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Playing Social Security poker

The Bush administration is at a crossroads when it comes to any proposed Social Security reform during this legislative term. Devoid of any written proposal, the president and other officials are intensifying their efforts to convince an increasingly skeptical public by utilizing a 60-day road show to tout the idea of private investment accounts. Perhaps the insurmountable hurdle will be to convince older Americans — those more likely to vote — that Social Security benefits will not change for them while attempting to galvanize young people, who tend toward apathy.

Common sense tells us that Americans are getting older and staying older. This demographic shift is exacerbated by the fact that the birth rate continues to decline. Simply put, as young people, we are delaying marriage and a family for career goals. This drain on the country’s entitlement programs — with some, like Medicaid, far worse-off fiscally than Social Security — will continue to require larger percentages of the federal budget to sustain them.

The problem occurs when going from the simple explanation (minus mathematical jargon) to proposals that would make Social Security more fiscally sound. The president, while adept at including Social Security reform in speeches intended to address other policy objectives, has been less successful in uniting members of Congress from his own party. Perhaps more palatable to congressional members concerned about mid-term elections, ideas are being floated to increase the income threshold required to pay Social Security taxes, raising the retirement age and even creating private accounts as an add-on to the existing program. Curiously, the administration has been silent on many of these proposals outside of its comfort zone, but as time goes on a compromise proposal seems like the only solution that will pass.

As this debate continues, a disturbing trend is the president’s ideological passion getting in the way of factual evidence. While President Bush may be mindful of how the history books will dissect his eight years in office, his idea of allowing workers to divert a portion of their Social Security taxes into some sort of investment account is nothing new. In a statement underscoring his current assertion that a Social Security “crisis” exists, Bush commented during a campaign for a House seat in 1978, and reported by the Midland Reporter-Telegram, that Social Security “will be bust in 10 years unless there are some changes.” He went on to indicate that the ideal solution was individual investment of Social Security funds.

Countering the president’s assertions, U.S. Comptroller General David Walker, in testimony before the House Way and Means Committee on Wednesday, indicated that Social Security “does not face an immediate crisis.” He did, however, state that Social Security faces long-term fiscal challenges that should be addressed sooner as to avoid more difficult decisions later.

The unavoidable truth that nobody likes to hear is that Congress and the president alike, lacking fiscal discipline, have utilized Social Security surpluses to fund general budgetary programs made worse by the aforementioned demographic shifts, and it is understood that spending habits in Washington are on a crash course with entitlement program outlays. Collectively representing young people disillusioned by this mess, Christopher Snow, a 24-year-old student and son of the current Secretary of the Treasury, commented in a Bloomberg.com piece that he and his friends don’t discuss Social Security because they “know it won’t be there for us.”

The challenge for the president, and one he hasn’t been successful in up to this point, is to empower young people to actively support his proposal at the level of those older Americans already mobilized in their opposition. Without convincing students and those just entering the workforce of their vested interest in this debate, Social Security reform will be marginalized by those with whom it will disproportionately affect.

Aaron Hill is a junior majoring in chemistry. oracleaaron@yahoo.com