With the inauguration revelry finally subsiding and the State of the Union just around the corner, the White House has begun revving its domestic policy engines. Front and center for President Bush is Social Security reform, a legislative issue that has been sidelined for decades because of its contentiousness and distant policy implications. While politicians scramble to take sides, a heated debate over the sustainability of the current program has beset Washington. While the White House warns of a crisis in the near future, politicians, bureaucrats and countless economists bear witness to the contrary – while worthy of discussion, Social Security’s financial troubles are nowhere near crisis. Even though some reform may be needed, Bush’s particular plans present a bleak future, threatening both seniors’ financial security and the very ideology upon which the Social Security system was forged.

The upcoming retirement of the Baby Boomer generation will undoubtedly place a strain on the Social Security system. However, Bush’s warnings of an immediate crisis — dire depictions of a not-too-distant future when Social Security runs dry — are hyperbolic. The Congressional Budget Office reports that benefit payouts to retirees will begin to exceed revenues from payroll taxes in 2018. At that point, Social Security will be financed by an extensive trust fund that has been building since the mid-1980s. Only in 2042, according to conservative budget forecasts, will Social Security truly run out of money.

The trust fund is held in U.S. Treasury securities. As it stands, Social Security will be able to meet obligations until 2042, unless the government is willing to default on its bonds, which would require circumstances more extreme than even the most pessimistic Social Security outlook.

To solve to the imaginary crisis he has created, Bush has proposed a partial privatization system where workers divert portions of their paycheck into private savings accounts to offset indirect cuts to future benefits. Despite being designed to help reduce the role of government, administrative costs are expected to be 15 times higher than under current system. Furthermore, the plan would accumulate transition debts of $1 to $2 trillion in the first decade alone, which could cost $160 billion annually in the first few years — roughly the total spent in Iraq to date. Most troubling, however, is that the reforms will make Social Security dependant on the market, where growth is always unpredictable.

The Social Security system was the modern-day Democratic Party’s first-born child. Established to provide financial stability for retirees, the New Deal-era safety net has been an unconditional guardian of America’s elderly for decades. Indexed to wage levels, Social Security payments have allowed millions of Americans to retire without fears of inflation. Privatization will threaten this security and subject elderly Americans to the whims of the business cycle.

What is unfortunate is that while the administration exhausts its political capital to bring Social Security — which faces no immediate crisis — to the vanguard, true crises like Medicare are ignored. Bush’s prescription-drug benefit has increased the Medicare burden by more than twice the size of Social Security’s projected shortfall. Unlike Social Security, Medicare is soon expected to exhaust its trust fund and plunge into deficits.

Through a poorly-planned set of unneeded and risky reforms to Social Security, Bush is playing a dangerous game with the financial security of this nation’s workers — exaggerating the severity of an uncritical situation in hopes of promoting his ideology and leaving a lasting mark in his second term.

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