No one seems to have a very clear idea how the Bush administration and its supporters intend to reform Social Security, as this article by Richard W. Stevenson of The New York Times indicates. Borrowing large amounts of money figures into most plans, needless to say:
Proponents say the necessary amount of borrowing could vary widely, from hundreds of billions to trillions of dollars over a decade, depending on how much money people are permitted to contribute to the accounts and whether the changes to Social Security include benefit cuts and tax increases.
Borrowing by the government could be necessary to establish the personal accounts because of the way Social Security pays for benefits. Under the current system, the payroll tax levied on workers goes to benefits for people who are already retired. Personal accounts would be paid for out of the same pool of money; they would allow workers to divert a portion of their payroll taxes into accounts invested in mutual funds or other investments.
The money going into the accounts would therefore no longer be available to pay benefits to current retirees. The shortfall would have to be made up somehow to preserve benefits for people who are already retired during the transition from one system to the other, and by nearly all estimates there is no way to make it up without relying at least in part on government borrowing.
Mr. Bush and Republicans in Congress have paid little political price in the last four years for the swing from budget surpluses to deficits. But some polls show that Americans consider reducing the deficit to be a higher priority than many other goals, including cutting taxes, and embracing a new round of borrowing could pose political as well as economic risks.
A reasonable amount of borrowing now, the proponents say, would avert a much bigger financial obligation decades later. They say personal accounts would yield higher returns for individuals than the current system and could be a catalyst to broader changes that would bring the benefits promised by Social Security into line with what the system, which is also about to come under intense financial strain from the aging of the baby boom generation and the increase in life expectancies, can afford to pay.
Mr. Bush has vowed to push hard to remake Social Security. Republicans in Congress say the White House has signaled to them that Mr. Bush will put the issue at the top of his domestic agenda in the coming year.
But the White House has never answered fundamental questions about Mr. Bush's plan. In particular, it has not explained how it would deal with the financial quandary created by its call for personal accounts.
Too bad that federal budget surplus that Clinton bequeathed to Bush mysteriously disappeared not too long ago, huh?