The last time I dared bloviate about Social Security in this space, I was accused of being on President Bush's payroll and promoting his agenda for reform.

Actually, I should have been flattered that a reader would think this publication influential enough to draw notice from the nation's chief executive. And then to subsequently be hired by him to pitch his plan to reform the 70-year-old program.

But it's time to wake up and face north.

Over the past two weeks, I've attended meetings on and read volumes about the pending crisis in the Social Security program. I've been given overviews of some seven pieces of legislation currently floating around Capitol Hill - each suggesting their respective outlines for reform - and received a cynical e-mail from, of all places, the Ayn Rand Institute, declaring that the Social Security program should not be saved, but, rather, shuttered.

The premise behind this radical solution cites the government hiking the payroll tax a total of 17 times since 1935 and, therefore, makes the argument that the promise of financial security during the golden years is at the mercy of "political whim."

Okay, most of us are probably in semi-agreement that the program is wheezing like 30-year-old electric fan. And the annual report issued last month by its trustees certainly did little to quell the fears of a nation of future retirees by projecting that the Social Security Trust Fund will be exhausted by the year 2041 - a year earlier than we've been told.

Okay, some people might rationalize that's 36 years away and many of them will be taking a long dirt nap by then.

But consider this: The threshold when benefits exceed monies being paid into the program will occur in 2017 - also a year earlier than initially projected. Suddenly that doesn't seem all that far into the future. (For Medicare - which is inarguably in far worse condition - insolvency will come roughly 20 years earlier than Social Security. But that's fodder for another column.)

Over the past several months, the president and several well-chosen barkers have been stumping for his proposed reform plan, where a portion of the Social Security tax would be diverted into personal or private accounts (depending on your semantic preference).

At a recent Social Security briefing, one panel member brought to light what I thought was an interesting and much-overlooked point. Say, for argument's sake, that the president and the opponents of his plan come to some form of détente and a plan is mapped out for the private reform system. Under this theory, would the federal government then become the largest investor in blue chip companies such as Microsoft, IBM or McDonald's?

The California Public Employees' Retirement System is a $180 billion pension fund that wields, as you can imagine, a considerable amount of influence on the companies where it places its money. In fact, its board recently okayed a proposal where it could reject ratifying a company's auditor if it smells a conflict of interest.

Now many of you know my feelings on the government's ability to run things, and I get goosebumps (not the good kind) when I think of Uncle Sam making suggestions to Bill Gates on how to manage his software company in Washington State.

Under that frightening scenario, maybe Ayn Rand isn't quite so far afield.

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