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Entitlement reform

American presidential elections have some of the aspects of a national sporting event. People get emotionally involved. “Our guy is a genius! Your guy is a bum!”

As the excitement grows, it’s easy to forget that, a year ago, some perfectly sensible observers were asking, “Why would anyone want the job?”

Oh, the pomp and the perks are nice. But even before the financial-sector meltdown struck hard in September and October, anyone with a pocket calculator could work out that the burgeoning costs of the great federal entitlement programs — Medicaid, Social Security and especially Medicare — will soon place such a burden on government resources that talk about any new “initiatives” and “programs” will start to sound as realistic as cheery plans to hang bright new wallpaper in the first-class dining salon of the Titanic.

The headlines this week are full of accounts of President-elect Obama selecting his administration’s new financial team, and of the “stimulus package” they hope to push through Congress early next year.

That’s all well and good, but even if the candidates managed to do the old soft-shoe around the issue on the campaign trail, it’s time for Washington to pay attention to the iceberg out beyond the bow, or the very real prospects of Social Security and Medicare bankruptcy will make the current financial meltdown look about as puny as a kid’s ice cream cone.

If you weren’t watching closely you might have missed it, but a few years back President George W. Bush floated a sensible plan to allow younger workers to begin diverting some small part of the money deducted from their paychecks into retirement accounts they would actually own — unlike Social Security, which is a “benefit” backed by no trust fund that Washington can adjust or cancel at any time, and which cannot be left to one’s children.

The plan wouldn’t have diluted or eliminated a single dollar of benefits promised to older retirees. Yet it was attacked as a greedy right-wing scheme to benefit the stockbrokers, and was quietly abandoned.

And so the ship of state sails majestically on — as the water temperature around the hull drops ominously.

As Daniel Mitchell of the Heritage Foundation warned, way back in 2000, “The current Social Security system is actuarially bankrupt and offers a meager retirement income compared with the amount of taxes workers are required to pay. … Social Security’s 2014-2075 shortfall, after adjusting for inflation, will be as much as $20 trillion — over five times greater than the national debt. … Elimination of Social Security’s long-term deficit would require a 50 percent increase in taxes, a 33 percent reduction in promised benefits, or a combination of both.”

If we’d dealt with the problem eight years ago, that is. And that’s not the big one.

As MSNBC warned back in 2005, “A looming Medicare shortage is seven times the size of the one that Social Security faces and nearly four times the entire federal debt. It is not being addressed by President Bush and Congress. …

“Social Security, which Bush has hoisted atop his domestic agenda, is $3.7 trillion short of what it will need for benefits over the next 75 years, under the latest federal projections. Medicare, the health care program for the elderly, must find an estimated $27.8 trillion.

“By 2018, Social Security is on track to start paying more annually to recipients than it collects in payroll taxes — an ominous tipping point that Medicare reached last year.”

This week, even The Washington Post, a full-fledged Obama cheerleader, sounded a sober note, editorializing, “The structural deficit, caused by uncontrolled entitlement spending, especially for Medicare, is the real menace. A credible blueprint for long-term entitlement reform would go a long way toward ensuring the viability of Mr. Obama’s short-term anti-recession efforts, both politically and economically.”

Hanging bunting in the ballroom for the big inaugural party will be fun. Every president deserves that. But the big mountain of black ice lies out there off the bow, silent, waiting, as the mighty ship forges ahead through the night.

How long do we have?

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