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Social Security & Medicare are slowly dying, but no one in Washington will lift a finger

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© J. Scott Applewhite, AP House Speaker Paul Rya

By Andrew Cline, USA TODAY

During the 2012 presidential campaign, an infamous TV ad portrayed vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan murdering a grandmother. As she struggled helplessly, terror contorting her face, he coldly rolled her wheelchair to a cliff’s edge and dumped her over.

Being called a murderer was Ryan’s reward for trying to keep Medicare solvent. He had proposed driving down expenses through market competition, hardly a radical concept in the United States of America.

Under his plan, the Congressional Budget Office projected that by 2050, federal spending on major health care programs (Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Obamacare exchange subsidies) would fall from 5 1/2% of gross domestic product in 2010 to 4 3/4% by 2050. Not draconian.

Without any changes, the CBO projected that spending on those programs would grow to an unsustainable 12 1/4% of GDP by 2050.

Nobody cared about the numbers. All that mattered was the narrative. “Mitt Romney made his choice,” read the text in the 2012 attack ad. “Now you have to make yours.”

America chose.

Poorly.

The Romney-Ryan defeat in 2012 killed the political viability of entitlement reform. Five years later, the CBO projected that without changes to stem runaway federal health care spending, major health care programs “would account for 40% of federal noninterest spending in 2047, compared with 28% today.”

Last week, the trustees for Medicare and Social Security issued their annual report on the programs’ finances. They conclude that Medicare will be insolvent by 2026, three years sooner than last projected.

That’s just eight Star Wars movies from now.

The trustees projected that Social Security will reach insolvency in 2034,16 years from now. The program will begin dipping into its trust fund not in some distant future when our grandchildren are in charge, but this year — right now, on our watch.

It’s a similar story for the federal debt.

In 2010, federal debt held by the public was 62% of GDP. At the end of 2017, it was 76.5% of GDP. This April, the CBO projected that it would reach 96.2% in 2028.

Two days after the CBO made that projection, Ryan, whom the left-leaning Brookings Institution once admiringly called “the most daring budget hawk of his generation,” announced his retirement from Congress.

As Romney and Ryan predicted, Medicare is headed for insolvency. They weren’t killing it. They were trying to save it from killing itself. It is still slowly killing itself, and Washington is doing nothing to save it. 

Because voters prefer politicians who tell them that no hard choices need ever be made, politicians tell voters that entitlements need never be touched. Republicans only six years ago made entitlement reform and the federal debt two of their core issues. They’ve since adopted the opposition’s position: Pretend the problem doesn’t exist.

Both parties sell voters a fantasy.

The Republican fantasy was voiced last week by the Treasury secretary, who said economic growth will generate enough federal revenue to avoid any entitlement cuts or tax increases.

The Democratic fantasy, voiced in reaction to Ryan’s proposals, is that the programs are fine and that all the talk of reform is an evil plot to hurt the poor and help the rich.

In 2011, Democrats shouted that the Ryan plan would “end,” “kill,” and “terminate” Medicare. Politifact named that obviously false claim “Lie of the Year.”

Ryan and Romney said if entitlements weren’t fixed, they would drive the federal debt to unsustainable levels. They were right. They lost. No one cared. Selling fantasies gets you elected. Telling the truth gets you nowhere.

That’s the lesson politicians have learned, so the new trustees report was all but ignored. Medicare will be insolvent in eight years, Social Security in 16, and the debt will soon surpass the size of the entire economy. The only politician daring enough to lead a fight to fix all of this is retiring at age 48.

As the federal government rushes toward financial disaster, the president trades insults with NFL players and the opposition treats every presidential tweet as an existential threat to the republic.

We delayed dealing with these crises in the hope that they would fall to some future suckers. But we’re the suckers. We believed the lies. All our delays bought us was a bigger crisis — one that’s just a few years away.

Andrew Cline is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in New Hampshire. 

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Politics - U.S. Daily News: Social Security & Medicare are slowly dying, but no one in Washington will lift a finger
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