A funny thing happened on the way to the 2010 election — honesty about entitlements broke out, at least among the tea-party candidates who are reviled as wild-eyed and irresponsible.
During a Fox News Senate debate in Kentucky over the weekend, Republican candidate Rand Paul said the age of eligibility for Social Security and Medicare may have to go up. “There will have to be changes for the younger generation,” Paul said, including higher deductibles and copayments for Medicare.
Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. once mused that he’d like to have a “list of things that everybody thinks and nobody says.” Among working politicians, high on that list is thinking entitlements are unsustainable yet never saying anything about reducing benefits. Asked the same question about the entitlement crisis, Paul’s Democratic opponent, Jack Conway, endorsed Medicare bulk purchasing and cracking down on fraud. He didn’t mention pixie dust and eye of newt, perhaps because he ran out of time.
Next year, a cadre of Republicans who grabbed the third rail of American politics, and in some cases jumped up on it and danced a jig, is going to show up in Washington. In Florida, where 17.2 percent of the population is 65 or older (national average: 12.9 percent), Republican Marco Rubio has talked of raising the retirement age for Social Security and reducing the growth of benefits. Together with their intellectual patron, Wisconsin representative Paul Ryan, these Republicans will be an oasis of forthrightness about the entitlement crisis and reliable votes to address it. For this reason alone, they’ll be a credit to the nation’s political debate.
Everyone knows the problem. “Spending on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security is on track to grow from about 10 percent of GDP today to about 16 percent in 2035,” Donald Marron writes in the journal National Affairs. An aging population means fewer workers contributing less revenue, and therefore “the debt will skyrocket unless there are dramatic cutbacks in all other government activities or an equally dramatic increase in taxes.”
But everyone shrinks from saying frankly what this means — we’ll have to give fewer benefits to people. In order to cover the expense of entitlements with only taxes, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate in 2008, “rates would have to more than double.” The 10 percent and 25 percent brackets would have to go to 25 percent and 63 percent, respectively, while the highest bracket would top out at a cool 88 percent.
Not all Republicans have the gumption of a Paul or a Rubio, which is why the consensus campaign document of the House Republicans takes a pass on entitlements. Democrats have been running a scare campaign anyway. In their stilted calculus, scaling back Social Security for the young in the future represents a threat to the old here and now.
Pres. Barack Obama and his team have warned of the dire consequences of debt to our economic future. That won’t stop them, as soon as Republicans dare touch entitlements, from accusing their opponents of unbridled savagery. In the early 1990s, Bill Clinton warned of rampant Medicare spending threatening “our competitiveness, our whole economy, our living standards.” When the GOP tried to pull back the program’s rate of growth from 9.9 to 7.2 percent, he summoned visions of devastation out of a Cormac McCarthy novel.
This time might be different. The overwhelming debt — headed to 80 percent of GDP by 2025 — provides a context conducive to budgetary seriousness, and Obama’s own debt commission presumably will suggest ideas for cuts that will give some cover to Republican proposals. Not to mention, Democrats earlier this year passed a health-care law that notionally cut roughly $500 billion out of Medicare during the next ten years, with nary a peep of liberal protest.
Nothing changes, though, without officeholders with the courage to say honest things about entitlements. Thanks to the Tea Party, we’re about to get more of them.
– Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2010 by King Features Syndicate.