Social Security Stumped

Security against the threat of terrorism may be the dominant issue facing America. But Social Security could be the dominant topic this fall, at least if Democrats have their way.

The party of FDR and the New Deal is returning to its roots in 2002. Its spin doctors eagerly hope that older voters, with their deep interest in retirement issues, want to hear more about secure pensions and drug benefits for the elderly, and not as much about secure borders. And they want to paint Republicans as would-be privatizers of Social Security, even though the label doesn't quite stick.

The Democrats' strategy poses some dangers to the country's long-term interests. Americans could benefit from a clear debate on the future of Social Security. As the baby-boom generation nears retirement, the system will face unprecedented pressures. One proposal is to give younger workers the option of putting some of their Social Security tax dollars into personal investment accounts. That would, in theory, let people "grow" their funds, allowing them to seek a bigger payoff than the standard Social Security check can offer.

But questions about this approach remain. How will the transitional costs be paid, as money is diverted from a system that still must pay out huge amounts to current retirees? How will people who choose the private option be guided to make wise investment decisions? What will government do if their accounts fail and retirees are left with nothing?

It's doubtful those questions will even be raised in a campaign that revolves around Democratic charges that Republicans want to "dismantle" Social Security – and the GOP pleading that it just isn't so.

Democrats have their own questions to face. If not investment accounts, then what? How should they sustain a system with more retirees taking out and fewer workers paying in? Would they raise the payroll tax, up the retirement age, or cut benefits?

It may be up to voters to demand real discussion if Social Security does keynote this election. Politicians aren't likely to get to the core issues without the public forcing them to.

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