So what's the big deal about Social Security?

March 09, 1997|By Dave Barry | Dave Barry,Knight-Ridder News Service

I've been thinking about how to fix Social Security. Ordinarily, I focus on issues such as how to remove little pieces of pepperoni stuck between my teeth, and I leave government problems to the trained professionals in Washington (motto: "Overlooking The Obvious Since 1798").

But they are frankly not getting the job done. President Clinton hasn't had time, what with all these pesky scandals, which have forced him to scale down his vision for his second term from "build a bridge to the 21st century" to "settle out of court."

Congress has also been busy, focusing its brainpower on the scandal swirling around House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was formally accused by members of the House Ethics Committee of reminding them of the Pillsbury Doughboy.

No, sorry, I'm confusing the House Ethics Committee with me. Newt was accused of violating the tax laws. Now you may say, in Newt's defense: "But everybody violates the tax laws. The whole point of the U.S. tax system is to be so complicated that no normal human can conform to it, or even think about it for more than 10 seconds without bleeding from the forehead. This system enables the Internal Revenue Service to select random taxpayers for audit with 100 percent confidence that they will be guilty of something, even if they live in isolated wilderness areas and measure their annual income in squirrel meat."

Yes, but Newt is not a "normal human." Newt is a member of Congress, the very organization, if you want to call it that, that passes the tax laws, and he is therefore theoretically supposed to have some idea what they say. Of course, the truth is that the congresspersons are too busy raising campaign money to read the laws they pass. The laws are written by staff tax nerds who can put pretty much any wording they want in there. I bet that if you actually read the entire vastness of the U.S. Tax Code, you'd find at least one sex scene.

My point is that our leaders, what with one thing and another, do not have time for leading, which leaves the Social Security problem up to me.

First, we need to clear up a misconception.

Many Americans believe that Social Security works this way: The government takes money out of your paycheck, keeps it for you in a safe place such as a giant federal mattress, then, when you retire, starts giving it back to you. If that's how you think it works, then let me quote the famous French economist Francois Quesnay (1694-1774): "Ding dong, you're wrong."

What actually happens is, the government takes money out of your paycheck and immediately gives it to a retired person (in your particular case, this person is Mrs. Edwina P. Loogersnapper of Yeasting Springs, Vt.; she says "hi").

This system works fine as long as there are enough younger people working to support the retired people. But there's going to be Big Trouble in the year 2012, which is the first retirement year of the massive baby-boom generation (defined, technically, "people who, when you say, 'Shirley, Shirley, bo-berly,'

instantly respond, 'Bonana fanna fo-ferley' "). There will be way too many of us baby boomers collecting benefits, and way too few "Generation X" workers to support us, unless they are forced to pay ridiculously high tax rates, and Social Security will collapse like a Wal-Mart lawn chair under Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. (Get it? "D-Mass.")

What can we do? One solution would be to reduce Social Security benefits, but this is out of the question because of the powerful senior-citizen lobby. If any politician dares to even talk about cutbacks, the American Association of Retired Persons notifies the politician's mother, and she immediately flies to Washington, marches into his or her office and twists his or her ear until he or she promises never to do it again.

So if we can't cut benefits, what can we do? Unfortunately, there is no one easy answer. There are in fact four easy answers:

1. Go ahead and force Generation X workers to pay ridiculously high tax rates -- they deserve it, for starting this stupid cigar craze.

2. Set a mandatory five-year-minimum prison sentence for any person convicted of using Social Security benefits to make a purchase from the home shopping network. The minimum sentence would be increased to 10 years if the purchase involved a ceramic cat.

3. Do not give Social Security benefits to people who spend the equivalent of the gross national product of Chile trying to look as though they're too young to qualify for Social Security. This would be called the "Zsa Zsa" rule.

4. Reduce the expected crush in the year 2012 by allowing baby boomers to retire early, going in alphabetical order, starting with the letter "B." See you on the shuffleboard court.

Pub Date: 3/09/97

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