Answers, not IOUs, for Social Security

However, he would wait a decade before imposing the higher tax, ostensibly so that the tax would coincide with the point at which Social Security actually starts needing the money. As luck would have it, President Obama would be former President Obama by the time the levy hits home.

It's unclear how much money Obama's extra tax would bring in, but AARP's Rother said it wouldn't erase the shortfall. Additional revenue or benefit cuts would be required.

For his part, McCain has embraced Bush's proposal for private accounts, but he's also said that additional steps must be taken to maintain Social Security's solvency. What those steps may be he hasn't made clear, although McCain has stated that "everything has to be on the table."

Everything, that is, except higher taxes.

"I am opposed to raising taxes on Social Security," McCain said last month. "I want to fix the system without raising taxes."

So that apparently leaves cutting benefits, such as raising the retirement age or reducing monthly payouts. But McCain has resisted going out on that particular limb, so what exactly he has in mind remains a mystery.

Basically, there are only three things that can be done: raise taxes, cut benefits or both.

Most experts say it's the latter course -- raising taxes and cutting benefits -- that represents the most equitable solution to the problem. Obviously this is a path no politician wants to walk down.

But there's no choice, not if we want Social Security to meet the needs not just of the baby boomers who will soon be cashing their checks but also the generations to follow. If we wait for the problem to reach crisis proportions before acting, the steps we'll have to take will be all the more painful.

Fixing Social Security is the easy part. Salvaging Medicare and the rest of the healthcare system will be the real trick.

It's time we got started.

Consumer Confidential runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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