Tuesday, January 18, 2005

On the Sunday talk shows, the Democrats had their Social Security talking points in order. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid was emphatic. “We have no crisis,” he said. Ted Kennedy, the ranking member on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, charged: “[I]t seems that [the Bush] administration tries to make a crisis on any political problem. … So, now we have the crisis in terms of the funding for Social Security that is non-existent.” Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who served in the Clinton White House, said: “[I]f you want to use the word ‘crisis’ that we have today, it applies to the fact that people do not have retirement plans on top of Social Security.”

As President Bush prepares for his second inaugural, it is worth considering what the last two-term president, Bill Clinton, thought about the financial condition of the retirement program. On Feb. 9, 1998, Mr. Clinton delivered a speech at Georgetown University devoted to “sav[ing] Social Security for the 21st century” and explaining “why it is so important” to do so.

Referring to a then-recent poll revealing that “young people in the generation of the students here felt it was far more likely that they would see a UFO than that they would draw Social Security,” Mr. Clinton warned seven years ago about “the looming fiscal crisis in Social Security.” He acknowledged to the students that “every one of you know that the Social Security system is not sound for the long term.”

Elaborating, Mr. Clinton argued: “This fiscal crisis in Social Security affects every generation. We know that the Social Security trust fund is fine for another few decades. But if it gets in trouble and we don’t deal with it, then it not only affects the generation of the baby boomers … when they retire; it [also] raises the question of whether they will have enough to live on by unfairly burdening their children, and, therefore, unfairly burdening their children’s ability to raise their grandchildren.” What did Mr. Clinton think about this? “That would be unconscionable,” he said, “especially since, if you move now, we can do less and have a bigger impact.” That was seven years ago.

Mr. Clinton then listed the consequences of failing to address “the looming fiscal crisis in Social Security.” Addressing the students, he said: “If [we] don’t do anything, one of two things will happen — either [Social Security] will go broke and you won’t ever get [the benefits you are promised]. Or if we wait too long to fix it, the burden on society of taking care of [the baby boomers’] Social Security obligations will lower your income and lower your ability to take care of your children to a degree most of us who are your parents think would be horribly wrong and unfair to you and unfair to the future prospects of the United States.”

Back to you, Messrs. Reid, Kennedy and Emanuel.

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