My National Journal colleague Ron Brownstein wrote a column for last week’s magazine that I thought was the most important piece of the week. In it, he argues that “large portions of the Democratic base still don’t understand the political and economic dynamics of the party’s changing electoral coalition.” Brownstein is absolutely right.
For liberals, Democrats, and others to argue that Social Security and Medicare should not be touched in any way sends the message that we are just going to run up the tab and send the bill to the millennial and subsequent generations. Given the size of baby-boom generation—the so-called pig in the python, whose leading edge began turning 65 in 2010—this is a very big tab for the smaller generations that will follow.
Brownstein says Obama’s newly released budget is “seeking to restrain entitlement spending while invigorating public investment (through initiatives such as expanded preschool, an infrastructure bank, and more college aid). That combination would challenge the federal budget’s hardening tendency to favor the old over the young. Through proposed changes in the way inflation is calculated to determine Social Security benefits, more cost-sharing for Medicare recipients, and cost savings from drug companies and health providers, the president is looking to reduce entitlement spending by about $800 billion over 10 years.”
Given the central role younger voters play for the Democratic Party, it’s ironic that so many congressional Democrats are taking this view on entitlements. These Democrats are basically taking the side of a generation who voted against them rather than that of the younger generation that strongly supports the party. As Brownstein puts it, “they are favoring the predominantly white senior population, which cast about three-fifths of its votes for Republicans in last year’s presidential and congressional elections, over the diverse millennial generation, which voted about three-fifths Democratic on both fronts.”
We often hear the argument made that seniors are simply saying, “We paid into Social Security and Medicare, it’s our money.” This ignores the fact that most Americans draw down from Social Security and Medicare far more than they ever paid in—in Medicare, almost $3 received for every $1 contributed in many cases. Both are unsustainable as it is, but it’s the Flat Earth Society members who choose to ignore the numbers and pretend that we can just go on. Liberals and Democrats love to refer to conservatives and Republicans as science-deniers on issues such as climate change, but in this case, those who refuse to address the entitlement challenge are statistics-deniers.
The argument that these Democrats and liberals should be making to voters is this: Who should you trust to address the challenges of fixing Social Security and Medicare, the party that created the programs, or the party that was largely opposed to the establishment of both? It is precisely because Democrats have the credibility on these issues to address the problems that they should step forward.
Aside from the political arguments, there is the moral one of generational fairness. In his column, Brownstein points to figures the Office of Management and Budget recently released showing that in 1969, “payments to individuals (primarily entitlements) and investments in the future (defined as education and training, scientific research, and infrastructure) each constituted about one-third of the federal budget. By 2012, payments to individuals had reached 65 percent of the budget—and investments had plummeted to just 14 percent.” He cites an Urban Institute study that calculated that “Washington now spends seven times as much per senior citizen as it does per child.”
History has shown that any society that spends more on the present rather than investing in the future is doomed to a dismal future. That is precisely what my generation, the baby boomers, has done. Our parents’ and grandparents’ generations sacrificed the present for the future, for example by investing in an interstate highway system and national infrastructure that was exceedingly forward-thinking but is now decaying. In more-recent years, infrastructure spending has declined, parallel to the quality of our elementary and secondary education. For the first time in American history, parents can no longer confidently say that the future for their children is brighter than it was for them at that age.
We’ve heard and read a lot from liberals and Democrats pointing to Republicans as having become captive to their base and constituency groups at the expense of the national interest. Now it’s time for them to take a look in the mirror.