In 1962, we were laying down the foundations of prosperity. About 32 cents of every federal dollar, excluding interest payments, was spent on investments, only 14 percent on entitlements. In the mid-70s the lines crossed. Today we spend less than 15 cents on investment and 46 cents on entitlements. And it gets worse. By 2030, when the last of us boomers have surged onto the Social Security rolls, entitlements will consume 61 cents of every federal dollar, starving our already neglected investment and leaving us, in the words of the study, with “a less-skilled work force, lower rates of job creation, and an infrastructure unfit for a 21st-century economy.”
Some of the entitlement bloat comes from the addition of new programs — notably the prescription drug benefit espoused by our second boomer president, George W. Bush, and the Affordable Care Act, though at least that law sets in motion offsetting measures aimed at containing the soaring cost of health care. Some of the growth is built into formulas that increase benefits faster than inflation or G.D.P. And a lot of it is us: boomers, aging into Social Security and Medicare. “We’ve reached the point where our working-age population over the next 30 years grows by one-fifth, and our elderly population grows 100 percent,” said Jim Kessler, the senior vice president for policy at Third Way.
Indignant readers are already revving up to tell me that Social Security and Medicare are sacred promises, that cutting them would be stone-hearted Republicanism. A.A.R.P., the lobby for people we used to call senior citizens until we realized that meant us, got hammered by the left earlier this year when its C.E.O. dared to convene a meeting of Washington insiders to even discuss the subject. No wonder A.A.R.P. shies away from supporting any entitlement reform.
But the traditional liberal alternatives — raise taxes on the well-to-do, cut military spending — are not nearly enough by themselves. The arithmetic simply doesn’t work, unless we face the fact that entitlements are a bargain we can’t afford to keep, not in full.