Who knew that one of the last stops on President Bush's 60-day Social Security road show would be the East Room of the White House?
During Bush's April 28 prime-time news conference -- the first of his second term -- the president continued to do his Social Security bait-and-switch routine, but so flagrantly that the general public is beginning to notice. First he claimed: ''When the baby boomers start retiring in three years, Social Security will start heading toward the red. In 2017, the system will start paying out more in benefits than it collects in payroll taxes. Every year after that, the shortfall will get worse, and by 2041 Social Security will be bankrupt.'' And, he continued, ''Any reform of Social Security must replace empty promises being made to younger workers with real assets, real money.'' Later he explained, ''And all that's left behind is file cabinets full of IOUs.''
But, when extolling his plans for privatization, Bush said, ''I know some Americans have reservations about investing in the stock market, so I propose that one investment option consist entirely of Treasury bonds, which are backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government."
Those must be the good government bonds -- the ones that China buys so many of -- whereas Social Security only gets the bad Treasury bonds -- the ones that are merely ''IOUs.''
And, it is no one's definition of bankruptcy -- not even the new business-friendly bankruptcy law just enacted -- that Social Security will be bankrupt in 2041 when -- if nothing changes -- it will be able to pay out only about 70 percent-plus of promised benefits. Creditors will not drive you into bankruptcy court if you can pay 72 cents on the dollar.
Then, President Bush put forth the so-called means-tested benefit reduction scheme, proposed by Robert Pozen, head of MFS, a large mutual fund company. It is one of the under-reported realities of Bush's privatization scheme that Wall Street firms are not interested in handling the stock accounts of low-income workers. They want to deal with real money, from middle to upper-class-income workers' contributions.
Many of the reporters went into a swoon over the notion that Bush wants to give to the poor and stick it to the rich with his means-testing scheme. This proposal should seem familiar, though, because all along it has been half of Bush's privatization scheme. His plan requires lowering benefits and forcing workers to make up the difference with so-called private accounts.
Bush's version of the Pozen plan leaves lowest-wage workers' benefits right where they would be -- benefits for the poor will not ''rise faster,'' as reported -- under the current system. That avoids the bureaucratic hassle of dealing with their puny private accounts and leaves the higher-income workers with decreased benefits, and therefore eager, the White House presumes, for private accounts. Bush wants the cuts as much as the accounts.
The benefit cuts are the stick; the private accounts are the carrot. Congress will not lower benefits without offering a fig leaf, and the ballyhooed possibility of making money in the stock market serves that purpose.
Bush's Social Security push is yet another version of his tax policy. He wants to reduce the amount the wealthy pay. Private accounts likely will help only upper-income Americans, financial firms and their shareholders, Bush's base.
When it sinks in that every worker above the $25,000 cutoff will receive reduced benefits, the Bush/Pozen plan will go nowhere. But there might be an unintended consequence. The large majority of those above the cutoff who stand to lose so much down the road might find it more palatable to accept small tax increases in the future -- by raising the income cap, now $90,000, that is subject to FICA taxes.
The cap could increase gradually over time, thereby taking care of whatever solvency problem the Bush/Pozen plan claims to fix. But President Bush says: Read my statements: No new taxes.
If nothing is done and there is a shortfall in 2041 -- by no means a certainty if the economy improves -- just redistribute the predicted 28 percent reduction of benefits that may occur. Let the wealthy absorb the cuts. If Bush really means, ''Take it from the rich,'' take it then, not now.
Copyright © The Sun-Times Company