Fact Check: McCain and Social Security

Friday, June 13, 2008



John McCain has long advocated letting workers divert some of their payroll taxes into private accounts. So when he says now that he won't privatize Social Security, that raises eyebrows.

But is he flip-flopping?

No, not at all. The Republican presidential candidate is playing a game of semantics.

He doesn't want to call his plan what is really is _ a partial privatization of the Social Security system.

Democrats play the same game, on the other side.

They speak darkly and flatly of Republicans plunging Social Security into privatization, subjecting the venerable system to the mercies of the market, and they ignore the voluntary and partial nature of the proposal.

They ignore, too, that Democrats including presidential candidate Barack Obama propose federal retirement subsidies that would likewise be tied to the ups _ and downs _ of the stock market. They would do this outside of the Social Security system.


"I do not and will not privatize Social Security," McCain said Friday in New Jersey. "It's not true when I'm accused of that."

He said he does want a system enabling "younger workers to take a few of their tax dollars and maybe put it in an account with their name on it. Please don't let them (the Democrats) twist that."

Too late. They've been making hay with it for months.

"Imagine if your security now was tied up with the Dow Jones," Obama said Friday. "You wouldn't feel very confident about the security of your nest egg."


The Republican plans McCain has supported over the years essentially seek to privatize part of Social Security by letting people invest some of their payroll taxes into private retirement accounts.

Just how much they could divert is not certain but it's much more than a "few dollars." McCain has proposed in the past that up to 20 percent of payroll taxes could be funneled into private retirement accounts.

The idea has been one of President Bush's leading domestic policy priorities but he's never been able to sell it.

McCain and other Republicans once spoke more openly of "privatization" but realized people didn't like to hear that. Now they talk of "personal accounts." It's the same thing.

McCain has been more straightforward than many other proponents of partial privatization in acknowledging that the proposal won't help Social Security's looming insolvency.

That will require a solution all its own, such as higher payroll taxes, lower benefits or a higher age to start collecting the payments.

Neither presidential candidate has laid out a solution but Obama has made a start. He would raise payroll taxes on incomes over $250,000.

Obama, while keeping Social Security whole, proposes various incentives for people to build up their nest egg in private investments.

For all the warnings about the risks of the stock market, he, too, sees it as an opportunity for people to retire with more wealth, and is willing to spend billions to help workers save that way.

McCain once entertained the idea of higher payroll taxes and said he would consider "almost anything" as part of a compromise to save Social Security.

Now he rules out higher taxes and takes the dodge so often heard from both parties; he'd sit down with the other side and figure something out.



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