In a variety of public employments and from various posts in private life, I’ve been among those urging that we take greater care with our public finances, to ward off serious, permanent damage to the economy and, just as important, to the safety net on which so many vulnerable Americans rely.
Until recently, I’ve held on tightly to two beliefs essential to long-term fiscal survival.
The first, grounded in actuarial reality, was that, if we began acting now, we could keep the promises of Social Security, Medicare and the other so-called entitlement programs.
The second, always as much a matter of faith as of proven fact, was that the American people could engage in an adult conversation about the subject and support the needed changes, before it was too late. Surely someone eventually would appeal successfully to our reason and to our concern for our children, grandchildren and the country’s future.
I conclude, reluctantly and dejectedly, that it’s time to face the unpleasant facts. The past decade demonstrates amply that our political process is not capable of the kind of decisions that are necessary. The temptation to savage anyone proposing safety-net reform (the sine qua non of any serious fiscal rescue, really the only issue that matters) remains electorally irresistible and invariably effective.
From very different directions, either of the past two presidents could have led the nation to a safer place, but neither had any interest in doing so. Instead, both perpetuated the “noble lies” — “You’re just getting your own money back,” “We owe it to ourselves,” etc. — by which the public has been misled through the years.
Even the modest, painless actions we could have started with, such as means-testing, or small, distant future increases in the age of eligibility, or correction of the system’s over-adjustment for inflation, have never had a ghost of a chance.
Meanwhile, the inexorable arithmetic of dollars times demography has taken us past the point of no return. It’s no longer possible to say that, by starting now, we can avert massive, and massively unfair, changes in the promises we have made, or that current beneficiaries have nothing to worry about. That line was crossed even before the emergency budget blowout of 2020 added trillions to the debt tab we will dump on younger generations.
There are parallels with other long-term, nation-threatening challenges of our time. We should have seen the pandemic coming and prepared for it. If the climate change computer models prove accurate, it is already too late to prevent the world’s thermometer from rising to levels deemed unacceptable. While calling on us to take what preventive measures we can, the more serious leaders on these topics are hard at work on the goals of mitigation and adaptation.
However likely the climate problem or next pandemic is, the unraveling of the safety net is far more so. No computer models are needed to see that there is zero chance of delivering on the promises already in place, let alone the fresh, astonishing proposals in Washington to make these commitments even larger.
A start on mitigation would be for the Social Security Administration to begin including in beneficiary bulletins a disclosure that, starting soon, the system cannot fulfill all of its commitments. The disclosure could then provide sample calculations of the amount of savings a given recipient will need to replace those expected payments under alternative scenarios. Something similar could be done for doctors and medical students, projecting the deep cuts in reimbursement rates to which Medicare will resort.
Allowing the fiction of full-payment-for-all to persist will only add the rage of betrayal to the hardships imposed by the now-inevitable sudden cuts in benefits and huge tax increases. If you think confidence in the federal government is shaky now, wait until it starts reneging on these “sacred” promises. Better to come clean, and help people plan, starting now.
I recall watching with sad admiration, decades ago, the dauntless activism of what was once known as the Captive Nations lobby, those brave refugees and descendants from the Baltic states then subjugated by Soviet communism. One had to feel sorry for people pouring their energy into such a just but hopeless cause. I’m beginning to see those of us still pleading for safety-net reform in much the same way.
Of course, for the Captive Nations activists, a miracle happened. A cataclysm only Ronald Reagan and a few other visionaries foresaw brought the liberation that their lobbying and demonstrations never could have achieved. It’s too late for any such rescue of America’s safety net. Might as well face it, and shift our efforts to the task of getting ready.