Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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December 29, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

SOCIAL SECURITY vs. IRAQ....In the Boston Globe, Peter Canellos argues that President Bush's campaign to privatize Social Security is disturbingly similar to his campaign to go to war with Iraq:

The link between the current economy and a Social Security deficit that will begin to strike benefits in decades is every bit as speculative and theoretical as the link between Hussein and the war on terrorism in late 2002. But few people in the political mainstream would dismiss the idea out of hand, and arguing that Bush's predictions are a bit too dire seems unnecessary to most Democrats at this stage.

Actually, I'd say that Canellos is both too harsh and too generous toward Bush at the same time.

He's too harsh because every president tries to sell his programs. The fact that Bush is marshalling his forces and trying to sway public opinion in a multi-month campaign is really nothing out of the ordinary. That's how politics works.

But he's too generous when he says the Social Security campaign is "every bit as speculative and theoretical" as the Iraq campaing in 2002. It's actually a lot worse.

Consider: at the time the Iraq lobbying offensive was rolled out, it had been five years since Saddam Hussein had kicked out the UN weapons inspectors and since we knew in 1998 that Saddam had been actively trying to hide weapons programs, it was hardly unrealistic to suspect that he had kept trying since then. Sure, Bush stretched the known intelligence, but in the end it wasn't unreasonable to suspect that Saddam was still up to something and might be closer to success than he had been in 1998.

Now switch to Social Security. Back in 1998 Social Security was at least arguably in trouble. The estimated time before the system became insolvent had shrunk by a decade, and even though we were still 35 years away from that date it seemed as though taking action might be a prudent idea.

But in the subsequent five years, what's happened? Unlike Iraq, where our knowledge of what Saddam was up to got murkier, our knowledge of Social Security's solvency has gotten better. The date of insolvency has been pushed forward 13 years, and even that date is based on unnecessarily pessimistic economic forecasts. In other words, the news about Social Security has gotten far, far better in the past five years, but President Bush is yelling "crisis" even so. It's worse than Iraq.

Still, is it true that "arguing that Bush's predictions are a bit too dire seems unnecessary to most Democrats at this stage"? Unfortunately, probably so. On the other hand, I'm a Democrat, and that's exactly what I'm arguing. You can read my case in the LA Times today.

Kevin Drum 12:52 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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