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‘Exhausted': Social Security and Medicare

April 25. 2012 11:06PM

In 1983, Congress prolonged the life of the Social Security program by doing what Democrats today would call 'ending Social Security as we know it.' The reform, which included payroll tax hikes and an increase in the retirement age, got us an extra half century of Social Security. Will Washington be able to get us another half century?

On Monday, Social Security trustees projected that the program's trust fund will be 'exhausted' by 2033 - three years earlier than they predicted last year. (Hence the 50 years of life that the 1983 reforms purchased.) After that year, Social Security payroll taxes will generate only enough revenue to pay 75 percent of benefits - unless substantial changes are made.

Ah, but there is the problem. Propose any change to the program other than payroll tax increases, and you will be accused of wanting to rob or even murder senior citizens while idly twirling your handlebar mustache.

The same goes for Medicare. Last year Medicare's trustees moved up by five years the date at which that program would run out of money - 2024. This week the trustees noted that the rate of Medicare spending continues to accelerate, and Medicare actuaries figure that the program's unfunded liabilities for the next 75 years are $36 billion, which is $10 billion more than the trustees calculate. (The actuaries figure that planned reductions in Medicare spending won't happen.)

It could not be more obvious that neither program can survive as-is. Nor should they. They continue to face these dire future scenarios not because they are 'underfunded,' but because they are structurally flawed. Were we to create either program from scratch today, we would use vastly different designs, ones that provided benefit recipients with more choice and real incentives to spend wisely.

Doing nothing while claiming that there is no crisis will not save either program. That approach will cause large benefit reductions for recipients as funds are depleted. If we are to save the programs, we have to change them. But that we cannot do until their self-proclaimed defenders stop blocking necessary reforms by attacking as heartless and cruel anyone who comes up with proposals to keep the programs solvent.