The latest round of rhetorical warfare about America’s old-age entitlement system has revealed the poverty of our political vocabulary.
Both parties talk about Social Security and Medicare as if they are antidotes to interdependence, when in fact they are vital facilitators of it. They treat them like savings plans into which today’s workers deposit money they will withdraw tomorrow. Some Republicans conclude this means that when the programs spend more than they take in, they are failing; some Democrats insist it means that any change to the arrangement would be a gross injustice.
But Social Security and Medicare are transfer programs by which today’s workers provide funds to yesterday’s workers, who are now retired. A majority of beneficiaries take out more than they put in, as they should: Today’s wealthier America has more to give. Their benefits are an act of intergenerational gratitude and generosity. That should make us reticent to cut benefits, yet also wary of letting the cost of those benefits overburden our society’s future. Balancing those worries is only possible if we understand these programs properly.
It is not surprising that we speak of a system of organized gratitude in the misleading terms of contract and entitlement. Political liberalism has long lacked the language for describing our embeddedness in a multigenerational society. We put a premium on choice, yet our choices are constrained by the fact that we are born into a world that existed before we came. We value our freedom of action, yet the future needs of generations not yet here weigh us down in ways we are inclined to resist. We like to imagine that we are independent of both the future and the past.
This is an old story. Thomas Jefferson, who had a knack for articulating liberalism’s best and worst impulses, wrote to James Madison in 1789 that intergenerational debts were essentially illegitimate. “By the law of nature,” he argued, “one generation is to another as one independent nation to another.” Using some crude demographic tables, he calculated that, for political purposes, a generation spans about 19 years. “Would it not be wise and just,” Jefferson asked, for a nation to declare “that neither the legislature, nor the nation itself, can validly contract more debt than they may pay within their own age, or within the term of 19 years?” And he went even further, insisting that “every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years,” and should be written as such.
The appeal of self-exploding laws has not waned in the intervening centuries. Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida recently proposed to restrain public spending by requiring all federal legislation to expire after five years. He later insisted this would not include Social Security or Medicare, but having all the other laws vanish every few years still involves a peculiar denial of our responsibilities to the future and the past.
Madison’s response to his mentor was a diplomatic yet unsparing evisceration of this way of thinking. A government built on time-limited laws would be “too mutable” to gain the respect of its people, he wrote. Who knows if the next generation will be wise enough to renew the most important achievements of the present and the past? Why should we assume, he might have said to Senator Scott, that the Congress of five years from now will do better and not worse than today’s?
But Madison’s most important response was at the level of principle. We owe something to prior generations because they have given us a lot. The improvements they made “form a charge against the living who take the benefit of them,” he wrote. And the current generation takes on debts “principally for the benefit of posterity,” so that it isn’t wrong to expect those who will benefit from what we now build to also shoulder a share of the cost someday.
Every society is an intergenerational compact of this sort. Our society would benefit by understanding itself this way, grasping that the relations between the generations should be shaped by gratitude to the past and solicitude for the future.
Gratitude should lead us to make sure that older Americans can live comfortably in retirement. Solicitude should lead us to do so in ways that do not needlessly leave the next generation less prosperous than it could be. Those should be the terms of our debates about Social Security and Medicare. And they would clearly call for some changes to those programs, undertaken in a protective spirit of repair. Treating those programs as wasteful spending is one kind of failure of responsibility; but treating any proposed reforms of them as attacks on the aged is another.
Social Security and Medicare provide essential financial security to older Americans, but they still leave about a tenth of the elderly in poverty and increase the complexity and cost of American health care. These programs won’t bankrupt our spectacularly wealthy society, but they are the primary drivers of our growing federal debt, which will burden today’s young and those who follow them.
In its recent overview of budget trends, the Congressional Budget Office projected that discretionary spending (including defense) will decline as a share of the economy over the next three decades, but that spending on Social Security and Medicare will grow significantly — roughly to 12 percent from 8 percent of the economy — and the interest paid on our borrowing to fund that growth will rise to more than 7 percent of the economy in 2053, from 2.4 percent today. This is not quite borrowing to build something for the generations who will pay the cost; it is borrowing for present consumption. We can afford it, but it will make the future less abundant than it might have been, so we should seek restraint.
We can do better both at gratitude and at solicitude. For instance, my American Enterprise Institute colleague Andrew Biggs has proposed restructuring Social Security so that it provides a universal minimum benefit set above the poverty level (ending poverty for seniors altogether) and then facilitating enrollment in subsidized retirement savings plans beyond that. Our colleague James Capretta has proposed related reforms of Medicare, which would make the program much simpler for seniors, provide a universal entitlement topped by means-tested additional support and strengthen the core insurance benefit. Both would have these reforms take effect gradually for future retirees, and would also put tax increases on the table, while recognizing that those too come at a cost to the future.
We are conservatives, and surely some progressives would dispute these particular reform ideas. They can propose others, and politicians and voters can decide. But taking any changes off the table, as both parties now do because they cannot talk honestly about these programs, means failing to meet our obligations to both the young and the old.
Too often, our politics conceives of the future by imagining a sharp break between now and then — a fiscal catastrophe, an ecological holocaust, a cultural collapse or a political cataclysm. Such death-wish futurism is the natural outgrowth of our intense polarization. We have persuaded ourselves that if the wrong people are in power, the sky will fall on our country and then — just before we are all eaten by zombies — everyone will finally see that we were right.
Reality is both better and worse: It won’t offer undeniable proof of either party’s moral superiority, but it also won’t bring the future crashing down on us. The future will be continuous with the present and the past. We should look for ways to build that future that properly balance our veneration for the retiring generation and our devotion to the rising one.
Yuval Levin, a contributing Opinion writer, is the editor of National Affairs and the director of social, cultural and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of “A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream.”
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