The thing I like about this piece in Slate is what Brad DeLong says at the start: “As everyone knows, Social Security has a problem…” Really? I pointed out a couple days ago that liberal bloggers don’t know this–or at least don’t admit to knowing it. On the contrary, liberal bloggers have been busy making “the principled case for doing nothing.” But since DeLong admits there’s a problem, his complaints about the president’s plan obligate him to come up with an alternative.
When they’re not pretending that Social Security has no problem, Democrats now echo DeLong’s complaint that the president’s plan threatens long-term public support for Social Security. Dems are afraid that once we openly change Social Security into a welfare program, voters will turn against it. Some say Social Security’s been a welfare program disguised as an insurance policy all along. Either way you see it, if you don’t want progressive indexing, you can’t keep Social Security as it is without raising taxes. It’s easy (and true) to say that Democrats are afraid to openly and honestly call for a tax increase. But the deeper point is that, even if we want to, over the long term we can’t save our entitlements by raising taxes.
In the end, the demographic facts are going to force benefit cuts, and probably a move to a more privatized entitlement system as well. In all likelihood, the welfare state as we know it is doomed. There simply aren’t enough children being born to sustain it. (See my “Demographics and the Culture War” for more. This short piece on the retirement age is also relevant.) Europe is just now waking up to the demographic facts. The Europeans are scaling back their pensions and lengthening their work week. Over here, the Dems are still in denial. George Bush’s legacy as the first president to speak the truth about our entitlements is secure. The only question is whether we’ll acknowledge his greatness sooner, rather than later. Certainly the president may fail in the short term. But the public is waking up to the reality of our entitlement dilemma, and the Democrats are beginning to sense the political trap they may already have fallen into. Clever and courageous as he’s been, in the end it wasn’t the president, or even Karl Rove, who pulled the Democrats into that trap. For good or for ill, it’s the new kind of family life we’ve been living for the past forty years that’s forced all of us into this dilemma.