To hear President Bush, allowing private Social Security accounts for individual workers would help bail out the demographically challenged system.
He has acknowledged that the system will be unable to pay benefits to our children and grandchildren unless courageous action is taken.
To strengthen Social Security, according to his campaign Web site, Bush would not increase payroll taxes, but he would set up voluntary personal accounts for younger workers: "The president understands that Social Security must be fixed, and workers deserve to own part of their Social Security benefits and to build a nest egg for retirement."
As the debate on the future of Social Security heats up in Washington, however, a chorus of critics says that private accounts will do nothing to shore up the system.
If anything, they will likely hasten the projected shortfall in funds that's due after 2030, because of the retirement of the massive baby boomer generation, and add a huge layer of government bureaucracy that will live in the shadow of Social Security.
"I would hope that members of Congress would see that private accounts in Social Security are a mistake," says David Certner, director of federal affairs for AARP, the powerful advocacy group for older persons. "There are plenty of options to get you to solvency." The AARP is adamantly opposed to the idea.
Olivia S. Mitchell, a professor of insurance and risk management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, was a member of the 2001 President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security created by Bush to explore privatizing some contributions to the system.
Mitchell believes that it is possible to funnel some money away from Social Security into private accounts managed by workers and still improve it. She says the term "privatization" is extremely misleading because it implies eventually a shuttering of the agency.
"There's no way on God's green earth we're going to shut down the Social Security system," she says.
As proposed by the president's commission, private accounts would allow younger workers to voluntarily divert as much as 4% of the 6.2% Social Security payroll tax they pay into accounts they would own for life.
Bush's recent plugs for private accounts emphasize that participants could manage and invest them in the stock market to get a high rate of return over the long run and "create personal wealth" for retirement and for heirs.
The president's commission makes these accounts sound less far less free-wheeling. It found that a system of private accounts would not be possible without a government agency to keep tight control over them.
It proposed that initially, when the accounts are small, they would be administered by a governing board and managed by private companies. Workers would be given a limited choice of index-style mutual funds, such as a broad-based stock fund, a corporate bond fund and a government bond fund.
Then when the funds increased in size to about $5,000, they would be transferred to a private financial services company. But the federal governing board would still monitor them. Workers might have more funds from which to choose, but the selection would still be a limited range of low-cost, index-style funds.
They could not touch the funds or borrow against them. Commission members urged that upon retirement, account holders should be required to take out most of the funds in annuity form, like Social Security, as a stream of monthly income for life -- so they wouldn't squander it and end up on government assistance. Participants would also be entitled to Social Security benefits, reduced according to their reduction in contributions.
The selling point for private accounts, according to the commission, is that by investing some of their money in the stock market, workers would receive more money for retirement in the long run with the private accounts and Social Security than by relying on Social Security alone.
Whether a Republican-dominated Congress will go for such a major change in the Social Security system is an open question.
As for workers themselves, the commission estimated that two-thirds of those eligible to privatize will do so. Mitchell says it will provide some buy-in for disaffected younger workers who believe that Social Security won't be there for them.
Since it was established in 1937, Social Security has been a "pay as you go" social contract, with current workers paying taxes to provide benefits for current retirees, with the understanding the system will work the same when they retire.
"You can never fund Social Security like you can a pension," says Thomas Margenau, director of public affairs for the agency in San Diego. "We have to take in as much money as we owe every year, plus a little more."
The last time the system underwent a big fix, to avert a short-term cash crisis, was in 1983 during the Reagan administration, and an economist named Alan Greenspan headed a bipartisan commission bearing his name. Among the Greenspan Commission proposals that went into effect: delayed cost-of-living increases for beneficiaries, increases in the self-employment tax and a gradual raising of the age from 65 to 67 at which full retirements benefits are paid, which is still ongoing today.
Some of the reforms were intended not just to stem the bleeding back in the 1980s, but to create surpluses that would be needed in the middle of the 21st century to support baby-boomer retirees. The plan worked, but not as the commission intended.
Surpluses in both Social Security and in the national budget were piled high at the end of President Bill Clinton's second term, and he was prepared to enact reforms. Then along came Monica, and plans for reform were history.
President Bush inherited these surpluses when he came to office in 2001. But soon the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and a recession followed. His administration tried to stimulate the economy with a series of big tax cuts, which gave breaks to taxpayers across the board, but which opponents said favored the rich and only dug the nation deeper into debt.
As Bush prepares to start his second term, he recently sought and gained approval from Congress to raise the national debt to $8 trillion, to accommodate the rising $7.5 trillion record debt. The $1.5 trillion surplus from Social Security, which is invested in the form of Treasury notes, has been spent.
However, as Margenau points out, Social Security is not squeezed for cash now. Every month, he says, it pays out $35 million in Social Security benefits, and still has money left over. Last year it had $83 billion in surplus invested in special-issue Treasury obligations (which are part of the government's debt that it owes to Social Security).
The problem will come around 2030 when the ratio of workers to retirees drops from 3 to 1, down to 2 to 1.
When Social Security began, the payroll tax to fund it was 2%. It has since been raised numerous times. Today employers pay 6.2% and workers pay another 6.2%, while the self-employed pay the full 12.4%.
Politicians, both Republican and Democrat, are loath to suggest raising it -- or to make other difficult decisions, such as lowering benefits or pushing full retirement ages out even later -- that would prevent a demographic meltdown.
But creating a program of private accounts that carve out 2%-6% of Social Security contributions, say critics, is like asking for a meltdown on speed.
If enough money is sidelined into private accounts and not flowing into Social Security coffers, the pay-as-you-go approach begins to suffer. At some point, perhaps before the end of this decade, there wouldn't be enough money coming in to pay benefits for current retirees.
There would be a gap between the old way of doing business and the new way, or a transition cost. That number has been pegged at $1 trillion to $2 trillion, not an amount the Treasury seems to have lying about these days.
"What that does," says Certner, "is make Social Security's solvency problem even worse."
Plans to siphon money away from the system through private accounts are not about finding ways to preserve Social Security, as the 1983 Greenspan Commission did, says Certner. "We're talking about structure, some would say ideology."
Indeed, private accounts have a great deal to do with Bush's election theme of wanting to create an "ownership society," a rather fuzzy place of the capitalist mind. It's a place where taxes are lower for those who own investments than for those who work and where mostly affluent individuals are encouraged to take control of their health costs by owning a health savings account rather than relying on workplace health plans.
One of the more puzzling aspects of Bush's pursuit of private accounts is that he is encouraging the workers to claim "ownership" of their Social Security benefits, something that generations of Americans have already counted on. Such benefits have long been referred to in Washington by the derogatory term "entitlements."
Mercer Bullard, an assistant professor of law at the University of Mississippi and president of mutual fund shareholders rights group Fund Democracy, says that the question of whether to privatize Social Security is a social issue about a social contract.
Because of his experience monitoring the recent mutual fund scandals, he fears that if private accounts are created, the government won't be up to the task of creating millions of new mutual fund accounts and overseeing the financial well-being of account holders.
"What types of funds will be offered?" he asks. "How much is the government going to run the plan? Is there going to be a floor below which fund amounts can't fall? I surely have little confidence for people who are not and probably should not be investors."
Bullard says that educated Americans will make good decisions, while the uneducated will be vulnerable. Privatization, he fears, will only widen the wealth gap between rich and poor.
One argument in favor of private accounts hasn't been discussed as much as the "ownership society" or "personal wealth." But it is mentioned briefly in the president's 2001 commission report -- the idea that if individual Americans can keep for themselves what would otherwise end up as part of the Social Security surplus, their money will become savings rather than part of government spending.
"That's one reason I favor private accounts," says Mitchell, the Wharton professor. "They would be, in effect, off the government books. It takes them off the politicians' table."