Race to disaster

Race to disaster

May 1st, 2012 in Opinion Free Press

Among the more unhappy headlines you may have read in recent days was this one atop an article by The Associated Press: "Social Security heading for insolvency even faster."

Alas, that also is an appallingly realistic headline. And without serious reform of entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, the situation is unlikely to get better anytime soon.

To be specific, Social Security is expected to become insolvent in 2033, according to the federal government. One needn't be mathematically inclined to realize that is only about two decades away. So if you're in your mid- to late 40s today, the funds may be running dry right about the time you are expecting to retire and to start relying on Social Security to support yourself.

The trends are in the wrong direction, too. As the government pointed out, the 2033 projection for Social Security's insolvency is three years earlier than previously projected.

The factors behind this alarming -- but woefully ignored -- state of affairs are many. But among them is the simple fact, long noted by anyone who has been paying attention, that millions of baby boomers are beginning to retire, putting additional strain on the program.

And the payroll tax receipts that fund Social Security as well as Medicare are expected to decline, trustees of both programs say, because people are likely to work fewer hours even if our nation begins enjoying robust economic recovery.

If the Social Security frying pan doesn't trouble you, try the Medicare fire. It is dubious consolation at best that Medicare's trustees have not sped up the projected date when that program will go broke. But on the whole, Medicare's situation is even more dire than that of Social Security. Medicare is expected to be insolvent in a little more than a decade -- fully nine years before Social Security hits a fiscal wall. (Some estimates say Medicare's insolvency may come even sooner, as the pace of spending on the program grows ever faster, with no clear ideas offered as to how to fund that spending.)

Yet despite the economic threat posed by the insolvency of Social Security and Medicare, there is little inclination in Washington to reform the programs in ways that will make them genuinely sustainable. Talk of reform often is met with a fierce lobbying blitz by special interest groups and with demagoguery by politicians. The issue is so sensitive that lawmakers of both parties frequently are unwilling even to broach the subject in any but the most general terms, for fear of being voted out of office.

That points to the painful reality that not only politicians but "we the people" are part of the problem. There no doubt will be an epic outcry when Social Security and Medicare finally go broke and we are faced with mammoth, economy-smashing tax increases and almost unthinkable cuts in benefits. But at least to some extent, we will have brought that calamity on ourselves by electing people who told us what we wanted to hear and promised us what we wanted to be promised -- and by ignoring lawmakers or would-be lawmakers who refused to sugarcoat the issue.

The trustees of the two programs spelled out the situation clearly -- and urged quick action.

"Lawmakers should not delay addressing the long-run financial challenges facing Social Security and Medicare," they wrote. "If they take action sooner rather than later, more options and more time will be available to phase in changes so that the public has adequate time to prepare."

But if history tells us anything, it's that that is one mighty big "if."