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THOMAS OLIPHANT

The deceptions add up on Social Security

WASHINGTON
FOUR YEARS ago, the commission on Social Security that Richard Parsons was co-chairing for President Bush warned with a bit too much hype that "the promise of Social Security to future retirees cannot be met without eventual resort to benefit cuts, tax increases, or massive borrowing."

Speaking for himself, the Time Warner executive said simply that "there is no pain-free way and no quick way" to deal with a problem of this size and complexity.

Last week, however, Parsons put aside his once-balanced view of Social Security to serve as a prop for Bush's stink bomb of a conference to promote his "vision" for second-term economic policy. This time around, the word was that the White House wanted stark portrayals of impending crisis, not comprehensive ideas for solution.

This time around, Parsons was on message, calling the status quo that collects payroll taxes to pay current benefits impossible to maintain as the ratio of taxpaying workers to check-cashing retirees continues to narrow.

Another member of that commission, co-chaired by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, did a similar disservice to the serious debate he knows the country needs to have about Social Security. He is former Democratic congressman Tim Penny of Minnesota, a prominent deficit hawk from the 1980s.

Earlier this year, he noted in an essay that the government blew a chance to put the retirement and disability system on a sound footing by turning healthy government operating budget surpluses into massive deficits and by embezzling large Social Security operating surpluses to help cover that fiscal hemorrhage in the form of special Treasury bonds.

Of the eventual cost of redeeming trillions in intra-government paper, Penny said that "the only way" to meet the obligation is to raise taxes, cut other government programs or borrow on a historic scale.

Penny also said that benefits ultimately will have to be cut for future retirees, emphasizing the commission's suggestion of the use of inflation only to adjust benefits upward, not the wage base of workers. And while he is a strong supporter of personal investment accounts for those who desire them, he was responsibly aware that the huge costs involved must be confronted.

"Critics will rightly argue," he wrote, "that creating voluntary personal accounts for younger workers will be a fiscal challenge, given the already costly obligation of supporting baby boom retirees."

Last week, however, Penny followed the White House desire to stick to a propaganda line emphasizing impending crisis and the need for quick action.

In contrast to his usually textured comments, he said simply that the present system is "unsustainable" and that expected Social Security revenues 35 years from now will be 25 percent short of benefit obligations under current law.   Continued...

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