March 17, 2013

“The president is in the midst of a charm offensive.”

— The Post, referring to President Obama’s meetings with congressional Republicans

We don’t need a charm offensive; we need a candor offensive. The budget debate’s central reality is that federal retirement programs, led by Social Security and Medicare, are crowding out most other government spending. Until we openly recognize and discuss this, it will be impossible to have a “balanced approach” — to use one of President Obama’s favorite phrases. It’s the math: In fiscal 2012, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and civil service and military retirement cost $1.7 trillion, about half the budget. If they’re off-limits, the burdens on other programs and tax increases grow ever greater.

It’s already happening. The military is shrinking and weakening: The Army is to be cut by 80,000 troops, the Marines by 20,000. As a share of national income, defense spending ($670 billion in 2012) is headed toward its lowest level since 1940. Even now, the Pentagon says budget limits hamper its response to cyberattacks. “Domestic discretionary spending” — a category that includes food inspectors, the FBI, the National Weather Service and many others — faces a similar fate. By 2023, this spending will drop 33 percent as a share of national income, estimates the Congressional Budget Office. Dozens of programs will be squeezed.

Nor will states and localities escape. Federal grants ($607 billion in 2011) will shrink. States’ Medicaid costs will increase with the number of aged and disabled, which represent two-thirds of Medicaid spending. All this will force higher taxes or reduce traditional state and local spending on schools, police, roads and parks.

The budget debate may seem inconclusive, but it’s having pervasive effects. Choices are being made by default. Almost everything is being subordinated to protect retirees. Solicitude for government’s largest constituency undermines the rest of government. This is an immensely important story almost totally ignored by the media. One reason is that it’s happening spontaneously and invisibly: Growing numbers of elderly are simply collecting existing benefits. The media do not excel at covering inertia.

Liberals drive this process by treating Social Security and Medicare as sacrosanct. Do not touch a penny of benefits; these programs are by definition progressive; all recipients are deserving and needy. Only a few brave liberals complain that this dogma threatens programs for the non-aged poor. “None of us wants to impose new burdens on vulnerable seniors,” write economists Harry J. Holzer of Georgetown University and Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution in The Post. But “for how long will we continue to sacrifice investments in our nation’s children and youth ... to spend more and more on the aged?”

Hypocritical conservatives are liberals’ unspoken allies. Despite constant grumbling about entitlements, they lack the courage of their convictions. Consider House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s latest budget plan. From 2014 to 2023, he proposes cutting federal spending by $4.6 trillion. Not a cent comes from Social Security, while Medicare cuts are tiny, about 2 percent. His major Medicare proposal (in effect, a voucher) wouldn’t start until 2024. Most baby boomers escape meaningful benefit cuts. As Holzer and Sawhill fear, most of Ryan’s cuts affect programs for the poor.

What frustrates constructive debate is muddled public opinion. Americans hate deficits but desire more spending and reject higher taxes. In a Pew poll, 87 percent of respondents favored present or greater Social Security spending; only 10 percent backed cuts. Results were similar for 18 of 19 programs, foreign aid being the exception.

Only the occupant of the bully pulpit can yank public opinion back to reality. This requires acknowledging that an aging America needs a new social compact: one recognizing that longer life expectancies justify gradual increases in Social Security’s and Medicare’s eligibility ages; one accepting that sizable numbers of well-off retirees can afford to pay more for their benefits or receive less; one that improves generational fairness by concentrating help for the elderly more on the needy and poor to lighten the burdens — in higher taxes and fewer public services — on workers; and one that limits health costs.

Obama hasn’t talked intelligently or openly about America’s aging. In budget negotiations, the administration has made some proposals (a different inflation adjustment for Social Security benefits, a higher Medicare eligibility age) that broach the subject. But Obama hasn’t put these modest steps into the larger context of social change; nor is it clear how much the administration supports them. It’s true that Republicans should also accept higher taxes — but only after the White House engages retirement spending.

Little is possible while public opinion remains frozen in contradiction. The mistake lies in thinking that the apparent paralysis isn’t policy. It is. Government is being slowly transformed into a vast old-age home, with everything else devalued and degraded.

Read more from Robert Samuelson’s archive.