Jewish World Review Sept. 10, 2001 / 21 Elul, 5761
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- "Bush and Daschle Agree not to Tap Social Security," declared the lead story in The New York Times on Wednesday.
Well, maybe. But as every marriage counselor knows, couples with difficulties may not really be in agreement when they say they are. And like all dysfunctional partners, Bush and Daschle are having trouble communicating.
We'll have to imagine their Oval Office chat on the fall agenda because the White House didn't release any pictures. Since the White House almost always releases photos of such sessions, it seems fair to presume the body language was a little scary.
Daschle was there with a mission. Something "bad" has happened: The economic slowdown is worse than anyone expected, and the surpluses are shrinking. Like any shrewd politician, Daschle wants to pin the blame for the "bad" thing on the other guy. This has nothing to do with substance and everything to do with power.
Bush, of course, knew exactly what Daschle was up to. While presenting himself as bipartisan and eager to cooperate, Bush mostly wanted to sidestep Daschle's dagger. This has nothing to do with substance and everything to do with power.
You don't need to be Sigmund Freud to know this is not a recipe for emotionally healthy conversation. Picture two men with clenched teeth behind fake smiles.
Both men know that "tapping" the Social Security surplus is next to irrelevant as a matter of policy but potentially explosive as a matter of politics (depending on how they can get the press to play it). They also know both parties want to tap that surplus for their priorities and that there's nothing wrong with doing so except for how it sounds.
When Daschle sought Bush's no-tapping "assurance," therefore, the subtitles read, "You go first, pal."
And when Bush pledged in reply that he would never countenance anything that would affect people's sacred Social Security checks, the subtitles scrolled, "Keep dreaming, buddy."
As a therapist in the Oval Office might have asked: "Can you hear that you're not really being responsive to Tom's question, George? And how that might hurt Tom?"
Such staged nonsense - and the comic prelude it sets for Bush to explain later this year that everything depends on what the meaning of "tapping" is - captures the quality of debate in Washington's latest silly season.
But whatever planet Bush and Daschle are on, back on Earth there are real problems brewing. If Washington were a sporting event, we would go to the split screen, where just as Bush and Daschle were all smiles and no edification, Dan Crippen, the director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, was grim and frighteningly substantive as he testified on Capitol Hill.
"The proportion of the economy necessary to fund Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid," Crippen explained, "will double - from 7 percent of GDP in 2000 to 15 percent of GDP in 2030.
"That rise," Crippen added, "is the equivalent of $800 billion a year in today's economy and puts into perspective the size of the tax increase or additional borrowing that could ultimately be required to finance elderly entitlements and other spending if those programs are not changed."
To make sure no senator missed the point, Crippen put it a different way.
"To maintain government as we know it today and fund programs for retirees in the future, we would have to raise taxes or increase borrowing by the equivalent of $800 billion a year in today's dollars.
"Viewed in this light," the CBO director concluded, "there are only two things that will make a difference - we can grow the economy more and/or reduce future benefits for future retirees. The attention given to what's in the trust funds come 2015, or even if a trust fund exists, is misplaced. What will matter are these two facts - the size of the economy and the amount of transfers to retirees."
Think about each side of that split screen long and hard. To say that today's leaders are fiddling while Rome burns may be a profound insult to