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Robert Samuelson | Who’s Not Bargaining in Good Faith?





WASHINGTON — Put Social Security on the table — clearly and irrevocably. Protecting retiree benefits is the left’s political equivalent of the right’s "no new taxes" pledge. Congressional Republicans are abandoning their untenable position. Now it is time for President Obama and congressional Democrats to do the same. As long as they don’t, they aren’t bargaining in good faith, or in the national interest.

Supporting retirees is now the federal government’s main activity. There’s a huge redistribution from young to old — a redistribution that will be made worse if retiree programs are largely excluded from deficit reduction, as many liberal groups urge. Either taxes will rise steeply or other federal programs (defense, food stamps, environmental protection) will be cut sharply. The young will pay more and get less. Or, given these unpalatable choices, true deficit reduction won’t happen.

Doubters should ponder the numbers. In fiscal 2012, non-interest federal spending totaled $3.251 trillion. Of that, $762 billion went for Social Security, $469 billion for Medicare (insurance for the 65 and over population) and $251 billion for Medicaid (insurance for the poor — two-thirds goes for long-term care for the aged and disabled). Altogether, that’s 46 percent of non-interest spending. Defense, $651 billion and declining, was 20 percent.

As baby boomers retire and health costs rise, this spending will mount. In 2010, there were 40 million Americans 65 and older. By 2020, that number is projected to be 55 million; by 2030, 72 million.

All these trends are old news; I have repeatedly written about them. If we had begun cutting benefits years ago, changes could have occurred slowly. People would have received ample notice. Now we lack the luxury of time. Benefit cuts will be unfair to retirees; but avoiding cuts will be unfair to the young. That we have arrived at this juncture indicts our democratic system and many Democratic politicians, who have obstructed constructive change in retiree programs. Obama continues this short-sighted tradition.

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