When it comes to Social Security, the no-benefit-cuts caucus argues that the program is not the major driver of current deficits. This is correct but irrelevant. The program is on a course to run out of enough money to pay promised benefits in 2036. The longer policymakers wait to make adjustments the more painful these adjustments will be — and the more risk they pose to the most vulnerable beneficiaries that Democrats assert they want to protect. Fixing Social Security is important for its own sake; it is going to have to happen sooner or later. If the debt ceiling debate presents a sensible occasion for getting that done, at least in part, so much the better.
The question then becomes whether scheduled benefits are off-limits, as liberal Democrats insist, and therefore any necessary adjustments must take the form of higher payroll taxes or other means of injecting more revenue into the system. Here, again, balance is called for. Insisting that every future Social Security recipient must be paid every cent of benefits now promised is unnecessary and unfair. Indeed, talking about cutting benefits is fundamentally misleading. Because of the generous way that payments are calculated, future retirees are set to receive far larger checks than current ones — even after accounting for inflation. The only question is how much more they will get. This is a particularly reasonable question since Social Security, as Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute points out, “has morphed into a middle-age retirement system,” with typical beneficiaries spending one-third of their adult years collecting benefits.