The concession this week from the White House that the government will probably have to borrow money to pay for President Bush's proposal to overhaul Social Security in part by creating private accounts for younger workers has sparked a new debate on an issue that is already rife with controversy.
Forget arguing about whether Social Security needs to be reformed or what the best way to fix it is. The focus has shifted to the price tag that accompanies the president's plan -- more specifically, it's moved to those so-called "transition costs" referred to in the headlines for the past several days. Those costs refer to the shortfall that would be created by diverting some of the money used to pay Social Security benefits into those proposed private accounts. This week, at least, that gap is estimated to be somewhere between $1 trillion and $2 trillion.
Those figures are interesting for a couple of reasons -- the most obvious being that the president hasn't endorsed a specific plan yet. Without any real details, how the heck can anybody estimate -- with any sort of accuracy -- what such a plan would cost? The phrases "fuzzy math" and "Enron accounting" come to mind.
The other thing that strikes me about those numbers is that, with all due respect, I cannot recall a time when any administration was particularly forthcoming about the true cost of anything that was on their agenda. There are too many influencing factors -- including the economy and the political environment -- that can unexpectedly drive up the price tags of government plans. And let's face it, the numbers bandied about by those who oppose the White House's plans should be received with a dose of skepticism as well. Maybe it's just me, but I tend to take any cost estimates that hover in the billions of dollars with a grain of salt.
The fact is, reforming Social Security is going to cost us, no matter what. The big questions are -- how are we going to pay for it? With our benefits (which could be cut), or our retirement (if the normal retirement age gets bumped up), or in the form of higher taxes or a climbing federal deficit? And the ever-elusive question -- how big will the price tag really be? You can bet that the spin doctors on both sides of the issue will be working overtime on this one.
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