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In his article “Social Security: Are Private Accounts a Good Idea?”, Aaron Bernstein tried to evaluate and illuminate the problems facing Social Security as the Baby Boomer generation looks to retirement and the promises and shortfalls of the system. What is lacking in Bernstein’s article is a historical context for Social Security and Medicare, two of the biggest expenses of the federal budget. In 1935 when the Social Security Act was first passed, employers often did not fund pensions for their employees and war widows and others were left in extreme poverty, relying on their families or largely religiously-based charities to help them eat.  The Social Security Act was part of a plethora of reforms added during the Great Depression to care for the nation’s elderly and poor populations. Then, in the 1960s, it became clear that the elderly also often lacked health insurance and Medicare was born. More recently, the Medicare prescription drug program was added as well, placing even more strain on the social security trust fund and the federal budget.Bernstein’s article does not illuminate the similarities or differences between the original social security recipients and the average recipient today. Some things are constant, if social security is their only form of income, many of the country’s elderly are still living below the federal poverty level. Many still have no employer-based pension program and would have no retirement program if not for social security. But the similarities end there.  Many of the current social security recipients lived through a time of unprecedented wealth in the American economy. Unlike recipients in 1935 who had faced a devastating national economy, the American economy has been relatively strong for the last 50 years. There is no reason that these persons could not have planned ahead for their retirement and therein lies the problem. With notable exceptions such as Enron, where the company destroyed its pension plan, many of the current crop of retirees had access to company-based retirement plans. Many could and did plan for their retirement and many do not need the $14,000 or so that social security provides them with each year. The difference is that now the program has become such an entitlement that people receive it regardless of need.These economic factors were not an issue brought forth in Bernstein’s article, but he does illustrate the economics of social security and quietly point to the reasons that Baby Boomers or others capable of accepting reduced social security benefits ought to consider it. He estimates that at the current rate, if nothing is done, the federal government will be unable to meet social security payments as early as 2018. By then, the system, which has been a pay-as-you-go system up until now, will suddenly be seriously deficit spending. The shrinking work force and the huge influx of Baby Boomer retirees will overload the system. Complicating that is the fact that the government has never invested the money when there was a surplus, but has instead written itself IOUs and spent the money on other federal programs. Bernstein points out that while some people argue that the system will work itself out and while President Bush and some Republicans called for a personal investment option, the reality is that to fix Social Security will require sacrifice from the next two generations, just to get it back on track.Bernstein argues that even with the record stock market growth that we have seen in the last decade, going to a market-based system will still takes decades to correct the damage that has been done by the current methods of administering social security. So then the question becomes do we fix it for our grandchildren or let it continue as is until the crisis becomes an explosion? Too often the answer has been that we do not have the will to fix social security. Politicians know that older Americans vote and no one wants to break the news that social security cannot continue as it is and that none of the solutions proposed will fix it fast enough for this generation or the next. Instead, bush and the republican Party float an idea which may have merit, but forget to mention that it will take decades to work properly. The Democrats refuse to even discuss major modifications to the program, acting like ostriches’ burying their collective heads in the sand until the explosion is inevitable. The problem is, Bernstein explains, that the explosion is already inevitable and all that we are waiting for is the actual boom.Though he does not advocate a specific position, Bernstein clearly makes the case for the current generation and the next one to suck it up and accept lower benefits so that future generations can have access to social security as it was designed.  Using specifics and hard data, Bernstein shows the failings of the current system and the Bush proposal. Like many of Generation X and Generation Y, he seems resigned to the idea that social security will either not exist when they retire or be such a joke that it is not a reliable source of supplementary income, much less a means of support. The problem as Bernstein illustrates it is that although the younger generations understand what is happening, they can do nothing to fix it until the current generation in power sees and acknowledges the coming collapse of social security.

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