by Clarence Page

I sometimes wonder whether politicians actually write the books they release. In the case of Texas Gov. Rick Perry's book, I sometimes wonder whether he bothered to read it, either.

There seemed to be some confusion about that in Perry's campaign. The Republican presidential frontrunner's spokesman, Ray Sullivan, suggested in mid-August that Perry was backing away from some of the tough positions taken in his 2010 diatribe, "Fed Up!: Our Fight to Save America from Washington."

The book, which came out last fall when Perry's presidential bid was only a rumor, is particularly notable for its harshness to Social Security, a program so popular among voters that politicians often call it a "third rail" -- touch it and you die.

Perry's book not only touches it but rips it out of the ground.

"Fed Up" calls the 76-year-old retirement and disability program "a crumbling monument to the failure of the New Deal" that was "set up like an illegal Ponzi scheme" and a "bad disease" that has continued to spread.

Instead of a system enacted "at the expense of respect for the Constitution and limited government," he says, he would prefer a system that "will allow individuals to own and control their own retirement."

But Perry's spokesman said we should not take his boss' book all that seriously. Sullivan called it "a review and critique of 50 years of federal excesses, not in any way as a 2012 campaign blueprint or manifesto."

But Perry, instead of backpedalling, rode into Iowa the following weekend and doubled down. He called Social Security not only a "Ponzi scheme," as he said in his book, but "a monstrous lie" for younger people. "The idea that they're working and paying into Social Security today," Perry insisted, "that the current program is going to be there for them, is a lie."

And at a later stop, he said: "I haven't backed off anything in my book. So read the book again and get it right."

Heaven forbid that Perry should look like a flip-flopper. It has become an unwritten but rigidly enforced rule that presidential candidates are not allowed to change their minds about anything.

Perry does call reasonably for a "national conversation" about Social Security and its future. That's fine, as long as it's a two-way conversation, not an invitation to be lectured to.

A real "Ponzi scheme," for example, is an elaborate con game named after Charles Ponzi, who served time in the 1920s for operating one. Funds from unwitting new "investors" are used to pay phony dividends to old ones, which attracts newer "investors." The scam collapses when it runs out of new suckers. Think Bernie Madoff.

In fact, memories of the convicted Madoff, a respected Wall Street figure until his fund turned out to be a multi-billion-dollar Ponzi, give pause to many at the very notion of trusting even more of the nation's retirement funds to Wall Street. At least with Social Security, everybody is in on the scheme.

Before we talk about reducing what Social Security does, we need to talk more about why this New Deal-era program is so popular: It lifts 13 million elderly Americans out of poverty, according to the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, either as an income supplement or as sole retirement income. Without Social Security, the Washington-based center found, almost half of the elderly -- 48 percent -- would fall below the government's poverty line, instead of the current 8 percent.

And more than 3 million children received their own benefits as dependents of retired, disabled or deceased workers, the center found, or by living with parents or relatives who received Social Security benefits.

Social Security is currently solvent until 2037, according to the Congressional Research Service. And it would remain solvent for decades after that, the CRS says, with simple adjustments such as lifting the current caps that exempt upper-income earnings from the payroll tax.

Saddled with a sluggish economy, President Obama will have to "run on fear" in 2012, some conservative observers have said. He may well rely, as conservative columnist Byron York put it, on "convincing voters that Republicans are just too scary to elect." If so, President Obama can thank Gov. Perry for giving him so much ammunition.


Receive our political analysis by email by subscribing here

Rick Perry Grabs 'Third Rail' | Politics

© Tribune Media Services, Inc.