And mind-numbing numbers are involved in any discussion about it. The Social Security Trust Fund had nearly $2.7 trillion in assets at the end of 2011, which is a bit more than total federal government revenues that year. And Social Security reported a surplus. Assets in the retirement portion of the trust grew by $95 billion, while the fund for disabled workers shrank by $26 billion for a net increase of $69 billion.

That trust fund was built with taxes paid since 1984 that were greater than benefits paid, and with interest on those assets. Now as the Boomers retire, the trust will be drawn down until it is exhausted in about 20 years. Between now and 2087, Social Security will owe more in benefits than the trust fund and future tax revenues combined, a shortfall estimated at the equivalent of $8.6 trillion today.

Big and scary as that number is, when you break it down across 75 years and more than 151 million workers, the number necessary to make up that $8.6 trillion shortfall shrinks fast. Divide that huge figure by the number of worker years (151 million times 75) and the shortfall comes to about $760 per worker year. Since half of that would come from taxes on workers (with employers paying the other half in a matching tax) the reduction in take home pay averages about $7.50 a week.

Restoring the Reagan era policy of applying the Social Security tax to 90 percent of salaries, up from the 86 percent taxed in 2011, would bring in another $31 billion or so annually. That would reduce the cost to the average wage worker of meeting the gap down to $275 of payroll tax, or a bit more than $5 a week—a buck a day.

That is a figure people can understand—a buck a day to make Social Secuity solvent forever, as opposed to the incomprehensible net present value of $8.6 trillion.

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David Cay Johnston covers fiscal and budget matters for CJR’s United States Project. He is a reporter with 46 years of experience, including 13 at The New York Times; a columnist for Tax Analysts; teaches tax and regulatory law at Syracuse University Law School; and is president of Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE). Follow him on Twitter @DavidCayJ.