A newly released Associated Press analysis of Social Security contains few surprises. The fund is on a trend toward disaster. It will stop collecting enough to fund itself in about 2033. Fixing the problem would be much easier today, with only modest changes to the program, than it would be in a few years when the funding gap has grown large.
The only surprise to note is that neither major party candidate for president is addressing this issue as a campaign priority. Each has addressed it in the past, but right now both camps seem too preoccupied with bumper-sticker accusations. The Obama camp accuses Romney of wanting to end Medicare, while the Romney camp accuses Obama of wanting to end welfare reform. It would be far more helpful for the American people if both candidates would articulate their plans for saving Social Security as well as Medicare and Medicaid. All three entitlements face similar funding crises as the population continues to age.
Instead, Democrats have taken advantage of Romney's choice of Rep. Paul Ryan as a running mate to warn against Republican plans to allow younger workers to invest part of their Social Security taxes into private equities. That's a plan that hasn't been seriously considered since President Bush tried to push it at the beginning of his second term. While Ryan once supported such a thing, it is not a part of his House budget proposal. Private accounts are not a part of Romney's current plans, either.
The American people deserve better than scary accusations. They need detailed, competing plans, as well as promises to negotiate a settlement.
President Obama came close to exhibiting statesmanship last year as he met with House Speaker John Boehner in negotiations that seemed to include the possibility of reducing the annual cost-of-living increases allotted to Social Security recipients. But the talks broke down without any resolution.
The choices are fairly simple. Congress could increase payroll taxes in order to collect more money to cover promised benefits. However, given that the Obama administration has successfully pushed a reduction in those taxes in an effort to stimulate the economy, that is a difficult option. Congress also could gradually raise the retirement age to reduce the cost of benefits. Those benefits also could be means-tested, placed on a scale that gradually shrinks in relation to the recipient's income. A combination of these ideas also would work.
What doesn't work is a refusal to apply any changes, especially if this comes with an extension in December of the temporary reduction in the payroll tax that funds the program.
Social Security reform comes with all sorts of political risks. It has ever been so. However, that didn't keep President Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill from compromising on changes the last time the program faced a challenge.
Today's politicians may be gambling they won't be around when the looming entitlement crisis becomes too real and too big to ignore. If so, that is not a position worthy of someone who wishes to represent the American people.