In this morning’s paper (clinging to that phrase to the bitter end), Robert Samuelson says we have created a suicidal government that promises more than it can pay for, and is beholden to vast constituencies that depend on these same services even while being unwilling to pony up the money for them. It’s a familiar argument by now. By his calculation, I’m one of the Americans who depends on government largesse, because I take advantage of the mortgage interest deduction on my house.

But I protest: The mortgage interest deduction hardly puts me on the federal dole. I sent fat checks to the IRS regularly. If someone wants to eliminate the mortgage interest deduction, that’s fine, so long as there is a commensurate lowering of the marginal income tax rate.

No, there’s something lurking in this entire debate that doesn’t get properly identified. I’m a little surprised that Samuelson in his big-picture analysis didn’t confront it directly. The problem is not that Americans are overly dependent on the government in a general sense. It’s that they are overly dependent on the government to take care of their aging parents.

The U.S. fiscal crisis is fundamentally about old people and the government’s relationship with them. Never mind funding for Planned Parenthood or even the military: The time bomb in the federal budget is Medicare, a program for the elderly.

For the state budgets, it’s pensions.

Any discussion of the fiscal picture needs to be a discussion about how we treat retirement-age citizens and why, as a country, we have chosen to set up our budgets to funnel so much money to that demographic. We probably can’t afford to make good on the implicit promises to that generation. At some point, collectively, we have to rethink the relationship between and among workers, retirees and the U.S. Treasury.

I’m not bashing the elderly here. This issue is rather personal for me, because I have aging parents (my mother and stepfather), and their eligibility for government-backed medical care implicitly affects me. In this country, old folks don’t tend to move back into the homes of their kids. There are countries in which our treatment of the elderly is considered unconscionable. So this isn’t just a numbers game. These are moral questions.

What’s gonna happen to Grandma?