Paul Jacob

Like you, I'm trying to save as much money as I can. But I've got kids to feed and clothe and educate. A mortgage to pay. Still ? and don't tell anyone ? I'm getting older. And I'm certainly old enough to realize that I'm speedily approaching that age I'd like not to have to lift that bale or tote that barge ? even metaphorically.

When that time comes, I plan to continue to stand on my own two feet ? if perhaps with the assistance of a cane, or a walker, or a Segway. I want to eat the bread I've earned, and pay my own way. Not depend on the kindness of strangers, or even of my family, friends and neighbors. It would be nice to count on Social Security, into which I've paid a small fortune, but . . .

Like so many Americans who've not yet reached the quinquagenarian's respected age, I've written off the payroll taxes I've paid and continue paying, despite the fact that they could be a huge benefit to my retirement. Why?

Because I don't control that money. The politicians in Washington do.

From the very beginning of Social Security, the politicians have been investing the system's surpluses not in profit-making enterprises, like insurance companies, banks, and even lawyers running old-fashioned tontines do. Nope, they've simply borrowed the money. They've "invested it" in spending.

And soon those IOUs will come due. When that happens, Congress, which has trouble even approaching a balanced budget, much less running a surplus, will have do that very thing ? run a surplus to begin paying off its biggest creditor, the Social Security Administration ? or else do precisely what Samuelson suggests, cut benefits drastically, or else raise payroll taxes going directly into Social Security.

Think for a moment what this would mean. To run the mythical surplus in its general revenue accounting, Congress would have to cut spending or raise taxes, or both. Drastically. Considering that even in those heady few years of the Clinton administration when we talked about the return of budget surpluses, Congress did not, on net, pay off any debt, you can see how enormous the problem is.

I mean, crisis.

To call it anything else strikes me as mad as Mad's What-Me-Worry mascot. No, madder. Next to a politician, the grinning Alfred E. Neuman is the very picture of sanity and sobriety. (Sketching the character of our rulers is one of the set tasks of my Common Sense e-letter, which brings to mind more often than not the satires and buffooneries I read as a kid in Mad.)

After all, were Congress actually to do what Samuelson suggests, we'd all be Hopping Mad ? or just Voting Mad. Which even the most entrenched politicians understand is not something to want in voters hovering in the vicinity of a ballot box.

So what to do?

The answer, I think, is simple. Bite the bullet. Privatize. To the furthest extent politically feasible. Save our retirements. Save Social Security.

The key is to establish meaningful personal accounts that would, finally, establish true contracts, where the money Americans invest in their retirements belongs to them and not to the politicians in Washington.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.