Recently one of our neighbors shared with me an article written by her teenage daughter, Katie, for her high school newspaper. The article was titled “Obsessed with Celebrities? The media is too…,” and it dealt with the destructive behavior of celebrities, in particular as they related to young people who often follow their example.

Katie wrote, “Global fascination with dull celebrities is spreading like an epidemic, infecting us through the eyeballs in the lethal form of the television. Important issues are being ignored, and it’s not fair that we have to hear about these airbrushed brutes everyday. The focus of the worldwide population has shifted so drastically from real media to sensational media. Could this pose a negative effect on our society?”

Another excerpt from Katie’s article: “When news broke that our very own starlet Paris Hilton was arrested, it was all over the news, even in China. We call this nonsense sensational media. Sensational media is taking the place of real media that shows meaningful events. When younger Americans see the celebrities’ misfortunes highlighted everywhere they go, the celebrities are setting a bad example for the younger kids, who are inevitably looking up to them. These kids are developing trashed minds and becoming more and more materialistic.”

And a final word from Katie: “Will our media learn to look through the bleach blonde, spray tanned, rich and untalented fog that is billowing out of Hollywood Hills and seeping into the media? Will the day ever come? Well, you sure can’t find out in a magazine or on the news.”

Wise words from one so young. But as I read her article my mind turned to other destructive obsessions that distract us from reality. The dominant issue that came to mind was our political discourse, which in most cases sheds more heat than light on any given subject. The debates among presidential candidates have been tiresome and a clear example of how the “tyranny of words” can lead to confusion and unease. A recent news item declared that the public is suffering from “debate fatigue.” No wonder!

One particular topic of discussion will, I believe, serve to illustrate my concern. In recent months, I have heard enough baloney about our Social Security system to fill every delicatessen in the country. Most pronouncements are pure scare tactics in pursuit of votes. The most often used accusation alleges that in a few years the system will be bankrupt and future generations of workers will not receive benefits. Those who espouse such a point of view either do not understand the system or are engaging in a deliberate deception.

In 1935, when Robert Myers, first chief actuary for Social Security, and his associates designed the system, they took into account two critical issues germane to present day discussions.

First, they reckoned that as the years rolled by there would be times when the inflow from taxes would be greater than that needed to pay current benefits. To accommodate this mismatch they incorporated into the system the Social Security trust funds to store the excess in the plus years and provide a supplement to current taxes in the negative years. That part of the system is still in place and functioning well.

At the end of 2006 the value of the trust funds stood at $2 trillion–and was growing significantly ($152 billion in ’06). Actuarial estimates (not political claims) are that by the year 2020 the trust funds will have grown to $3.6 trillion. The year 2020 is significant because that is the first year current Social Security taxes will be insufficient to pay full benefits. Therefore, funds will be drawn down from the trust funds to meet the shortfall (about 19%) thus assuring full benefits to the beneficiaries. It is estimated that the trust funds are adequate to provide a supplement to current taxes for about 32 years after 2020 or perhaps a bit longer.

With current taxes paying 81% or more of current benefits and $3.6 trillion in reserve one could hardly call the system bankrupt–bent maybe, but not broke. In 1935 life expectancy was 61.5 years; today it is 77. Phasing in the age for full benefits up to age 68 from the present projection of 67 could solve the longer-term problem. Another alternative could be to raise the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes above the $90,000 annual level. The solution is there when Congress is ready to act instead of posturing.

The second issue Myers and company addressed is how to invest the stored funds until they were needed. Given the probable size of the funds at various times, investing in publicly held corporations seemed out of the question for obvious reasons. An amount like $3.6 trillion pumped into the stock market by the funds could create such a demand that prices of stocks could balloon out of sight. Even more serious, that amount of investment could give voting control of a substantial part of the business community to government. Pure socialism is government ownership of the productive resources of a country. Perhaps the worst scenario would occur when the funds were liquidated to provide benefits–thereby causing stock prices to decline (or even crash). The decision was made by the designers that the only investment they could make would be in government bonds thus eliminating any interference with the private sector.

To paraphrase Katie and her concern for young people: Will our mainstream media ever learn to look through the wails of politicians billowing out of Capital Hill and seeping into our political discourse? Well, you sure can’t find out in a magazine or on the news.