Security. But not yet.
Then George W. Bush decided to push for a solution now. And, lo and behold, a good many politicians and interest groups now think Social Security is just a problem. Not a crisis.
In Washington, apparently mere problems don't require solutions.
Those of us advocating personal accounts for Social Security have argued that the present system is not solvent. Yes, currently, workers pay more than enough payroll taxes to cover the benefits paid out to retirees. In fact, there is a surplus that Congress borrows and spends each year. But this surplus turns into a deficit when the baby boomers retire en masse and on schedule. Soon more money will have to be paid out to retirees than is being paid in by workers.
Where will the government get the money to pay these obligations?
Enter Robert Samuelson, son of an economist (which, now that I write it, seems awfully like some sort of postmodern pejorative) and popular Washington Post columnist, who argues that the government has no Social Security obligations at all. Workers paying into Social Security are actually owed nothing, nada, zilch.
Thus, there is no solvency problem.
Samuelson's point is extraordinary . . . but true.
And in a sense, it's old news. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Flemming v. Nestor, ruled that the generational contract we know as Social Security is really not a contract at all, that regardless of what a worker has paid into Social Security, the benefits are whatever Congress decides at any given time.
So, Samuelson is as precise as a pedant. When the system runs short of cash ? and payments to retirees consume all the payroll taxes plus about half of the remaining federal budget ? Social Security can easily handle the problem by slashing your benefits to pennies on the dollar. Or Congress can sock workers by raising payroll taxes.
In other words, the government really doesn't have a Social Security problem . . . but you and I do.
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