Silence on Social Security

Baby boomers are driving it toward insolvency, but politicians don't like to talk about it

October 28, 2007|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun reporter

WASHINGTON -- If you haven't heard of a Maryland woman named Kathy Casey-Kirschling, you will.

The federal government picked her as the nation's first baby boomer (she's said to have been born one second past midnight on New Year's Day, 1946) and started giving her publicity.

Recently, the Social Security Administration posted a YouTube video of Casey-Kirschling applying for old-age benefits. Viewers of "First Baby Boomer files for Social Security" can watch her put on reading glasses. But, so far, fewer than 1,000 people have.

By comparison, the trailer for Repo! The Genetic Opera, a film that features Paris Hilton, got more than 300,000 views in a single day last week.

There might not be much sex appeal in the retirement of 80 million baby boomers. But it has the potential to blow a giant hole in the U.S. economy, and to lower living standards for future generations, if nothing is done to fix the problems it will cause.

In Washington, "nobody's even talking about it, because there are no good options," says Republican Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia. "You are either cutting somebody's benefits or raising somebody's taxes."

Davis, one of his party's best strategists, thinks voters might actually reward candidates who are bold enough to propose solutions to the nation's deep-seated economic problems, as Nicolas Sarkozy did in this year's French presidential campaign.

But so far, they seem to be doing their best to avoid them. When AARP held a Republican debate last week about the nation's fiscal future, only Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee showed up.

In primary appeals to their party's base, Republicans are swearing off any tax increases and Democrats are promising more in benefits, not less. Analysts who track fiscal issues worry that nothing will change once the general election campaign starts, or even after the next president takes office.

If so, it will fit a trend. Failure to repair the problems caused by their generation's mere existence has become a defining trait of baby boom politicians.

President Bill Clinton was too busy dealing with Monica Lewinsky and the aftermath to get anything done. His wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, argues that the Clinton administration was pulling the government out of the debt hole that Ross Perot made a centerpiece of the 1992 campaign, but most economists say the country can't grow its way out of the problem.

President Bush signed into law the largest expansion in Medicare's history, an expensive prescription drug benefit, that is making fiscal matters worse. At the same time, by calling for partial privatization of the government retirement program - and getting elected, twice - he disproved the old notion that Social Security is the third rail of American politics (touch it and you die).

That lesson seems to have been lost on the 2008 candidates, who are ducking any talk about reforming programs that benefit seniors.

"They're afraid that it'll blow up in their face. Like defusing a bomb, it has to be handled with care. But if you don't defuse it, it's going to blow up," says Robert Bixby of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group that is part of a "Fiscal Wake Up Tour" for voters in early primary states. (Tomorrow, it will be at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.)

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has tried to play down the problems of Social Security, noting that the program isn't in crisis yet.

If elected, she says, she'd delegate the issue to a commission like the one that produced the last Social Security overhaul, in 1983. But she has already taken two options - private accounts and benefit cuts - off the table.

Isabel V. Sawhill, a budget and welfare specialist at the liberal Brookings Institution, says, "It's one thing not to address options, in the sense of not having a specific proposal. It's another thing to tie your own hands, so that it's going to be more difficult to deal with the problem."

In a recent conversation with an Iowa voter, overheard by an Associated Press reporter, Clinton said she was open to modifying the cap on Social Security taxes, an idea embraced by other Democratic candidates, including Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Wealthier Americans currently get a break on Social Security taxes, which are limited, this year, to the first $97,500 of wages.

There seems to be no enthusiasm in either party for reducing the future cost of Social Security by raising the retirement age, even though Americans are living longer than ever. It was last increased, from 65 to 67, along with Social Security taxes, as part of the 1983 deal that President Ronald Reagan signed into law.

Some Republican candidates are supporting a change in the way Social Security benefits are calculated. By basing annual inflation adjustments on prices, rather than wages, the size of future benefit increases would be reduced, along with the program's cost.

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