Jay Ambrose: Fix the national debt by fixing entitlements
Congress just passed a two-year bipartisan spending bill that will take our $20 trillion debt and start stuffing it with deficit dynamite until it finally explodes at some point and America’s wounded economy limps toward its death bed.
That’s one prognostication, and it has a firm foundation if nothing is done to adjust Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Here are major underlying causes of our current jeopardy, all of which could have been easily fixed long ago. They weren’t because of what’s still in the way: demagoguery, self-serving politics, putting present bliss over future dismay and ideological inanities.
This latest bill was framed by the Republicans to boost military spending by 10 percent, and that made sense. The military is in a bad way financially. Incredibly enough, for instance, there is a pilot shortage in part because of too little money for training, and this at such a tense, challenging time.
To get the bill passed, Democrats had to go along – 60 percent of senators have to say OK if spending bills are to be enacted – and they could easily have forced another shutdown. Instead they promised to supply the needed votes if they got a historically high boost for social programs. It was an all-or-nothing proposition both ways. “All” won the game with consequences including an extension of unwarranted subsidies, ending spending caps and, of course, massively amplifying the debt hazard.
The deal’s spending increase comes to a whopping $400 billion and is all the worse, some say, because of the GOP tax reduction package, which pleads innocent because of the good it otherwise does.
This package has already spurred the economy and put money in pockets with lower taxes, higher wages and bonuses for average folks. The job-creating business expansion could be phenomenal, saving the savaged working class with higher pay and more opportunities and requiring leftist economists to rewrite textbooks saying this kind of growth was no longer possible.
Revenues will actually be increased, say some notable economists, although there remains a rescue without which there is no rescue. It is to address Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. These programs are hugely needed and beloved by just about everybody but are themselves unsustainable without change.
This point gets argued a lot, but, while entitlement treasury bonds speak to what is undeniably due to the programs under law, they do not mean all is well. The spending on everything else long ago ate up any means of paying beneficiaries without increasing the debt every year by tens of billions of dollars.
The baby boomers are retiring in huge numbers, the costs keep going up, Social Security and Medicare alone are taking up around 60 percent of the unified budget and here is what any number of bipartisan experts say: Down the road, our tax revenues will be sufficient only for entitlements and paying overwhelming interest on the debt. There will be no way to borrow our way out of this much of a mess.
All kinds of sensible plans have been proposed in the past as vile and inhumane demagogues have portrayed their proponents as vile and inhumane. To sustain these programs and a thriving economy we need to consider such things as raising the retirement age and reducing benefits to the rich with no effect on current beneficiaries or those close to retirement. Otherwise the programs won’t last and the economy will turn sour.
President Donald Trump, who refuses to do anything about Social Security, has produced a whirlwind of an unnecessarily controversial budget that does have some worthy ideas about Medicare and Medicaid. What’s really needed now are courageous Republicans willing do what’s right despite the political risks. A Democratic change of attitude would not hurt, either, but they have long specialized in making things worse.
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may email him at email@example.com.