In 1980 Ronald Reagan skewered Jimmy Carter’s attack on his Medicare policies with four words: “There you go again.” Somebody—no, everybody—needs to say the same to George Bush, adding on a few words: “There you go again, trying to conjure up a Social Security crisis just like you made up an Iraq weapons of mass destruction crisis.”
You can fool us once, but you can’t fool us twice or thrice. I don’t like being lied to. It infuriates me. Understand: I like to listen to opinions that differ from mine. I was more or less happily watching Fox News yesterday while exercising on a Stairmaster at an athletic club. But three minutes before my workout was over I angrily took my headphones off.
Fox played a clip from a speech by Bush where he spoke about Social Security facing “bankruptcy.” Then footage of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid came on: “There’s no Social Security crisis,” he said. “Social Security is solvent until at least 2042.” What made me so irritated was a Fox correspondent’s comment: “Reid is wrong. In 2018 Social Security won’t be able to meet its obligations. The crisis hits in 2018, not 2042.”
Pure and simply, that’s a lie. Bush and Fox News are lying about Social Security. It’s possible that Bush truly believed that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq because the information conveyed to him by our intelligence agencies was so bad. But there’s virtually no disagreement about the actuarial facts of the Social Security trust fund.
As this TIME magazine article makes clear, what happens in 2018 is that the money paid out in benefits will begin to exceed the money collected in taxes. But this isn’t a problem because Social Security has been accumulating surpluses for decades. Those surpluses are tucked away in U.S. Treasury bonds, ready to be redeemed when baby boomers like me and Laurel are eligible for benefits.
So, where’s the problem? Salon blogger Scott Rosenburg clearly describes how Bush’s Social Security “crisis” is almost entirely self-manufactured:
“There was a federal budget surplus for a while under Bill Clinton, but George Bush decided that that money was ‘ours.’ The Feds should have been saving for that rainy-retirement day, but instead they went on a tax-break bender (and they picked and chose which of ‘us’ got the most back). So come 2018, the federal government won't have the cash on hand to make good on those trust-fund bonds.”
Here’s the bottom line: if the U.S. Government can’t come up with the cash to redeem the bonds held by Social Security, then this country is facing a full-blown catastrophe, not a mere crisis. For supposedly U.S. Treasury bonds are the safest investment in the world. Foreigners hold trillions of dollars of U.S. bonds, making us the world’s largest debtor nation. Japan alone owns $720 billion. Defaulting on these bonds would ruin the U.S. credit rating, likely setting off a worldwide economic meltdown.
If you’re Japan’s central banker, what would you think about the Bush administration saying that Social Security faces a crisis in 2018 because the government can’t afford to redeem U.S. Treasury bonds held in the trust fund?
Rosenburg says, “Try using that argument on the bank that holds your mortgage or your credit card account! ‘Oh, yeah, I know I said I'd pay that money back, but it's really just meaningless paper, you know, and I already used the money for other stuff that I believe in. We've got a crisis.’”
It wouldn’t bother me if Bush was being honest with the American people: “Back in 2000 I told you that we could have massive tax cuts and still run a budget surplus. I was wrong. I screwed up. Now we’ve got to fix things so Social Security can meet its obligations after 2018. This won’t be easy. Either benefits are going to have to be cut or taxes will have to be raised. I got us into this problem, but I’m going to need the bipartisan help of every citizen to get us out of it.”
If Bush would say that, I’d turn up the volume on Fox News rather than turn it off. I’d almost feel compassion for the guy. Heck, we all screw up. Almost all of us overdraw our checking accounts at some point, or go over our credit card limits. Honesty from Bush would beget some compassion and forgiveness.
What I can’t tolerate is being lied to. The facts about Social Security are completely at odds with the one-sided message Bush is promulgating. There isn’t a crisis; Social Security isn’t going bankrupt.
The real crisis is our President’s rapidly disintegrating credibility. The real bankruptcy is Bush’s willingness to drain his policies of any factual foundation in order to pursue self-serving ideological ends—an “ownership society” where, if the neo-conservatives have their way, our economy will be so poor there won’t be much to own.