"If you're 20 years old, in your mid-20's, and you're beginning to work, I want you to think about a Social Security system that will be flat bust, bankrupt, unless the United States Congress has got the willingness to act now," Mr. Bush said at an event that the White House billed as a "conversation on Social Security" with ordinary citizens.
"Flat bust"? "Bankrupt"? In common parlance, I think "flat bust" means out of cash, zip, nada, less than zero. Or maybe it's different in Texas. But that is just not the case with Social Security, as the Times notes:
Many Democrats and economists say that Mr. Bush is exaggerating the problem, and that Social Security could be fixed with modest tax increases and a cut in benefits. Even without changes, Mr. Bush's critics say, the system would be able to pay three-quarters of promised benefits four decades from now, when baby boomers have long retired.
The WaPo also covered the event, and took a tougher line on the "flat bust" claim:
But some critics say Bush is exaggerating the Social Security problem to build support for his plan for private accounts. For one, they say, the term "bankrupt" does not apply to Social Security. If nothing is done to the system, Social Security could still pay about 73 percent of promised benefits in 2042, when the system's "trust fund" of Treasury bonds will be depleted, Social Security's chief actuary has calculated.
Even after adjusting for inflation, that 27 percent cut in benefits would leave monthly Social Security checks considerably higher than they are now. If nothing is done, a worker retiring in 2055 would receive first-year benefits totaling $16,700 in today's dollars, considerably less than the promised $21,600 but more than today, according to the Congressional Budget Office. "The Social Security tax collects 12.3 percent of the wages each year. That money is going to be available to pay benefits," said Bernard Wasow, a senior fellow and economist at the Century Foundation, a research organization that opposes the president's plan. "That's not bankrupt."
The WaPo heard thunder on the right (we have already rumbled a bit ourselves:
"Who campaigned on price indexing? Who campaigned on cutting future benefits? They campaigned on personal accounts. It's a bait-and-switch to say now we're gonna go to [benefit cuts] price indexing," said Peter Ferrara, a conservative Social Security analyst opposing administration plans to cut guaranteed benefits.
The WaPo also mentions a racial angle from which the Times shields its readership:
Robert McFadden, a pharmaceutical company executive from New Jersey, described watching his father, a school principal, suddenly die at 57 of a heart attack. After his father spent more than 30 years paying into the Social Security system, McFadden said, his family had nothing to show for it because the family did not qualify for survivor benefits. "When he passed, his Social Security passed with him," said McFadden, who is African American.
Picking up on McFadden's point, Bush argued that his Social Security plan would be a boon to black men, whose life expectancy is about six years shorter than that of white men. Under his plan, people could pass the private accounts from one generation to the next. "African American males die sooner than other males do, which means the system is inherently unfair to a certain group of people," Bush said. "And that needs to be fixed."
The White House needs to sort out the real selling points from the hype.
And Andrew Samwick offers a much more spirited defense of the President (although he has trouble with "flat busted").