- The Washington Times - Friday, November 4, 2005

I cringe with disgust when I hear politicians say, “We’re doing it for the children.” What’s worse is so many Americans mindlessly fall hook, line and sinker for the hype. Judging by our actions, Americans could not care less for future generations, and future generations will curse us for it.

Let’s look at it. According to several respected authorities, including the Concord Coalition (co-chaired by former Sens. Warren Rudman and Robert Kerrey), the Congressional Budget Office, U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow, and the Social Security Administration, the estimated present value of the unfunded liability of Social Security and Medicare ranges between $61 trillion and $75 trillion.

“Williams,” you ask, “what’s this present value business?” Simply put, between $61 trillion and $75 trillion is the money needed to be set aside right now, at current interest rates, to meet Social Security and Medicare’s future obligations. To put an astronomical sum like $61 trillion or $75 trillion in a bit of perspective: The value of our entire national output of goods and services (GDP) in 2004 was only $12 trillion.

Congress can’t put aside $75 trillion as reserves against future liabilities of Social Security and Medicare. Therefore, according to the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) in Dallas, the annual rate of Social Security unfunded liabilities is growing at a $667 billion clip and Medicare’s at $4 trillion.

What does all this mean? It means little in pocketbook terms to today’s Americans who are 65 years or older. They will collect their Social Security checks and their promised Medicare benefits, but not so future generations.

Here’s that future according to House Ways and Means Committee testimony from Dr. John Goodman, NCPA president (May 2005): “In 2020, combined Social Security and Medicare deficits will equal almost 29 percent of federal income taxes. At that point the federal government will have to stop doing almost a third of what it does today. By 2030, about the midpoint of the Baby Boomer retirement years, federal guarantees to Social Security and Medicare will require 1 in every 2 income tax dollars. By 2050, they will require 3 in every 4.” And by 2070, Social Security and Medicare will consume all federal revenues.

Some “optimists” seek to minimize the pending disaster that from these and other federal unfunded liabilities. They argue the federal government can always meet its obligations through its power to tax. According to some estimates, Social Security and Medicare obligations alone by 2030 will require a 50 percent rise in payroll taxes. With no tax increases, 2030 will see a 30 percent cut in promised Social Security benefits and stringent rationing of promised Medicare health services.

There’s another “solution.” Though Congress can’t increase our life expectancy, they can raise the age of Social Security and Medicare eligibility. Making 80 the age for Social Security and Medicare eligibility, would solve the problem because most of us would be dead before we collected.

Let’s look at the raw politics of the Social Security-Medicare situation. Few, if any, of the 535 members of Congress will be around in 2030 and later when the real crunch comes. They are subject to today’s, not tomorrow’s, political pressures. Similarly, few of today’s Americans 65 and older will be around. Other than mouthing a concern for future generations, both have little economic incentive to be concerned about what happens in 2030. After all, what do they have at stake?

Will young people in the 2030 labor force be willing to pay 20, 30 and 40 percent in Social Security taxes to take care of some old people? I don’t think that will fly politically, and they might begin to get ideas about euthanasia.

In addition to economic strife, Social Security and Medicare are laying the groundwork for intergenerational conflict. Unfortunately, the politics of today don’t give us room to prevent these twin disasters.

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University and is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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