Falsehoods underlie campaign to end Social Security

February 07, 2005|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - The plan to topple Saddam Hussein dates to the mid-1990s, when a group of neoconservatives formed a virtual government-in-exile at a think tank called the Project for a New American Century. They devised strategies, sat back and bided their time, waiting for what they called a "Pearl Harbor-type event" to provide convenient cover to invade Iraq.

The plan to topple Social Security, however, is much older - dating to the 1930s, to the very formation of the program. Conservatives have always hated it and wanted to get rid of it. So, taking the long view, they devised strategies, sat back, bided their time and waited for political circumstances to provide cover to demolish Social Security.

They have found their circumstances: the re-election of George Bush, which conservatives have claimed as a mandate to dismantle the social safety net.

As he did with the invasion of Iraq, President Bush has mounted a campaign against Social Security using half-truths, misperceptions and falsehoods. In the State of the Union speech, he declared, "By the year 2042, the entire system would be exhausted and bankrupt."

That's simply not true.

According to its actuaries - who have done a much better job over the decades in predicting the system's finances than Mr. Bush has done in predicting the deficit - Social Security will be able to pay every dime promised to beneficiaries until 2042. (The Congressional Budget Office gives it another decade.) After that, with no fixes, it will begin to run a deficit and will only be able to pay three-fourths of the benefits promised. Does that sound like "exhausted"? "Bankrupt"?

Even that crisis of diminished benefits (which won't kick in until the Bush twins are nearly old enough to collect Social Security themselves) could be headed off with a modest increase in the payroll tax, which is currently quite regressive, costing people who earn less a higher percentage of their incomes.

To gain perspective on Mr. Bush's plan to dismantle Social Security, consider the excellent historical forensics done by business writer Daniel Gross, who found a trove of hysterical predictions about Franklin D. Roosevelt's new program made by conservatives 70 years ago.

Writing recently in The New York Times, Mr. Gross quoted Silas Hardy Strawn, a former head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as calling Social Security one of many "attempts to Sovietize America." Sen. Daniel Hastings, a Republican from Delaware, said the bill's passage would "end the progress of a great country and bring its people to the level of the average European."

But conservatives are undeterred by the fact that none of their predecessors' sky-is-falling predictions came true - just as the White House is undeterred by its wrongheaded predictions about Iraq. The facts simply don't matter. They have an agenda, and they are willing to distort, conceal and misrepresent to pursue it.

Before the invasion of Iraq, Mr. Bush and his minions predicted that combat would be a cakewalk, that Mr. Hussein had not only WMD but also ties to al-Qaida, that nation-building would be paid out of Iraqi oil resources. Two years later, more than 1,400 U.S. troops are dead, there were no ties to al-Qaida, the nuclear program turns out to be in Iran, and U.S. taxpayers are paying nearly $4.5 billion a month for our presence in Iraq.

Do you dare believe them about Social Security?

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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