The NY Times debunks some widespread myths about the Social Security Trust Fund, in an article that they admit spins favorably for Bush.
You can not imagine my surprise and delight.
At Heart of Social Security Debate, a Misunderstanding
WASHINGTON, March 7 - The Social Security trust fund "had plenty of money in it," Anne Cash, a 70-year-old retired federal worker, declared furiously at a town meeting in North Philadelphia last month.
"It should not be tampered with," Ms. Cash told her congresswoman, Allyson Y. Schwartz, a freshman Democrat. "It was not intended for the government to borrow."
President Bush, Ms. Cash continued, "owes that money back."
Senators and representatives across the country have heard similar assertions, based on a misunderstanding of how the system works, from constituents who oppose the president's plan to change the basic structure of Social Security.
"The Social Security trust fund has produced more bad public discussion than any other budget entity," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, director of the Congressional Budget Office.
The confusion is frustrating to Republicans who side with Mr. Bush.
"If the president can convince people how the trust fund works, we're over a hurdle," said Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the chairman of the Finance Committee. "The trust fund is a mirage, but I still have Iowans say to me, 'Where's the money?' "
But unlike a mirage, the trust fund does exist. The details are on Page 1,112 of the appendix in the president's budget for the 2006 fiscal year. What Mr. Grassley meant was that the significance of the trust fund is limited.
Its importance, said John C. Rother, the policy director of AARP, the advocacy group for older Americans, is largely symbolic. "It is a symbol of the insurance nature of the program and the social contract that lies behind it," Mr. Rother said.
"But it doesn't really bind the Congress," he said, and "no individual's benefits are insured by it."
...The truth, Mr. Holtz-Eakin said, is somewhere in between. The trust fund is more than an empty promise, he said, and less than a solemn obligation backed by the full faith and credit of the United States.
A main reason for the confusion is that from the creation of Social Security, politicians have used the trust fund to mask several realities.
...Once benefits exceed annual tax revenues, the government will have to increase taxes, cut spending elsewhere or issue more bonds if it decides to pay full Social Security benefits.
But trust fund or no trust fund, bonds or no bonds, Social Security is only one program with a claim on the federal budget.
There will be highways to build and, perhaps, wars to fight. There will be expenses for education and health care and many other government activities. And there will be citizens - voters - who do not want their taxes to be raised.
Maybe because of the trust fund, the politicians will decide that Social Security has the strongest claim.
But if so, that will be a political decision, not a legal one.
This is a bit of a poke in the eye to their columnist Paul Krugman, who tried as hard as he could to spin the alternative vision, as we discussed here.
Let Daniel Okrent know that his folks are doing a good job. He is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MORE: I will guess that this - "the surpluses in President Bill Clinton's tenure were due in large part to the Social Security excess" - provokes grumbles, but I need to check.