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Published: Tuesday, 2/24/2004

Social insecurity

ALAN Greenspan's latest prescription for fiscal responsibility hasn't gotten widespread attention, which is probably a good thing if President Bush and his fellow Republicans in Congress value their political lives this election year.

The Federal Reserve chairman, long an economic guru for GOP presidents, told the Senate Budget Committee last week that Congress should, as its "first order of busness," make the President's tax cuts permanent and - here's the political bombshell - pay the $1 trillion cost by cutting Social Security and other entitlement programs.

Specifically, Mr. Greenspan told lawmakers they should consider raising the retirement age and use a less-generous formula for figuring Social Security's annual cost-of-living adjustment, which was 2.1 percent this year.

"We have constructed a good deal of the benefit structure over the last quarter century without a real firm look at whether or not the real resources were there to meet those benefits," he said. "And I suggest that what we have to do, as difficult as it's going to be, is to relook at some of these commitments."

Now, Mr. Greenspan is well known for occasionally straying from the Republican party line, but it looks like he has really tripped over his tongue this time, helping to deliver the Democrats' a made-to-order issue.

Does Mr. Bush really want to run for reelection from a platform that includes cutting Social Security?

With 77 million Americans in the Baby Boom generation nearing retirement, we doubt it. Pundits have long noted that the popular government program is the "third rail of American politics - touch it and you die."

It might be argued that a Bush proposal to allow private investment of a portion of Social Security earnings has cooled the debate somewhat, but it's still a volatile issue.

Mr. Greenspan's musings put him in danger of occupying the same inadvertent spoiler's role he held during the 1992 campaign, when he was accused by some in the Bush camp of failing to sufficiently trumpet revival of the economy under the President's father, who then lost to Bill Clinton.

In lecturing the Senate panel, the Fed chief warned that it would be better to rethink Social Security and other entitlement commitments now than to find out later that there is not enough money to pay for them.

"My real concern is that when the time comes to start to pay these benefits, we're going to find that we are in very serious fiscal difficulty," Mr. Greenspan said. "I do think it's important for the people who are retiring to have a sense of security that what is being promised to them as they retire will indeed be there."

Precisely. That's the very point that we and other tax-cut opponents have been making all along. It makes no sense to institutionalize huge tax cuts — mostly for upper-income individuals who will never have to worry about making ends meet in old age - if the result is to steal small retirement stipends from the very people who will need them the most.

Mr. Greenspan was wrong about tax cuts in 2001 when his personal prestige helped put the President's plan over the top in Congress. And he's wrong now, even if he can't understand his own logic.



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