Hypocritical conservatives are liberals’ unspoken allies. Despite constant grumbling about entitlements, they lack the courage of their convictions. Consider House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s latest budget plan. From 2014 to 2023, he proposes cutting federal spending by $4.6 trillion. Not a cent comes from Social Security, while Medicare cuts are tiny, about 2 percent. His major Medicare proposal (in effect, a voucher) wouldn’t start until 2024. Most baby boomers escape meaningful benefit cuts. As Holzer and Sawhill fear, most of Ryan’s cuts affect programs for the poor.
What frustrates constructive debate is muddled public opinion. Americans hate deficits but desire more spending and reject higher taxes. In a Pew poll, 87 percent of respondents favored present or greater Social Security spending; only 10 percent backed cuts. Results were similar for 18 of 19 programs, foreign aid being the exception.
Only the occupant of the bully pulpit can yank public opinion back to reality. This requires acknowledging that an aging America needs a new social compact: one recognizing that longer life expectancies justify gradual increases in Social Security’s and Medicare’s eligibility ages; one accepting that sizable numbers of well-off retirees can afford to pay more for their benefits or receive less; one that improves generational fairness by concentrating help for the elderly more on the needy and poor to lighten the burdens — in higher taxes and fewer public services — on workers; and one that limits health costs.