November 4, 2011

THE WORD “THUGGISH” comes to mind. “I’m not a number,” says the older man in a television ad funded by the seniors’ lobby AARP. “I’m not a line item on a budget. And I’m definitely not a pushover.” He walks toward the camera, joined by a growing mob. “But I am a voter. So Washington, before you even think about cutting my Medicare and Social Security benefits, here’s a number you should remember: 50 million.” Subtle — no. Effective — no doubt. Responsible — no way.

The crunch time for the congressional supercommittee has arrived, and with it comes a new round of self-centered, shortsighted intransigence on the part of AARP and its fellow don’t-touch-my-benefits purists. This unyielding position, undergirded by a multimillion-dollar ad campaign, is as wrongheaded as the equivalent line-drawing of Grover Norquist and the no-new-taxes crowd.

As tiresome as it may be to see these points repeated, it seems necessary to restate them: First, the only reasonable solution to the debt problem will be a balanced approach that combines new revenue with spending cuts. Second, dealing with the spending side of the ledger requires getting entitlement spending, first and foremost Medicare, under control. Third, while cuts in promised benefits are not necessarily required, it is counter-productive to take them off the table. It is unacceptable to argue that no senior, no matter how well off, can be called on to sacrifice for the greater good.

David Certner, AARP’s legislative policy director, says that a 30-second ad “is not intended to be particularly nuanced.” AARP argues that a debt reduction committee is not the proper place to be discussing Social Security because it did not contribute to the problem. “The rest of the federal government is badly in the red — including the money it owes to Social Security,” Mr. Certner told us. “But Social Security didn’t create all that debt.”

True, but the brutal fact is that Social Security cannot pay all promised benefits, and a debt discussion is a useful place to make reasonable tradeoffs.

As to Medicare, Mr. Certner said, “There are lots of places to go to save money in Medicare, but our members firmly believe that, one, they already pay a lot for health care, 20 percent of their incomes typically; and two, that we ought to do all these other things first before we start asking people whose average incomes are around $19,000 to pay even more out of pocket.”

Yes, those in greatest need should be shielded from changes — but there are reasonable benefit adjustments that can be done in tandem with other cuts.

The coming decade is going to be a time of painful choosing among competing priorities. Not every worthy program will be affordable. Not every desirable benefit can be paid. Some people, probably more of them than President Obama and fellow Democrats have let on, are going to have to pay more in taxes.

In this environment of limited resources, the inevitable tradeoffs will require a degree of political risk-taking. The seeming stalemate in which the debt reduction supercommittee finds itself reflects lawmakers’ reluctance to take such risks. And the menacing message of AARP — lay off our benefits or we’ll punish you in the voting booth — is a depressing example of what feeds that cowardice.