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Government & Politics
The Social Security Debate
Romney vs. Perry
The GOP presidential race this week boiled down to two words: Social Security. Specifically, which candidates have said what about the public retirement program set up by socialist Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression. The kindling has long been there for a fiery debate about the government's massive obligations to an aging population, but Texas Gov. Rick Perry's previous comments about Social Security being a "monstrous lie" and a "Ponzi scheme" lit the spark in Monday's Republican debate when several other candidates took issue with his position. So, is Social Security a Ponzi scheme?
Mitt Romney says no, and he seized the opportunity to cast the rhetoric of his main Republican rival as "over the top" and "frightful to many people." Romney warned, "If we nominate someone who the Democrats can correctly characterize as being opposed to Social Security, we would be obliterated as a party."
Frankly, both men have a point, though Romney used similar language in his own book to describe the program. Numerous figures on the Left have also over the years, dating back at least to a 1967 Newsweek column by liberal economist and Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson.
Strictly speaking, Social Security is not a Ponzi scheme, in part because it's not against the law. Indeed, it is the law. (Try not paying payroll taxes -- i.e., "investing" in the system.) But it is structured exactly like a Ponzi scheme, and it will eventually fail for the same reasons. Today's workers are paying for the checks of today's retirees, and it has always been that way. From the start, politicians have raided the Social Security "trust fund" and spent the money on other general fund projects. What was left were worthless IOUs. Now that benefits paid exceed taxes collected, that problem has become acute. According to the Social Security board of trustees, in 1945, there were 42 workers for every retiree; the current ratio of three workers to every retiree is unsustainable.
Perry later wrote a USA Today op-ed to clarify his position. He thinks Social Security must be reformed so that it can both be saved for those in and nearing retirement, as well as for younger workers. Still, Perry's problem is exactly as Romney indicated: Democrats (and apparently other Republicans) will demonize him for wanting to "destroy" Social Security. The program is still popular, and if voters think that a politician is going to take away their money, they will object vehemently. (Of course, their money has already been taken away, but that seems to escape the notice of far too many people.) Republicans have to walk the tightrope of calling for reform without being successfully demagogued.
The GOP candidates are shying away from any mention of Medicare, however, which is in far worse fiscal condition than Social Security. Annual spending on Medicare and Medicaid is now 5.5 percent of GDP, and by 2030, the Congressional Budget Office predicts that it will reach nearly 10 percent. Medicare by itself is already the biggest spender on medical services in the U.S., and that $525 billion in 2010 is influencing the market for everyone else.
Perhaps Herman Cain said it best: "I don't care what you call it, it's broken." He's right. And no matter what we call these programs, the important thing is to recognize that they will cause the nation to go broke if we don't fix them. But they can't be fixed unless conservatives win elections, and winning elections might require a more tactful approach.