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Making the Think Tanks Think

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By Robert J. Samuelson
Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Just in case you haven't noticed, the major presidential candidates -- Republican and Democratic -- are dodging one of the thorniest problems they would face if elected: the huge budget costs of aging baby boomers. In last week's CNN-YouTube debate, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson cleverly deflected the issue. "The best solution," he said, "is a bipartisan effort to fix it." Brilliant. There's already a bipartisan consensus: Do nothing. No one plugs cutting retirement benefits or raising taxes, the obvious choices.

End of story? Not exactly. There's also a less-noticed cause for the neglect. Washington's vaunted think tanks -- citadels for public intellectuals both liberal and conservative -- have tiptoed around the problem. Ideally, think tanks expand the public conversation by saying things too controversial for politicians to say on their own. Here, they've abdicated that role.

The aging of America is not just a population change or, as a budget problem, an accounting exercise. It involves a profound transformation of the nature of government: Commitments to the older population are slowly overwhelming other public goals; the national government is becoming mainly an income-transfer mechanism from younger workers to older retirees.

Consider the outlook. From 2005 to 2030, the 65-and-over population will nearly double, to 71 million; its share of the population will rise to 20 percent from 12 percent. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- programs that serve older people -- already exceed 40 percent of the $2.7 trillion federal budget. By 2030, their share could hit 75 percent of the present budget, projects the Congressional Budget Office.

These projections are daunting. To keep federal spending stable as a share of the economy would mean eliminating all defense spending and most other domestic programs (for research, homeland security, the environment, etc.). To balance the budget with existing programs at their present economic shares would require, depending on assumptions, tax increases of 30 to 50 percent -- or budget deficits could quadruple. A final possibility: Cut retirement benefits by increasing eligibility ages, being less generous to wealthier retirees or trimming all payments.

Little wonder politicians stay silent. But think tanks ought to be thrilled, because these changes pose basic questions about government. What should it do? For whom? Why? How big can it grow without weakening the economy? Does that matter? Is social justice more important than economic growth? Do gains in life expectancy and the well-being of the elderly justify significant changes in Social Security and Medicare?

Over the years, many think tanks have deplored budget deficits and undisciplined federal spending. There have been countless reports on Social Security and Medicare. Most are technical, though some propose major (even radical) changes. But the two programs are usually treated separately, and the larger questions of adjusting to an aging society are mostly evaded. I think I know why: Wrenching honesty might be deeply embarrassing.

Liberals might have to concede that government could grow too large and that spending and benefit cuts are needed. Conservatives might have to concede that, even with plausible benefit and spending cuts, tomorrow's government would be bigger than today's. For think-tank scholars, brutal candor might offend friends and political mentors. For the ambitious, it might jeopardize future appointments to top government jobs.

As an antidote to this timidity, I propose that some public-spirited sugar daddy (the MacArthur Foundation? Warren Buffett?) sponsor a short book. A possible title: "Facing Up to an Aging America." Six leading think tanks would be invited to participate: three liberal -- the Brookings Institution, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and the Urban Institute-- and three conservative: the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

After an introduction describing America's aging, each think tank would receive 35 pages to respond to questions and to present its vision. Are the looming budget changes good for America? If so, how would they be financed? If not, why not? How could adverse consequences be avoided? The think tanks would be expected to be specific. Higher eligibility ages? Well, how much and when? Higher taxes? Which ones and how much? If a think tank rejected the invitation, the publisher would run 35 blank pages and an explanation: "Think tank X declined to participate."

This approach would force think tanks to compete. They'd have to make their vision of the future explicit within the untidy framework of government's past commitments. It would illuminate the connections between defense spending, retirement benefits, health care, economic growth and much more. Writing for a general audience, it would favor plain English, not the usual technobabble. If published in April, the book might prod the presidential candidates to address the future. If they didn't, it would demonstrate the magnitude of their evasion.

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