WASHINGTON — President Bush and John Kerry have argued over many issues, but they've largely avoided talking about one of the most difficult domestic problems facing the US: the future of Social Security.
True, Mr. Bush pushed his proposal for personal retirement accounts during the final presidential debate. Establishing these accounts - which might allow Americans to invest some of their Social Security taxes in the stock market - would be a "vital issue" in his second term, Bush vowed.
But the president didn't say how he'd pay for this change, or what he'd do about Social Security's impending cash crisis. Senator Kerry, for his part, has been similarly vague about his plans.
Yet whoever wins the election may have to make tough choices about Social Security's finances. Baby boomers will be leaving the workforce in large numbers by 2008 - and US pension payouts will then ramp steadily upward. At that point, "by not dealing with the problem you'd be setting up future Congresses for some really painful sessions," says David John, a research fellow in Social Security and financial institutions at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Of course, Social Security is just the sort of worthy - and dull - subject that pundits always want included in campaign rhetoric. Many candidates see it as something else: a hyperpoliticized issue that should be handled only while wearing the political equivalent of safety goggles and thick gloves.
Republicans in particular believe that Democrats have used it to scare voters in the past. In his stump speech Bush plays off this perception, saying that in 2000 Democrats ran ads charging that if he won, seniors wouldn't get their Social Security checks.
"The seniors got their checks. And our seniors will continue to get their checks," Bush said last week at a rally in Oregon.
To Bush, Social Security could be a centerpiece of what he calls an "ownership society," in which Americans have more control over, and thus take more responsibility for, the financing of their healthcare and retirement programs.
He has long proposed that workers be able to divert some of their Social Security payroll taxes into voluntary personal retirement accounts (PRAs). Those who opt for this approach would get smaller government checks when they retire - but the difference would be more than made up by returns from their private accounts, which they could invest in stocks or bonds as they see fit, thus earning higher returns on their money. That's the theory, anyway.
These accounts would allow workers to immediately own a portion of their Social Security. That's an idea that's appealing to younger voters, say some experts, especially in light of today's dire talk about Social Security's finances.
"PRAs can give workers a much more secure retirement income than the current Social Security system," says Mr. John.
Shortly after taking office, Bush convened a Social Security commission, which produced three different plans for implementation of personal retirement accounts. Bush politely thanked them, but didn't endorse any of their choices. Nor has he provided any more details about his Social Security plans, other than to say that the benefits of current retirees and near-retirees will be protected.
Critics say the reason for the president's reticence is obvious: Implementation of partial privatization of Social Security would be very expensive. It might be difficult to build political support at a time of burgeoning deficits and rising national-security spending.
Consider the problem: When baby boomers begin retiring in large numbers, relatively fewer and fewer workers will be supporting a growing population of retirees. Now there are roughly 3.3 workers paying taxes for each Social Security recipient drawing benefits. By 2030 this support ratio will fall to 2.2.
Today Social Security is in surplus. But in 2018 it will probably pass break-even and dive into the red. Instead of subsidizing other spending in the federal budget, as it does now, it will begin eating up general revenue at the rate of an extra $45 billion every year.
"We have promised more than our economy has the ability to deliver to retirees," said Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan in an Aug. 27 speech.
In the short run, say critics, private accounts could well make this problem worse, as they would siphon off a share of much-needed revenue. Estimates of the cost of a transition to partial privatization run from $500 million to $2 trillion over 10 years.
Furthermore, the Kerry campaign charges that the new accounts would also represent a mammoth giveaway in fees to the private financial firms that would oversee them. "That's not a plan - it's a rip-off," said Kerry at a campaign appearance last week.
But Kerry himself has not addressed Social Security's financial problems in detail, either. His main position on the program is a simple negative: He's against Social Security privatization.
Kerry is also on record as opposing any attempt to raise the current retirement age or to cut benefits. The way to fix the program, he's said, is simply to fix the general economy.
"The first step to saving Social Security is getting our fiscal house in order," Kerry said last week.
Some experts believe that Social Security is simply too difficult a problem to discuss in the heat of a presidential campaign. The issue does not lend itself to quick description, and solving it will require painful trade-offs. The last big Social Security bailout, in 1983, was the result of hard work by a bipartisan commission - and even then it barely squeaked through.
Yet in the meantime the clock ticks on. Current workers need time to plan if Social Security changes - and the red ink starts flowing in but a few years.
"We actually need to make these policy changes as soon as possible," said Maya MacGuineas, codirector of the New America Foundation's retirement security program, at a seminar on Social Security last year.
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