- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 9, 2005

A common tactic in political debate is to set up “straw men” and then knock them down. It is easy to win a debate this way — assuming people believe your assertions.

“Straw men” are phony assertions about what your opponent stands for or about the policies he/she advocates. In other words — falsely assert your opponent proposes something awful — and then remind folks you stand for motherhood and apple pie.

Opponents of Social Security reform are using this tactic in an attempt to convince Americans that Social Security is in perfect shape just as it is. Or, at the very least, they are trying to persuade Americans that whatever ails Social Security can be fixed with just a few painless tweaks. The problem for reform opponents is a large majority of the electorate — especially younger workers — have concluded Social Security is headed for trouble.

President Bush resonates with these voters when he claims Social Security is nearing a crisis. His opponents loudly respond there is no crisis and that Mr. Bush is simply trying to manufacture one to frighten people into supporting reform.

Interestingly, many who today criticize Mr. Bush for using the word “crisis” today were among a chorus of supporters when President Clinton warned us about Social Security’s impending crisis seven years ago.

Frankly, I do not know how these Bush opponents define a crisis. They don’t dispute that the current system will experience a cash flow crunch by 2018 (caused by the retirement of the huge Baby Boom generation). It is also universally acknowledged that within a few short decades the system will collect enough payroll taxes to pay only 75 percent of benefits. If these statistics don’t describe a crisis in the making, I don’t know what would constitute a crisis. Obviously, acting sooner than later is the wiser course of action. That is all the president and reform advocates are trying to say.

Given that both the president and his detractors agree Social Security problems are on the horizon, you would think they would agree to put all reform options on the table in order to find a solution. Finding a reasonable solution, however, requires that options be fairly and honestly debated. Here is where the “straw men” enter the picture.

First, opponents insist reformers are out to “privatize” Social Security. They know “privatize” is a scary word, so they use it a lot. The “privatization” allegation is designed to conjure images of a program in which the federal government backs out of its role in providing a safety net for retirees. But no such thing is proposed by reformers.

Under the proposals advocated by the president and others, Social Security would remain a government program. Payroll taxes would continue to be collected by the government and used exclusively to provide retirement income. A safety net of benefits would still be guaranteed under the traditional Social Security system. Finally, only a portion of payroll taxes would be invested in personal accounts — and those would likely be managed by the government in a fashion similar to the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) now available to federal workers (including members of Congress). No one would suggest the TSP is a “privatized” retirement plan because it is not.

Second, opponents claim reformers want to place workers at risk of the stock market. Again that is not borne out by the facts. Because most reform plans are fashioned after the Federal Thrift Savings Plan, it should be clear that reformers are aware of the need to manage the risk associated with personal accounts. Under the TSP, there are a limited number of investment options (currently only five). The TSP offers mutual fund investments — broad based investment funds, either all bonds, all stocks or a little of each. None of these funds is heavily invested in any one company or any industry sector.

Third, opponents argue that reform is a Wall Street driven idea. Not so. Having worked on this issue for nearly a decade, I can report most Wall Street firms have been reluctant to engage in the debate. In fact, some investment firms are leery of personal accounts. These firms are comfortable with traditional Social Security as a bedrock upon which additional retirement investments can be built.

Frankly, the demand for reform is driven mostly by younger workers. Polls consistently show those under 50 years of age favor reform and personal accounts by a margin of 2 to 1 or even 3 to 1. Younger Americans have come to believe traditional Social Security is a Ponzi scheme in which they will end up paying a lot more and getting a lot less. They want the security of investing some of their payroll taxes in a fund they own and control.

Finally, opponents assert reformers want to “destroy” Social Security. Again, not true. Reform advocates simply do not want to wait until the crisis is upon us to fix Social Security.

Because we waited until the crisis hit before we took action, higher taxes and benefit cuts were all that could be done in 1983 (the last time we bailed out the system).

The pending problems with the current system are there for all to see. Clearly, doing nothing is not an option.

Let’s not repeat the mistake of waiting too long. It is time to earnestly begin the debate about strengthening Social Security for the future. Setting up “straw men” simply delays an honest debate — and moves us closer to a real crisis.

Timothy J. Penny, a former 12-year Democratic congressman from Minnesota, is a spokesman for the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan coalition that promotes fiscal responsibility and deficit reduction. He recently served on the bipartisan President’s Commission to Strengthen Social Security and is a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota.

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