You know the story about Nero fiddling while Rome burned? It didn’t actually happen, but it illustrates a point about leaders crazily ignoring a problem.
These days, no illustration is needed. The government’s largest programs, Social Security and Medicare, are not burning up, but their problems are being ignored.
On Wednesday, the Social Security trustees and Medicare trustees each released their annual reports.
Social Security’s trustees wrote that the trust fund that supposedly finances the program – but actually has been raided to pay for other programs and then filled with IOUs – will be empty by 2034. That’s when today’s 49-year-olds (I’m 47) reach the normal retirement age. When that happens, benefits for all recipients, including 85-year-olds, theoretically would be cut 21 percent.
But of course that probably wouldn’t happen. The American people wouldn’t stand for it, and too many seniors vote. If tomorrow’s elected officials play the fiddle as well as today’s do (and they will probably be some of the same people), they’ll transfer money from the rest of the budget to Social Security and add to the national debt. As of June 21, that debt is $19,265,744,770,778.65, or more than $59,000 for every American.
Medicare’s due date is approaching faster. The trustees say the trust fund that pays for hospitals will be depleted by 2028, which is two years sooner than was projected last year. When the assets are depleted, revenues would cover 87 percent of the costs. Today, the program covers 55.3 million people.
All of this is occurring in the context of huge budget challenges. The government will already spend $534 billion more this year than it will collect, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Social Security, Medicare and interest on the debt already comprise 45 percent of the federal budget. Social Security and Medicare are growing, and the CBO says interest costs will rise from 6 percent of the budget this year to 13 percent by 2026.
In other words, if you neither touch Social Security and Medicare nor raise taxes, everything else, including defense, has to be cut quite a bit.
The American democratic experiment has faced bigger challenges than this one: creating a Constitution, ending slavery, reconstructing the union, winning World War II. Social Security and Medicare previously have faced insolvency, but at various times policymakers have figured out ways to push the due dates into the future. Social Security doesn’t require some Einsteinian policy fix – just spend less and/or collect more tax revenues. Medicare is harder because it’s based on paying into a health care system that keeps getting more costly, but it can be done.
Still, solving these problems is difficult because of changing demographics – we’re getting older and living longer – and because Americans now expect expensive government services for which they’re unwilling to pay the full cost. They believe the money can be found elsewhere, and some can be found, but not enough.
So elected officials not only must put down their fiddles, but they must also come down into the city and convince a majority of people to help put out a fire that, for now, is hard to see. All the while, they must overcome the many special interests who want to feed the fire.
Somebody must lead. Unfortunately, that probably won’t happen this election year. Sen. Bernie Sanders has led the Democratic Party, including President Obama and Hillary Clinton, to calling for increasing Social Security benefits. Clinton says she’ll pay for her increases by raising taxes on the wealthy – but remember, she gets a lot of money from wealthy people. The Republican nominee, Donald Trump, says there will be no need for changing the programs because America will be so rich because of his better trade deals and Mexico-built wall.
If it were up to me, we’d raise Social Security’s retirement age, reduce or end benefits for the wealthy, increase payments to older and infirm recipients, and increase the payroll tax. I’m not sure what to do about Medicare. I’d also cut other things and slowly pay back the money we’ve already spent.
But for now, I’ve lost that debate in every direction. Americans don’t want to cut spending, and they don’t want to raise any taxes.
So at this point, I really don’t care which direction we go. Just stop increasing the debt we’re passing on to my kids. They’re going to have enough on their hands taking care of me someday.
Related: Red ink rising.