Oddly, Washington politicians are talking less about confronting the pending entitlement crisis now -- after the "silver tsunami" has begun and the first baby boomer filed for Social Security benefits -- than they did 15 and 20 years ago.
The Concord Coalition, the bipartisan fiscal watchdog group, used to keep a scorecard that rated members of Congress on votes that addressed America's federal budget problems. The Concord Coalition's executive director, Robert Bixby, told The Chronicle's editorial board last week that his outfit eventually had to give it up. "We couldn't find enough votes," Bixby explained.
Comptroller General David Walker estimates that Washington has promised $53 trillion in Social Security and Medicare benefits without funding them. In real dollars, that means every American -- this means you -- owns a $175,000 share of the federal debt. It's as if you have a second mortgage -- for a home you don't own.
These days, there has been much finger-pointing at a system that allowed lenders to issue mortgages that violated the basic tenets of fiscal responsibility. How is it, people now ask, that banks could issue so many loans to buyers for homes they could not afford?
How indeed? Washington continues to authorize retirement and medical benefits without putting aside the money to pay for them. Editorials and think tanks sound the alert. Yet you hear little public complaint about the situation. Even in a presidential election year, voters are not demanding that White House hopefuls promise to balance the books.
If the sky falls, will Americans then ask why they were not warned? Every year of inaction adds another $2 trillion to $3 trillion to the tab, noted Alison Acosta Fraser of the right-leaning Heritage Foundation.
Alice Rivlin of the left-leaning Brookings Institution is the fourth member of the Concord Coalition's "Fiscal Wake-Up Tour." Asked what presidential hopefuls Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain propose to do about the pending crisis, Rivlin answered that essentially "they're ignoring it almost completely."
"It's easy to give away ice cream," noted Walker, who is resigning on March 12 so that he can campaign on this moral issue. Entitlement spending reform is spinach.
In the 1980s, then-House Speaker Tip O'Neill pronounced Social Security as the "third rail" of American politics -- as any politician who touched the dicey issue risked death.
Today, unfunded entitlements are the invisible rabbit of American politics; only a few fey folk see them. If there were a partisan angle to the controversy, no doubt one party would embrace reform. But because any solution will require both spending cuts and tax increases, entitlement reform is not a winning issue. Real reform would break the new American compact between politicians and their partisans -- which is that only adherents to the other party will have to compromise.
That's how Washington dug this hole. No spending cuts. No tax hikes. Debt on autopilot, compounded annually. Walker warns that unless the next president takes on the entitlement problem from Day One, "We're in trouble." We are in trouble. Today, you hear more about unfunded federal liabilities than you heard about the pending mortgage crisis two years ago. But Washington is not acting. And if this story reaches critical mass, then everyone will be in default.