Mega-Kudos to Newsweek’s Samuelson: Entitlement Programs Put Country at Risk

It is very rare that a conservative agrees with anything published by Newsweek. Yet, Robert J. Samuelson wrote an article Wednesday that will likely shock most NewsBusters readers (emphasis mine throughout):

As someone born in late 1945, I say this to the 76 million or so subsequent baby boomers and particularly to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, our generation's leading politicians: shame on us. We are trying to rob our children and grandchildren, putting the country's future at risk in the process. On one of the great issues of our time, the social and economic costs of our retirement, we have adopted a policy of selfish silence.

Shocking, yes? Think this might go counter to most Newsweek subscribers’ beliefs? Well, sit back and enjoy, ladies and gentlemen, for Robert was just getting warmed up:

As Congress reconvenes, pledges of "fiscal responsibility" abound. Let me boldly predict: on retirement spending, this Congress will do nothing, just as previous Congresses have done nothing. Nancy Pelosi promises to "build a better future for all of America's children." If she were serious, she would back cuts in Social Security and Medicare. President Bush calls "entitlement spending" the central budget problem. If he were serious, he, too, would propose cuts in Social Security and Medicare.

They are not serious, because few Americans—particularly prospective baby-boom retirees—want them to be. There is a consensus against candor, because there is no constituency for candor. It's no secret that the 65-and-over population will double by 2030 (to almost 72 million, or 20 percent of the total population), but hardly anyone wants to face the implications.

Marvelous stuff, although Samuelson is placing too much blame on the baby boomers. After all, we didn’t create this problem; we just inherited it. Furthermore, current retirees weren’t writing their Congressmen back in the first quarter of 2005 strongly supporting Social Security reform. Regardless, Samuelson was very close to the target, and continued to fire on all cylinders:

By comparison, other budget issues, including the notorious earmarks, are trivial. In 2005, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (the main programs for the elderly) cost $1.034 trillion, twice the amount of defense spending and more than two fifths of the total federal budget. These programs are projected to equal about three quarters of the budget by 2030, if it remains constant as a share of national income.

Preserving present retirement benefits automatically imposes huge costs on the young—costs that are economically unsound and socially unjust. The tax increases required by 2030 could hit 50 percent, if other spending is maintained as a share of national income. Or much of the rest of government (from defense to national parks) would have to be shut down or crippled. Or budget deficits would balloon to quadruple today's level.

Amen, brother. Tell us more:

Social Security and Medicare benefits must be cut to keep down overall costs. Yes, some taxes will be raised and some other spending cut. But much of the adjustment should come from increasing eligibility ages (ultimately to 70) and curbing payments to wealthier retirees. Americans live longer and are healthier. They can work longer and save more for retirement.

Yes we can, Robert. Tell us more:

Next I'll hear that the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, intended to cover future benefits, have been "plundered." Blame Congress and the White House—not us. This is pure fiction.

Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are pay-as-you-go programs. Present taxes pay present benefits. In 2005, 86 percent of Social Security payroll taxes went to pay current retiree benefits. True, excess taxes had created a "surplus" in the Social Security trust fund (it hasn't been "plundered") of $1.66 trillion in 2005; but that equaled less than four years' worth of present benefits. More important, Medicare and Medicaid represent three quarters of the projected spending increase for retirees by 2030.

All the misinformation bespeaks political evasion. With his rhetorical skills, Clinton might have raised public understanding. Instead, he lowered it by falsely denouncing the Republicans for attempting to "destroy" Medicare. The first refuge of good Democrats is to accuse the Republicans of conspiring against old folks by trying to dismantle Social Security and Medicare. And Bush's credibility is shot, because he made the problem worse. His Medicare drug benefit increases spending, and though it could have been justified as part of a grand bargain that reduced other benefits, its isolated enactment was a political giveaway.

Amazing. A member of the mainstream media actually refuting the oft-stated canard about Social Security funds being plundered. Not only that, but also indicting politicians for their consistent misinformation concerning entitlement programs. Somebody pinch me. Continue, Robert:

Opportunities for gradual change have been squandered. These public failings are also mirrored privately. I know many bright, politically engaged boomers who can summon vast concern or outrage about global warming, corporate corruption, foreign policy, budget deficits and much more—but somehow, their own Social Security and Medicare benefits rarely come up for discussion or criticism. Older boomers (say, those born by 1955) are the most cynical, hoping their benefits will be grandfathered in when inevitable cuts occur in the future.

Samuelson concluded: “Baby boomers seem eager to ‘reinvent retirement’ in all ways except those that might threaten their pocketbooks.”

Here, I must disagree, and would love to ask Robert why he didn’t reference the President’s 2005 Social Security reform proposals, and the position that many baby boom conservatives took on this issue. After all, organizations such as The Club For Growth, which is comprised of many baby boomers, strongly advocate lowering benefits and raising retirement ages.

However, regardless of these minor differences, Samuelson was right on, and must be commended for stating what few in the drive-by media have the nerve to.

Bravo, Robert.

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Noel Sheppard's picture