By Jim Towey
Any candidate for the presidency of the United States or Congress who tells you that the grave challenges our country faces with the national debt, Social Security, and Medicare, can be managed without sacrifices by the general public, cannot be trusted to lead America.
The numbers don’t lie. America is breaking all records for peacetime federal spending. That’s the cold truth as conveyed by the Congressional Budget Office. The United States is approaching an unfathomable $2 trillion deficit for the fiscal year that concludes this month, an amount more than double last year’s record.
Who can wrap their mind around what a trillion of anything is? Why not measure spending in light years instead? But we can grasp the underlying dynamic that has put us in this mess. Ever go on a shopping and travel binge with your credit card? Then you know there are consequences when the bill comes due. Worst, the interest charges make it hard to ever pay down the balance.
That is where things now stand in Washington. Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and Congress went on a bender – trillions spent on Covid relief, the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure legislation, the Chip Act, and the ludicrously titled “Inflation Reduction Act.” These initiatives blew gigantic holes in the federal budget. They used America’s charge card and now the interest costs are piling up. A staggering 15.5% of all federal revenue is now needed to service the accumulated deficits – over a half trillion dollars must be spent in reparation for our past spending sins. This week the New York Times reported that the national debt passed the $33 trillion mark. No one seemed to care. It had the shock value of a morbidly obese person stepping off the scales with a new personal record.
Meanwhile, our “spend now, worry later” approach to governance has metastasized. Medicare’s hospital trust fund will be depleted in five years. Five. Social Security, which for the first time began spending more than it took in right when Covid hit, will be bankrupt in ten years. Ten. That’s a year earlier than the trustees had predicted in 2022. While enough money would still be coming into the trust funds then to pay about 75% of the monthly checks, that is little consolation to those who depend on Social Security.
And 66 million Americans do: 51 million retirees, six million survivors of retirees, and nine million who receive disability benefits.
What say the presidential candidates?
Yet, the men and women running for high office shy away from preparing for this monster storm heading our way. Both Trump and Biden pledge to leave Social Security and Medicare benefits untouched. But without structural solutions – changing the retirement age, means-testing benefits for wealthy beneficiaries after they have been paid back for their contributions along with a reasonable return, increasing the payroll tax, or some combination of the three – these vital programs will collapse, and the poor will suffer.
Any candidate who pledges not to touch Social Security or Medicare benefits for anyone should not be taken seriously. And any candidate who criticizes an opponent for proposing structural changes to these systems that will require sacrifice, accusing his or her opponent of endangering the elderly, should be disqualified. They are panderers, and therefore, part of the problem.
Federal spending can be cut, and changes to Social Security and Medicare can be made, while still protecting the elderly poor and those most vulnerable to reductions in government services. Yes, there would be a reduction in benefits for some, delayed retirement for others still working, and a likely payroll tax increase for the higher earners. Blame the negligent politicians who spent so irresponsibly.
The next president must come clean and tell the nation that the era of binge spending is over and that sacrifices will be asked of the American people as we clean up the mess past administrations and Congresses have made, beginning with the debt. That may sound like a formula for political suicide but in fact it is an opportunity for a new leader to go down in history as the one with the courage and foresight to save America from its excess.
Let’s agree to reward candidates for the presidency and Congress who actually give us the real numbers and offer real remedies. If we don’t, when our financial and banking systems further destabilize the economy; when hospitals refuse Medicare admissions; and when seniors suffer because our elected leaders didn’t shore up Social Security, we will have no one to blame but ourselves. We have been warned.
After all, the numbers don’t lie.