Mitch Daniels, a Post contributing columnist, is president of Purdue University and a former governor of Indiana.
So another congressional session is half over and, we’re told, is likely to go by without a mention of the moose on the American table, our preposterously out-of-control federal debt. It’s not as though the stakes are high: just our standard of living, national security, all the discretionary activities of government, and literally our future as an autonomous, self-governing people. Every honest observer knows what will cause the coming crunch, so aptly termed by Erskine Bowles as “the most predictable crisis in history”: the runaway autopilot programs we call “entitlements.” Without changes there, no combination of other measures can come close to preventing the reckoning.
We all understand the silence. Our political class was long ago scared witless by the career-killing cheap shots aimed at anyone daring to commit candor about the topic.
So far, no one has fashioned a vocabulary that an elected official can use to level with voters about Social Security and Medicare and live to tell about it politically. Everyone believes, and polls confirm, the fabled third rail is as electrified as ever.
A well-functioning democracy would, by now, have had a mature national discussion marked by a recognition of the need to set priorities among finite resources, as well as the intergenerational unfairness of the status quo, the ethical wrongness of borrowing for current consumption instead of investing in the future, the feasibility of alternative remedies if only we would start now, and so on. Regrettably, but realistically, our republic at this point doesn’t seem capable of discussions like that. Meanwhile, action really can’t wait much longer; the can is getting heavier, and we’re running out of road.
Maybe we should try rolling with the zeitgeist. Since we, for now, inhabit a polity dominated by cynicism, distrust and the belief that “they” are misleading everyone else, maybe a pitch aligned with those dispositions — and embracing the attachment Americans plainly have to programs that are bankrupting our government — would work better. Something like:
“Good evening, folks, and thanks for coming. Our topic tonight is the way those Washington elites are destroying the crucial set of government programs we call the ‘safety net,’ especially Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. It makes me furious when I think of how our politicians, from both parties, have put the safety net in terrible danger, and tried to cover it up. And we have to take some action to save it from them. Let’s start with Social Security.
“They’re not telling you this, but the money is running out, fast. They told us it was being held for our retirements, but instead they’ve been blowing it for years on all sorts of less important things.
“That’s not all. They’ve lied to you about how the system actually works. During your working years, your taxes pay the benefits for those already retired. The deal has always been that, when it’s your turn, those still working will pay for yours. If you didn’t know that — if you thought you were just getting your own money back — it’s not your fault. The politicians didn’t want you to know what was really going on. But starting soon, there won’t be nearly enough workers, and nowhere near enough money, to keep the promises they’ve made to us. Shame on the whole lot of them.
“Here’s the good news: There is still time to do some simple, common-sense things to save the safety net. Just for one example: Why do we send retirement checks to Warren Buffett? When the system is running out of money, shouldn’t we let the millionaires and billionaires provide for themselves, and conserve the money for those who really need it? There are plenty of other steps we could take, that won’t hurt anyone now or soon to be in the system, or anyone ever who really needs the protection., But the big shots don’t want you to know about them, because then they’d have to admit to the mess they’ve made of our great Social Security system.
“Our political class has botched a lot of things these past few years, and the way they’ve undermined our safety net is one of the worst. Let’s pull together to save it while there’s still time. Our parents left us peace of mind, and security. Let’s fire the politicians we’ve got and elect some who will do the same for our kids, and theirs.
“They’re wrecking Medicare, too, by the way. But let’s get into that at next week’s town hall.”
Nah, never mind. Even on this topic, where such rabble-rousing is actually pretty accurate and fair, one cannot really countenance it. Another crying need of our times is to stop tearing at and start rebuilding confidence in our institutions and those leading them. But the debt danger is, as they say these days, existential. Facts and fastidiousness have gotten us nowhere. If not a little demagoguery, what do you suggest?
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