The greatest pressure comes from entitlements. Spending on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest on the debt has now risen to 47 percent of the budget. In nine years, entitlements are estimated to consume 64 percent of the budget, according to the invaluable folks at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. By 2030, they are projected consume 70 percent of the budget.Let's confront it at the outset: David Brooks is what some waggishly call a "very serious person" when it comes to balancing the budget, which means that he's not actually concerned with balancing the budget. Sure, he's worried about potential future growth in entitlements, and we do need to address that growth. But his seriousness begins and ends with "How do we cut entitlements". Not, "How do we reform entitlements to make them sustainable," or "How can we get the same benefits while spending less money." Nope, you do it his way or you get a dismissive sneer about how you're putting the "vast majority of the budget... off limits".
When you throw in other politically untouchable programs, like Veterans Affairs, you arrive at a situation in which a vast majority of the budget is off limits to politicians who are trying to control debt. All cuts must, therefore, be made in the tiny sliver of the budget where the most valuable programs reside and where the most important investments in our future are made.
It's easy to find Republican commentators who complain, with reason, that Medicare and Medicaid are unsustainable and we must find a way to bring their cost growth under control. They're right. So let's look around the world, right now, at what other developed nations are doing. Are there any that spend as much as we do for health care? Are there others that get better outcomes? How about emulating them? Nope, not even a possibility. Not even if it will help control the cost curve and balance the budget.
It's a fair retort that other nations haven't achieved perfection. They may get similar or even better outcomes at much lower costs, but their medical cost growth curves (even if lower) are also unsustainable. But that's neither a valid basis to reject their approaches, nor to examine those elements that work and adapt them to the U.S. system. At least if the goal is to balance the budget. If you're willing to blow a huge hole in the deficit and allow out-of-control medical inflation due to your love of our pseudo-free market system, fair enough. But if so, why should anybody regard you as serious about balancing the budget. Your "my way or the highway" approach is every bit as obstructionist as that of your imaginary foe who won't agree to cut even a penny from Medicare.
As for Medicaid? Untouchable? Brooks can't be serious.
Social Security is not a pressing issue. It's budget is balanced well into the future. If you believe that the U.S. will be in such a bad position by then that it is going to start defaulting on its debts, well, what can I say? If that's our future, getting a Social Security check will be among the last things you'll be worried about. It's possible to balance Social Security for additional decades with relatively minor adjustments, but that will only have people like Brooks sounding the alarm about the next date after which Social Security is projected to be unable to pay full benefits.
I am perfectly content to talk about Social Security reforms and the impact of an aging population. People in Brooks' camp? They talk about privatizing Social Security, then they check the polls and find out that "privatizing" is not polling well so they start talking "personal accounts" (which must be selected from a narrow range of government-defined options, from which private managers will skim management fees, and for which there is no guaranteed return) while simultaneously complaining that it's unfair to speak of their plan as "privatization". Beyond that, what is Brooks offering? How... serious.
Brooks lectures the Republican Party that they have to do more than talk and dream about cutting entitlements - it's time to turn those dreams into reality:
Over the next few weeks, Republicans will try to cut discretionary spending to 2008 levels and tell their constituents they are boldly reducing the size of government. That is a mirage. Anybody who doesn’t take on entitlement spending is an enabler of big government.Yes, the Republican budget plan is a joke. Has been a joke. Will be a joke. But wait a minute here. What word is completely absent from Brooks' editorial on how to be serious about the budget. He's mentioned interest, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, veteran's benefits.... That's right, in an editorial oddly titled "The Freedom Alliance",1 he has forgotten about that pesky military budget.
If Brooks wants to make a policy argument about why the military budget should be untouchable, he's free to do so. The New York Times would pay him for that column, as it does with any other. But as with the argument he doesn't make as to how we could save billions, right now, by adopting a different approach to health care spending, he has no discernible interest in the subject. He'll complain that Teach for America's $18 million earmark is at risk, but forget about paying for it by pulling 40 or so combat soldiers out of Afghanistan.
Note another concept missing from Brooks' analysis: the tax increase. He's sort of a twisted Marie Antoinette. "Hey you - you want some cake? You can eat cake. You just have to take it away from veterans, sick people and old people." Buy more cake? You gotta be kidding, right? Once again he could offer a policy argument - why the rich, who are richer than ever, should not pay more taxes. But nope. Instead he's championing the recommendations of the failed Simpson-Bowles deficit commission and telling us that if we want barely trained college grads teaching our kids, grandma's gotta give up her medicine.
1. This "Freedom Alliance" apparently involves various groups that want government money teaming up to convince the masses that our freedom is at stake if we don't convince Congress to cut entitlement spending in favor of perpetuating their earmarks. Go grass roots!