Toying with Fate
   by Gene Lyons

Every successful politician is part actor, and every successful actor
part confidence man. Some fake piety, others humility, compassion,
courage, etc. The list of make-believe character traits essential to
winning elections is potentially endless. Opponents always think they
see through the act, but there’s real danger only when the mask slips
while everybody’s paying attention. Bill Clinton got caught lying about
sex, a topic of universal interest. But it was really his arrogance that
he could talk his way out of anything that hurt him among his
supporters. Now George W. Bush is toying with fate by playing fast and
loose with another topic of near-universal interest: money, and people’s
perception of their personal security.

The more the administration says about its preposterous Social Security
"reforms," the less sense they make. Even in "red" states like Montana and
Alabama, suspicion is growing that Bush’s own arrogance makes him think
he can sell any brand of snake oil he chooses. Here’s the White House
transcript of Bush explaining his plan in Tampa during last week’s
Magical Mystery Tour:

"Because the—all which is on the table begins to address the big
cost drivers. For example, how benefits are calculate, for example,
is on the table; whether or not benefits rise based upon wage increases
or price increases. There’s a series of parts of the formula that are
being considered. And when you couple that, those different cost
drivers, affecting those—changing those with personal accounts,
the idea is to get what has been promised more likely to be —or
closer delivered to what has been promised."

Does that make any sense to you? It’s kind of muddled. Look, there’s a
series of things that cause the—like, for example, benefits are calculated
based upon the increase of wages, as opposed to the increase of prices.
Some have suggested that we calculate—the benefits will rise based upon
inflation, as opposed to wage increases. There is a reform that would help
solve the red if that were put into effect. In other words, how fast benefits
grow, how fast the promised benefits grow, if those—if that growth is
affected, it will help on the red. "

Got that? Muddled would be a kind description. What Bush is trying to
say is that he’d change part of Social Security from a" defined benefit"
plan, basically a universal insurance policy against disaster, to a
"defined contribution" plan in which what you get depends upon how your
investments do. In short, yet another GOP save-the-millionaires scheme.

Also in Tampa, a young man appearing on-stage with Bush dutifully opined
that his generation doesn’t expect Social Security to survive. "When I
was 27 years old," the president commented, "I don’t remember anybody
talking about whether the system is going to be there."

According to USA Today, when Bush ran for Congress in Midland, Texas, in
1978, he predicted Social Security’s imminent bankruptcy and advocated
privatization. He was 32. Of course, he was still drinking in those days,
so maybe he forgot.

What we have here, citizens, is a fake crisis concocted out of ideological zeal
said zeal being the rationalized product of astonishing greed. Think I exaggerate?
Well, last week a so-called senior administration official came close to saying
that the government might default on the Social Security Trust Fund.

Composed of "special issue" Treasury bonds, the fund consists of accumulated
payroll tax surpluses collected since 1983. By 2018, when it’s expected to be
needed, it will have accumulated roughly $3.7 trillion, enough to fund the system
through 2052 with no changes. For years, tycoon funded think tanks like the
Heritage Foundation have described those bonds as meaningless IOUs.

Now the White House seems to agree. Responding to a reporter’s question,
the official noted that "the Congressional Budget Office... made a modification
to what they had previously said about what current law was. And they made it
very clear that current law is actually the level of benefits the current system can
actually pay, as opposed to the level of benefits the current system is promising....
[S] tarting in 2019 or 2020, the resources are not there to pay those benefits."
(My emphasis.)

Why not? When Bush pledged during his first State of the Union message in 2001,
that "my budget protects all $2.6 trillion of the Social Security surplus for Social
Security, and for Social Security alone," did he have his fingers crossed? Since then,
Bush has raised federal spending by one-third while income tax cuts mostly benefiting
the very wealthy have reduced government income to the lowest percentage of Gross
Domestic Product since the 1950s. He’s vowed to make those tax cuts "permanent"
(whatever that means in American politics). Would he default on the trust fund and
borrow trillions more to set up so-called personal retirement accounts? He just might,
except it appears that the public may be finally catching on.

• Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient
of the National Magazine Award.

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