Principle as Narcissism
How President Bush gets to believe what he does about Social Security.
President Bush says he can save Social Security, which is due to go bust in 2053, without cutting benefits to those who are now or will soon be retired, and also without raising the payroll tax. Instead, Bush proposes to divert some of the cash currently used to fund Social Security into private investment accounts. It seems logical (though by no means guaranteed) that in the aggregate and over the long term, rising stock prices would put more money into retirees' pockets than the current Social Security system does, and that they would do so at less cost to taxpayers.
But if you remove money from the Social Security system to buy private investment accounts for future retirees, you'll need to replace that money in order to pay benefits promised to current or soon-to-be retirees. "Even with the higher returns from personal accounts, there are only two ways to make the program fiscally sustainable," read a PowerPoint-type presentation to Bush from his two top economic advisers in October 2001. "Increase revenues" or "Decrease expenditures." The transition cost is estimated by the Congressional Budget Office at more than $1 trillion over 10 years.
Until now, Bush has seemed either too dumb or too stubborn to recognize that Social Security privatization will necessitate either hitting up taxpayers or reducing Social Security benefits. But watching Bush in today's press conference, I realized that there was another possibility: Bush is simply too cynical to acknowledge practical realities of which he is well aware. Maybe he figures that accommodating those realities simply isn't his job. Maybe he's thinking: Let Congress get the blame for insisting that two plus two equals four!
The question posed to Bush at the press conference was admirably straightforward. "[W]hy aren't you talking about some of the tough measures that may have to be taken to preserve the solvency of Social Security," he was asked, "such as increasing the retirement age, cutting benefits, or means testing for Social Security?"
Bush began with a stream-of-consciousness recital of his domestic agenda: tort reform, immigration reform, and the "No Child Left Behind" education law. He even mentioned the budget deficit and the need to bring it down! Finally he got to Social Security:
Now, the temptation is going to be, by well-meaning people such as yourself, John, and others here, as we run up to the issue to get me to negotiate with myself in public; to say, you know, what's this mean, Mr. President, what's that mean. I'm not going to do that. I don't get to write the law. I will propose a solution at the appropriate time, but the law will be written in the halls of Congress. And I will negotiate with them, with the members of Congress, and they will want me to start playing my hand: Will you accept this? Will you not accept that? Why don't you do this hard thing? Why don't you do that? I fully recognize this is going to be a decision that requires difficult choices, John. Inherent in your question is, do I recognize that? You bet I do.
The principles I laid out in the course of the campaign, and the principles we laid out at the recent economic summit are still the principles I believe in. And that is nothing will change for those near our Social Security [retirement age]; payroll—I believe you were the one who asked me about the payroll tax, if I'm not mistaken—will not go up.
And I know there's a big definition about what that means. Well, again, I will repeat. Don't bother to ask me. Or you can ask me. I shouldn't—I can't tell you what to ask. It's not the holiday spirit. [Laughter.] It is all part of trying to get me to set the parameters apart from the Congress, which is not a good way to get substantive reform done.
When Bush says someone is trying to get him to "negotiate with myself in public," which he says a lot, it has always been my understanding that he means he doesn't have to consider an argument with which he doesn't agree. Now, though, I suspect that, at least in this case, he means something more. He's saying that he doesn't have to consider reality. It isn't his job to do "this hard thing." That's somebody else's job—in this instance, Congress: "I don't get to write the law."
What "I" get to do, as president, is make promises that I know perfectly well can never be kept, and then to make Congress break those promises for me. I don't have to change "the principles I believe in" because I know more responsible people in the government will violate them and take the blame.
Those "principles," then, are really nothing more than the narcissism of a spoiled child. Why a Congress controlled by Bush's own party is willing to put up with this infantile buck-passing is anybody's guess. But it's time for the rest of us to recognize that when Bush says he can privatize Social Security cost-free, he's just putting his vanity on display. He only believes it because he can rely on his political allies not to.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.