America's public pension system is like a secular religion - with two sharply different creeds.
One side of the schism, the social orthodox, says there's nothing wrong with Social Security that a small ratcheting up of taxation can't fix.
The other side, the arithmetic reformers, says that after six decades the national pension system needs to be modernized to keep abreast of the times. That means the demographic times and the actuarial times.
An ever-rising tax
There can be no doubt that in six decades workers paying for SS have dwindled in relation to retirees. A graphic measure of this change is the rise in payroll tax from 1 percent to 12.4 percent.
Longevity of pensioners has further changed the balance. Active worker "children" have to pay for their pensioner "parents" over many more years than in the 1930s.
So, statistically, there can be little doubt that the reformers creed has a point. When the big boomer generation moves into retirement in the second-to-fourth decades of the new century - and lives more years on SS - its less numerous working children will bear a bigger tax burden. Their productivity - and wealth - may rise to help. But prudence calls for examining other solutions.
Weak points in the safety net
Even the social orthodoxy creed's laudable desire to retain the social safety net intent of SS for poor retirees calls for some mending.
Many retirement age women do not benefit as much as men because their payroll careers are shorter (meaning smaller SS checks) and their pension longevity longer (more years living on smaller checks).
Paradoxically, the minority poor, face SS unfairness for the opposite reason. They are likely to pay into the system longer because of going to work after high school (or even earlier), and then collect fewer SS checks because of shorter lifespans.
Who fixes the system - and how?
OK. So why can't the two creeds come together in an ecumenical meeting and find an agreed solution to next century's boomer retiree problem? In 1983 a bipartisan commission rescued the system. Can't that happen again? Can't this week's White House conference start the ball rolling?
Clinton's short window
It can. But probably only if President Clinton is at last ready to start leading the effort. He has said he wants Social Security reform to be a major priority of his final two years - and a major legacy of his presidency. But he will have only a short window of opportunity before 2000 campaign jockeying starts.
Mr. Clinton is the first boomer president. He clearly grasps the demographic squeeze SS will face. He could leave the issue for his successor. But that would waste a golden opportunity to start using current budget surpluses to help solve that future problem. After all, those surpluses exist only because of current SS revenues. But they can easily be eaten into by spending splurges - as Congress and the White House showed this fall.
Clinton, Archer, Moynihan
Three leaders close to retirement themselves show a path to a bipartisan solution. Veteran SS wise man Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, now weeks from retirement, has called for a program that would allow average Americans to invest a small percentage of their SS payroll tax in a self-managed private retirement account. The rest would remain a government guaranteed safety net. Current pensioners would be protected during the transition by using current budget surpluses.
The Clinton White House hints an interest in this kind of solution. Bill Archer, House Ways and Means Commitee chairman, indicates willingness to set aside his proposed income tax cut plans if Mr. Clinton is willing to lead on such a SS rescue plan.
We have long endorsed this type of cautious transition to a Social Security system that retains a basic safety net but increases pensions for average Americans investing over a long span of years. We'll examine rewards and risks involved in later editorials.
For now let's just say that Mr. Clinton would be attacked from his left, Mr. Archer from his right. But the basic concept makes sense. Polls show Americans interested but anxious. It will take strong presidential leadership to explain the advantages and puncture mistaken anxieties. Now is the time to start.