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Social Security cure: procrastination

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You don't have to look hard for suggested solutions to Social Security. President Bush proposes private accounts. Liberals want a number of minor tweaks. One common proposal is to raise the maximum level of wages subject to payroll tax from its current $90,000 to, say, $150,000.

Here's another solution to the alleged crisis: Do nothing.

That's right. Ignore the doomsayers. Wait for a decade or two, and see if the gloomy predictions are coming true.

It's not as crazy as it sounds because of one simple fact: No one really knows whether the forecast of a solvency problem will come true or just gradually fade away.

Why? Because economists have great difficulty making accurate long-term projections. And 75-year economic forecasts - upon which all the current alarm is based - are about as reliable as the Farmers' Almanac.

A little history helps to clarify the picture. In 1995, the Social Security Trustees said the program would be unable to pay full benefits in 2030. Now, a decade later, the date is 2042.

But that is just an actuarial estimate based on various assumptions. Depending on which assumptions you make, the long-term outlook is rosy or grim. Using more detailed assumptions, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says that date won't happen until 2052 - a decade later.

Why the difference? The CBO assumes women will be working longer, in effect paying their own way in terms of Social Security benefits, rather than relying on their husbands' benefits.

Other factors play an even bigger role in the outlook. Will the economy and productivity - factors crucial to the level of payroll-tax revenues - behave better or worse than assumed? Will immigration decline, as assumed, or increase?

Trying to predict that far out is like the Eisenhower administration imagining 2005 - without a clue about the Vietnam War, '70s-era inflation, the rise of Silicon Valley, the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the Internet.

In March, the trustees will issue a new annual report containing their latest projection for Social Security's crunch time. And who are these trustees? The majority are cabinet secretaries - political appointees - who select among a range of assumptions provided by civil servants.

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