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Social Security: a controversial call to raise age of eligibility

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Social Security popped up last month when Senator McCain said during a town hall meeting in Denver: "Americans have got to understand that we are paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers in America today. And that's a disgrace. It's an absolute disgrace, and it's got to be fixed."

Democrats and liberals leaped on this remark. They noted that Social Security benefits have always been financed by the working generation, that indeed this money transfer accounts for one-fifth of the entire federal budget.

It remains something of a mystery what changes in Social Security McCain would advocate if he wins the election. He promises not to raise the Social Security payroll tax, but then says everything is on the table. McCain's official campaign website (johnmccain.com) lists 16 topics as "issues" and deals with them in some detail. But not Social Security.

Barack Obama's website (barackobama.com) devotes almost three pages to Social Security. It notes his opposition to both hiking the retirement age "for hardworking seniors" and to privatizing Social Security. Senator Obama's plan calls for "shoring up" the program by applying the 6.2 percent payroll tax to income above $250,000 a year. This year, the cap subject to the tax stands at $102,000 (higher than the $97,500 cited on his website). So income between $102,000 and $250,000 would not be subject to the payroll tax. His proposal, in effect, would hit only high-income folks, about 3 percent of taxpayers.

Some of McCain's past statements on Social Security are collected at ontheissues.org, a nonpartisan website that provides information about the candidates. The statements indicate he sees Social Security finances as "a ticking time bomb," that surplus Social Security payroll tax revenues should not be used to finance other federal programs (as they are now), and that workers should be allowed to invest a portion of their Social Security taxes in private investment accounts (described by opponents as "partial privatization"). Again, whether these are his present views remains unclear.

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