If we had begun cutting benefits years ago, changes could have occurred slowly. People would have received ample notice. Now we lack the luxury of time. Benefit cuts will be unfair to retirees; but avoiding cuts will be unfair to the young. That we have arrived at this juncture indicts our democratic system and many Democratic politicians, who have obstructed constructive change in retiree programs. Obama continues this short-sighted tradition. …

Democrats have made Social Security into government’s largest “earmark,” supposedly unrelated to deficits and the nation’s budget problems. Social Security should be excluded from any deficit negotiation, because it “does not add one penny to our debt,” as Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois said last week. Aside from being technically wrong (Social Security contributes to deficits), this view is philosophically bankrupt.

No genuine debate about government priorities can exclude its biggest program and those loosely associated with it, Medicare and Medicaid. The exemption isn’t progressive, because protecting retiree benefits will intensify pressures on the social safety net. The trick is to cut retiree benefits while minimizing the impact on the elderly poor. There are ways to do this: changing the benefit inflation-adjustment formula, fully taxing Social Security payments (affecting mostly the affluent elderly), gradually raising eligibility ages.