No sale

March 06, 2005

SIX WEEKS after President Bush launched his big push for transforming Social Security with private accounts, this radical concept appears in deep trouble. The latest polls show most Americans aren't buying the president's elixir. He's even facing considerable resistance within his own party. All of this is welcome news.

The rejection so far of this bad idea goes a long way toward shoring up our faith in this nation's common sense. It didn't take long for folks to realize that beneath the allure of private accounts, the president is really selling the dissolution of a 70-year-old national insurance compact, the fast-forwarding of a couple of trillion dollars in national debt, the certainty of deep cuts in guaranteed benefits and increased individual risk.

Mr. Bush now is embarking on 60 days of barnstorming for private accounts - while such GOP shadow operatives as the Swift boaters are targeting opponents. We hope that resistance to private accounts will only build - and that the president is reminded at every turn that the really urgent fiscal problem, instead, is the crushing national budget deficits increasingly putting America in hock to the rest of the world.

Social Security does face a long-term shortfall that needs to be addressed. But shifting some workers' contributions to private accounts does absolutely nothing for that. Only cutting benefits or raising taxes helps. Mr. Bush himself recently acknowledged that the $90,000 income cap on Social Security taxation may have to be raised. Depending on the details, that tax increase alone could go a long way toward solving the problem. If nothing else comes of the president's drive for private accounts, that might be the best resolution.

Mr. Bush himself has made it nearly impossible for this nation to afford the transition to private accounts with his record first-term tax cuts. The president says he has a plan to halve the annual budget deficits during his watch, but he's excluded so many likely costs from his budget plans - the war in Iraq, for example - that hardly anyone believes him. So far, he's run up almost $1 trillion in new debt. He wants to extend his tax cuts at a likely cost of another $2 trillion over the next decade, and shifting to private accounts could cost $2 trillion or more.

The debate now ought not to be about whether to take on more debt to finance private Social Security accounts, but about America's growing global vulnerabilities because of its mounting debt. Just the other day, South Korean central bankers gave Washington a fright by indicating they might stop buying U.S. Treasuries. U.S. foreign borrowing has ballooned so much that fears are rising around the world that even a small shift like that could trigger a destructive collapse of the falling dollar.

Mr. President, let's first set about fixing that fundamental problem before it explodes - and then let's talk about the lesser problem of repairing Social Security.

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