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Sunday, December 4, 2016

In a season of depressing budget news, the worst may have been that a majority of U.S. House Democrats signed a letter urging President Barack Obama to oppose any benefit cuts to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other entitlements. That’s the last thing we need.

To hold the line on harmful cuts to discretionary spending, Obama and the Democrats must educate the public about the necessity of entitlement reform. Otherwise, the poor and needy — largely spared by the automatic reductions under sequestration — will get hit much harder down the road.

Liberals are right to reject Republican proposals that would slash social-welfare programs even as they refuse to consider closing tax loopholes for the wealthy. And I agree that the sequestration will cut into the bone of important government functions and investments in the future.

That makes two more reasons to start talking seriously about how we will pay for the insanely expensive retirement of the baby boomers.

How expensive? Anyone reaching retirement age in the next 20 years (including me) will take more than three times as much out of Medicare as he or she contributed in taxes. By 2030, the U.S. will have twice as many retirees as in 1995, and Social Security and Medicare alone will consume half of the federal budget, with the other half going almost entirely to defense and interest on the national debt. It’s unsustainable.

If Democrats don’t want to talk about these programs, they can say goodbye to every other pet program. We can preserve Medicare in amber only at the expense of investments in pre-kindergarten programs or cancer research.

To reform entitlements, we should assess what these programs were meant to do in the first place.

For starters, Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson didn’t call them entitlements. Jimmy Carter’s administration borrowed the term from Anarchy, State and Utopia, a 1974 book by Robert Nozick, a political philosopher. “Entitlement” sounds selfish and at odds with the dignity and peace of mind that Social Security and Medicare are meant to provide.

It distorts the animating idea behind these programs, which is social insurance.

FDR didn’t have strong feelings about benefit levels, retirement ages or eligibility standards. He focused on what he called guaranteed return. By that he meant that having paid into the system through a kind of insurance premium (though in fact it was merely a payroll tax), Americans should rest easy that some money would be there for them if they lived long enough to need it. The whole point was “insurance against need.”

“Guaranteed return” and “insurance against need” should continue to be the two guiding principles of social-insurance reform.

“Guaranteed return” means no privatization or voucher system for these programs. FDR would have strongly opposed President George W. Bush’s plan to allow Social Security contributions to be invested in the stock market. He thought subjecting retirement income to what he called “the winds of fortune” was a breach of the social contract. Imagine what would happen to someone who retired in 1929 or 2008? No guaranteed return.

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