December 23, 2004

No Social Security Crisis?

After a few days of traveling and Christmas-related activities, I've been trying to catch up on all the news. Garance Franke-Ruta's long TAPPED post on Social Security caught my eye especially, and deserves a read. Look, it's all well and good to say that there's no Social Security crisis—and believe me, I'll happily help pitch the tents and watch the towers here—but that message misses one key point. It's within the power of Bush and future presidents to create an imminent crisis by defaulting on the tranche of bonds owed to the Trust Fund. Doing so, assuredly, would amount to a massive transfer of wealth from lower to upper classes, but it's not that impossible to do—if anything, investors would welcome the move, because it would diminish the federal government's long-term deficits, and probably keep interest rates down.

Any Democratic strategy vis-à-vis Social Security, I think, needs to hone in on this possibility. Personally, I think Democrats should start the assault by clamoring to put the Trust Fund completely off-budget (something John McCain proposed in 2000), so as to reveal the full size of the General Fund deficit.

I wrote a piece outlining this strategy for Mother Jones, but my editors wanted to hold off on it until January, which is fine by me, because I think it could use some refining. The point is, playing defense on Social Security is really a four-step process, involving a) noting there is no crisis in Social Security, b) there is a cataclysmic crisis in the General Fund, c) unscrupulous Washington politicians could paper over the General Fund crisis by looting the Social Security Trust Fund, d) the key is to take the Trust Fund out of the grubby hands of those unscrupulous politicians. Political strategists with the skill and inclination can create the proper metaphors for all this. Meanwhile, they can tie in points about tax cuts for the rich, wild-eyed pork spending, and the need to invest into the future into this strategic backbone as they see fit. After that, they can start attacking the whole idea of private accounts in value terms, and then propose something of their own.

CLARIFICATION: Oops. Obviously Bush can't default on the Trust Fund bonds, that was sloppy on my part. But unless he drastically cuts the deficit over the next four years (a General Fund deficit that will reach $800 billion in 2008 less payroll taxes), he's making it increasingly likely that the federal government will either have to default on the Trust Fund in 2016 or risk borrowing over and above a multi-trillion debt and risking a financial crisis. (Assuming we haven't had one already.) Either way, putting the General Fund off-budget assures that no funny business ensures.
-- Brad Plumer 4:10 PM || ||