President George W. Bush wants you to believe that Social Security will “line into red” in 2018, and that if it isn’t “reformed”-that is, partially privatized-ASAP, it will collapse. Or, as a recently leaked internal White House strategy memo put it, the GOP hopes to convince you that Social Security is “headed for an iceberg.” Not true. While 2018 is the year that Social Security’s paid benefits will exceed its revenues, and payments will need to be made from the system’s trust fund, Social Security’s trustees estimate that the trust fund itself won’t come up short until 2042. Even then, 73 percent of benefits will still be covered. According to the trustees, Social Security faces a $3.7 trillion shortfall over the next seventy-five years.
That’s not chump change, of course, but among the country’s looming fiscal crises, where does this one rank? Not very high. Medicare’s trustees estimate the new prescription benefit to cost $8.1 trillion over the next seventy-five years-no one knows how it will be paid for. And what about the president’s proposal to make his 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent? The price tag for that alone will be around $11.6 trillion over the next seventy-five years, an estimate based in part on figures from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Given these comparisons, what’s less sustainable, Social Security or this president’s broader fiscal policy?