President George W. Bush made a shocking assertion back in 2005 when he was pushing to privatize Social Security. “A lot of people in America think there is a trust,” he said, “that we take your money in payroll taxes and then we hold it for you and then when you retire, we give it back to you. But that’s not the way it works. There is no trust fund — just IOUs ….”

Actually, working Americans have paid so much in Social Security payroll taxes during the past three decades that they have built up a $2.6 trillion surplus in the account. That money should make the system strong enough to cover the current level of benefits for the next 26 years. In the interim, a prudent government could restructure the program for the rest of the century, perhaps by means-testing benefits and rejiggering contributions.

But, unfortunately, Bush was right. In 1983, Congress and the Reagan administration adjusted Social Security taxes and benefits to put the program on an even keel that began to build up a huge surplus for investment. But Congress decided to “borrow” the surplus instead of investing. They’ve been using it to help pay for things that have nothing to do with Social Security, things the political establishment and tax-averse Americans wanted but didn’t want to pay for: invasions, education, highway repairs and so on. And, without giving any thought to paying the surplus money back, the federal government has been trading it for special Treasury bonds that politicians used to assure us were safe in a lockbox.

Just IOUs. In a lockbox.

They are, however, IOUs that are supposed to be backed by the full faith and credit of the United States. So this year, as the Social Security Administration is beginning to fall short of what it needs to pay retiree benefits, it is cashing in $45 billion of the bonds. And because the country is upside down in debt, it has to borrow the $45 billion from China or somewhere else to make older people’s ends meet. Those maneuvers will presumably continue until 2037 unless the system is adjusted in the meantime or Uncle Sam’s credit line runs out.

It would be nice if we could drag the past five presidents and all members of Congress since 1983 into court and squeeze the $2.6 trillion out of them. But we can’t. We elected them, and they did all the borrowing for us. Given the lack of attention we self-governing Americans paid over all those years, we would be wise not to get too huffy about the situation. According to a recent poll conducted for Investor’s Business Daily, only 40 percent of us realize that the Social Security trust fund is composed of IOUs.

So the politicians who engineered this government malpractice get away with telling two radically different stories, both of which are sort of correct.

Republicans say the Social Security program has to borrow money to stay afloat, making it a key part of the national debt crisis. Democrats say Social Security is fully funded with a huge surplus, and so doesn’t contribute to the debt crisis.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said on “Meet the Press” the other day that talk about a Social Security financing crisis is “something that is perpetuated by people who don’t like government.”

Perhaps. But that group of people could expand as Congress tackles the debt crisis, everybody gets a peek in the lockbox, and folks in Washington decide whether our Social Security tax payments really have been borrowed, or stolen.