Jonathan Alter: Democrats ignore Social Security & Medicare reform at America’s peril

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In budget debate after debate, decade after decade, the overspending crowd has done a great job of convincing the American people that overhauling Social Security and/or Medicare is equivalent to betraying senior citizens. Some even go so far as to say seniors will be in poverty and, in one case, Grandma will be thrown off the cliff.

Yet not all supporters of bigger government are letting ideology overcome fiscal reality. On Friday, former Newsweek columnist, editor and current Bloomberg columnist Jonathan Alter wrote a column highlighting what other government programs will be cannibalized if entitlement reform is ignored. While his thesis is correct, the solutions he proposes are misguided. Alter, who supports greater discretionary spending, argued that sequestration cuts too deeply and that GOP attempts to cut social-welfare programs should be opposed. However, he also writes that “Obama and the Democrats must educate the public about the necessity of entitlement reform. Otherwise, the poor and needy – – largely spared by the automatic reductions under sequestration — will get hit much harder down the road.”

Alter is absolutely correct that Democrats must get on board with “the necessity of entitlement reform.” More from Alter:

That makes two more reasons to start talking seriously about how we will pay for the insanely expensive retirement of the baby boomers.

How expensive? Anyone reaching retirement age in the next 20 years (including me) will take more than three times as much out of Medicare as he or she contributed in taxes. By 2030, the U.S. will have twice as many retirees as in 1995, and Social Security and Medicare alone will consume half of the federal budget, with the other half going almost entirely to defense and interest on the national debt. It’s unsustainable.


If Democrats don’t want to talk about these programs, they can say goodbye to every other pet program. We can preserve Medicare in amber only at the expense of investments in prekindergarten programs or cancer research.

Alter’s solutions largely rely on means-testing of Medicare and Social Security, direct tax increases, and modest changes to the way inflation is calculated relative to what retirees receive. While tax increases are not viable for Tea Party activists or most Republicans, these other two solutions are often talked about in fiscally conservative circles. Medicare requires more reform to make the program solvent in the long-term, but Alter’s solutions would do a great deal to make the Social Security program solvent.

Politically, of course, Alter’s proposals are just talk for those of his party. President Obama and his allies in the media and Congress continue to pretend reforming Social Security and Medicare are betrayals of senior citizens, when in fact not changing the programs would betray seniors, debt-laden young adults and all other taxpayers to a far greater degree. It will take a great deal of political and fiscal honesty for President Obama to stop his demagoguery of Republican solutions, or to admit his party is preventing reform. Of course, with the media complicit with whatever the President says, this change is unlikely to happen.

So how can fiscal conservatives get the conversation of entitlement reform past the stage of simple talk and House budget proposals? We start partnering with people like Alter, who may disagree with Tea Party views on just about everything else…but recognizes the fiscal reality of reforms. The more people from across the political spectrum on board with these necessary changes to federal spending, the more people are likely to join up.

Alter’s solutions and beliefs are incompatible for the most part with Tea Party activists and fiscal conservatives. That does not mean we should ignore or dismiss areas where we agree.