Editorial Page Editors Share Diverse Perspectives on Social Security Debate
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TERENCE SMITH: President Bush is in the midst of a 60-day, cross-country campaign to sell his proposals to strengthen the Social Security system. For a sampling of editorial opinion on the issue, we’re joined by four editorial page editors, three of whom are from areas recently visited by the president.
They are: Jane Healy of the Orlando Sentinel, Frances Coleman of the Mobile Register in Alabama, Bob Ewegen of the Denver Post, Bob Kittle of the San Diego Union Tribune. Welcome to you all.
Jane Healy, the president was in Orlando last week. And making his case, a case that you heard echoed in Secretary Snow’s comments earlier on this broadcast, do you and the paper agree with the president that there is a crisis or problem in Social Security? And do you agree with some of his proposed solutions?
JANE HEALY: Well, we definitely agree there’s a problem; that the solvency needs to be addressed and we can’t put it off. We are skeptical about his plan, but we do want to keep an open mind. And the reason we want to keep an open mind and we think Congress should keep an open mind is there’s going to be some pain here.
There’s either going to be like in the report you just had of the COLAS changing or a higher retirement age, and so we want some opportunity, possibly, if there’s not too much risk, on the other side where people might be able to make some more money to get their benefits up.
But we don’t think we’re there yet, we think that the solvency issue has to be resolved first and that the president hasn’t talked about that enough, he hardly mentioned it.
Today he said maybe that he’d consider some things, before he said he might consider taking off the cap, but from our point of view he hasn’t done near enough on the front side of this issue to even really be seriously considering the private account.
But we do want people to keep an open mine on the private accounts, there might be something there. And we certainly want Congress to debate this issue before we dismiss it out of hand and say there’s nothing here that we can do about it.
TERENCE SMITH: And Jane Healy, very briefly, what’s the impact of a presidential visit as best you can gauge it, such as when he came to Orlando?
JANE HEALY: I think it was pretty marginal as far as the people here. I think that opinions like for the rest of the country are very mixed on whether you support it or not, generally depending on your age and on the demographics.
His meetings were very well orchestrated with supporters. One was in a senior center at lunch and Barbara Bush was with him. Another was in a bigger audience with a more mixed audience, but it was clearly Bush fans.
I think maybe what his visit was about was shoring up support among some of the Republican congressmen here who he could generally count on for support on issues and could be running into trouble because of the number of seniors in their district.
One in particular is Ginny Brown-Waite, who is in a district north of here that has 250,000 seniors in her district, more than any other district in the country in terms of Social Security recipients. So she has a huge issue. And she was targeted by an opposition campaign to this, an anonymous telephone campaign, calling her constituents, saying this is your, she wants to cut benefits, because of the private accounts, and she has publicly come out and said I’m nervous about this, I want to make it clear that I’m not supporting it.
So you may have a Republican down here, there may be others, who are very nervous about this. So this visit down here may have been more about them than it was about changing the minds of the people here, because I don’t really think it changed anybody’s mind.
TERENCE SMITH: Frances Coleman, in Mobile the president was in Alabama recently. What impact did his visit have on your paper, your views, and your perception of the problem?
FRANCES COLEMAN: Well, our paper is already very supportive of what the president is doing. The thing about the American people like the American politicians is they’re like Scarlet O’Hara and they want to think about something tomorrow. And President Bush is making them think about it today in anticipation of what will happen tomorrow.
So we certainly support what he’s doing. His visit was in Montgomery, which is about a two and a half hour drive north of here.
There was certainly some excitement in the state, but more on the part of politicos, I think the average American, they’re so used to seeing him on television; the fact that he was in our state was not that big a deal.
TERENCE SMITH: Bobby Ewegen in Denver, the president was just there a couple days ago, I wonder how you and your paper see the whole argument, and his arguments.
BOB EWEGEN: Well, we’ve followed this for a very long time, of course. The simple fact is if you go back, we don’t support the president’s proposal and we don’t oppose the president’s proposal because the president has not made a proposal.
President Bush has never outlined a specific proposal, a detailed plan to change Social Security.
What we have done over a long series of editorials is to outline some of the issues involved. Is Social Security going to run out of money? The answer to that is a definite who knows.
If you believe the trustees, they have a new report today that says they’ll in 2041 that they will only be able to provide 70 percent of the scheduled benefits and that 70 percent by the way would be higher than today’s benefits even adjusted for inflation as your earlier report made clear.
If you believe the Congressional Budget Office, the day of reckoning is 2052 when they will be able to provide 80 percent of the benefits. And if you adjust either forecast for normal economic growth, they both assume very poor economic growth if you adjust either forecast for normal growth, you will find that the day of reckoning never comes, we never run out of money in the trust fund.
So is there a problem? The answer is there may be a long-term problem, and I think it would be prudent to deal with it.
We have suggested raising the retirement age to 68. We’ve suggested raising the earnings limit to $100,000, both of which would help to stabilize and keep the system safe.
Now, the problem with the president’s privatization proposal, if you read his commission’s report, it does not say privatization will solve the funding problem. It says we will solve the funding problem by reducing the growth of future benefits, again as that very excellent feature you just had outlined. That’s how they propose to solve the funding problem.
Privatization, I would have to compare to your doctor telling you, Jim, I hate to tell you this, but you have cancer, that’s why you have to buy a new car. And if you say, but doctor, I can’t afford a new car, the doctor says, well, Jim, aren’t you worried about the cancer?
The fact is that the proposed diagnosis here and the pro — you know, gee, we’re running out of money in Social Security — and the prescription, privatize, have no relationship to each other, and privatization, even citing the president’s own commission, is no answer to the funding shortage that may or may not develop in 2041, 2042, 2052 or any other date you want to cite.
TERENCE SMITH: Bob Kittle in San Diego, I wonder what your reaction to that is, those comments. I know that the vice president was in southern California this week, making essentially the same arguments. Where do you come down on this?
ROBERT KITTLE: Terry, I think there is absolutely no doubt that the current system is unsustainable. In 1950, there were 16 workers for every recipient. Today there are three, and that number is declining. Equally important, in 1950, life expectancy was 68 years; today it’s 77 years and rising.
We simply cannot sustain the system as it is currently structured unless we’re willing to pass onto our children and grandchildren enormous tax increases. I think that’s unconscionable.
And we have argued that this generation, our generation, has an obligation to solve this problem, so that our children and grandchildren do not either face the bankruptcy of Social Security or astronomically high payroll taxes.
And the reason in my view that private accounts are part of the solution is that private accounts move at least a portion of the system toward a prepaid plan. The kind of pension plan that all of us have in the private sector.
Today, we’re using the revenues – the payroll withholding tax that we put into the system supposedly to pay for current beneficiaries. There is no money going into a private account the way many people think that it is. And ironically, that’s exactly what Bush is talking about, making more of the system prepaid instead of the kind of Ponzi scheme situation where we rely on our children and grandchildren to pay ever increasing amounts of taxes to maintain benefit levels that we want.
So I think private accounts are very much a part of the solution, but we also do need, obviously, to restrain benefits. And extending the retirement age, changing the indexing to wages instead of, or rather to the CPI instead of wages, those are all part of the solution. But frankly, I think it’s unconscionable to suggest that we may not have a problem. We clearly do and we have to act on it and the sooner we act the better.
TERENCE SMITH: Bob Kittle, have you in your columns, in your editorials, spelled out what you believe ought to be the solution to that solvency problem? I mean, you mentioned three or four things there.
ROBERT KITTLE: Yes. We’ve endorsed most of these ideas. We have talked about the merit of increasing the retirement age. Americans are living longer. We have to take account of that. Most Americans can work beyond age 65, and remain healthy and accomplish their jobs.
We’ve also talked about the value of shifting the way the cost of living increases in Social Security are granted. And we also have endorsed the idea of private accounts as a way of making part of the system at least prepaid.
In an ideal world, Social Security would be a prepaid plan the way your 401(k) plan at the office is a prepaid plan. The money is put away, it’s kept in an account for you and you alone and when you retire you have that money, and that there’s no doubt about it being there, and there’s no looking to the next generation to our children and grandchildren to provide the taxes to pay for my retirement benefit.
TERENCE SMITH: Jane Healy, have you and your pages spelled out the solutions you want to see?
JANE HEALY: Well, we are waiting to see how they all work together. We know that we’re going to have to support some solutions, and they’re going to be painful, but we’d like to hear a little more about how all these things work together.
And for instance on raising the cap on the $90,000 on what you pay Social Security on, we’d like to hear more from the business community in terms of how this affects them since they will have to pay their share of those, of the payroll tax, the business half.
So that’s not going to keep us necessarily from supporting it. But we’d like to hear a lot more details on how all these things affect each other, if you raise the age, what effect that might have on the COLA issue, what that, how all those things work together. So we’re riding a lot on this and we’re taking it step by step in terms of what we’re going to support and what we’re not at this point, as I said, we’re supporting you have to fix the system and we’re skeptical of the Bush plan and we wish he would come forward with more specifics on how we fix the solvency before he talks so much about the others.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Jane Healy, thank you all four of you very much, we’re out of time. But this is obviously a discussion that’s going to go on. Thank you very much.