- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2000

We will know tonight the outcome of the presidential election, but we already know Al Gore is willing to lie for political gain. His attacks against Gov. George W. Bush's Social Security reform plan have been based on deliberate misstatements and falsehoods. More specifically, there is no truth to the accusation that benefits for senior citizens will be threatened if younger workers are allowed to shift some portion of their payroll tax to an individual account. Likewise, it is equally disingenuous to argue that "privatization" is an untested scheme.

The vice president and his multimillionaire elitist Hollywood allies like Ed Asner have been trying to scare senior citizens by telling them Mr. Bush's plan will reduce their benefits since $1 trillion will be diverted to personal accounts over the next 10 years (actually, we have no idea of the actual amount, but we will accept this fib for the sake of argument).

This assertion is untrue for two reasons. First, benefits are an entitlement and each senior's retirement check is determined by a formula based on career earnings, not how much in payroll taxes is collected in any given year. Those benefit amounts for seniors can only be changed if the benefit formula is altered something Mr. Bush explicitly has stated he will not support.

The second reason Mr. Gore's assertion is false is best characterized as a sin of omission. By arguing that a plan to create personal retirement accounts is bad because payroll taxes are diverted from Social Security, the vice president clearly implies his plan (or lack thereof, to be more accurate) will ensure that those taxes are used to pay benefits. That is a demonstrably false assertion. When Social Security collects more money than is needed to pay benefits as is the case for the next 14 years, the surplus is not saved for Social Security. Instead, the extra payroll tax revenues are spent on other government programs or used to pay down debt. In exchange, the Social Security Trust Fund gets an IOU.

What about Mr. Gore's assertion that Social Security reform is an untested scheme? This is an amazing claim. There are now about two dozen nations around the world that have created personal retirement accounts and the number keeps growing. The media tried to create a controversy because Mr. Bush did not know the names of some obscure foreign leaders, but this is trivial compared to the fact the vice president does not know (or at least pretends not to know) that Social Security privatization has been occurring all over the planet.

Is he unaware that the Labor Party in Australia privatized its Social Security system? Does he not realize that Poland and Hungary have created personal retirement accounts? Is the vice president unfamiliar with the eight nations in Latin America that have replicated Chile's successful private retirement system? Does he know Red China is allowing Hong Kong to set up a system of individual retirement accounts (surely that topic was raised at one of his fund-raising meetings)? What about Sweden? Kazakhstan? Great Britain?

The answer, of course, is that the vice president must know about the global revolution in Social Security modernization. He simply chooses to ignore reality because it interferes with political ambition. More accurately, he has decided to misstate reality.

Some observers have been more sympathetic to the vice president, arguing that perhaps he does not understand the issue. Citing his academic troubles in both divinity school and law school, they hypothesize that Mr. Gore simply is unaware he has been lying about his opponent's proposal.

Regardless of Mr. Gore's acumen, this is not a plausible defense. One does not rise to the level of vice president without a certain level of aptitude. Moreover, it is unambiguously clear there are plenty of astute campaign advisers surrounding Mr. Gore, at least one of whom must have warned him that his statements were untrue. Another common excuse for the vice president's prevarication is that "everyone does it." This is an appealing (sort of) defense. After all, it is hard to think of a completely honest politician. Yet there is a difference between routine campaign exaggerations and outright lies. A good analogy is consumer advertising. If a potato chip commercial asserts that brand X is the best-tasting chip, we instinctively realize this is a subjective claim, and that knowledge is factored in to our decision of what product to buy. But if the same company advertised that their chips sold for 88 cents a bag when the actual price was $1.20, we know they have crossed the line. Mr. Gore, needless to say, falls into this latter category. Sadly, the media have largely failed to perform their role in this campaign. Instead of exposing Mr. Gore's falsehoods, they acted as co-conspirators. That, however, is a topic for another day.

Daniel J. Mitchell is the McKenna senior fellow in political economy at the Heritage Foundation.

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