So another congressional session is half over and, we’re told, is likely to go by without a mention of the moose on the American table, our preposterously out-of-control federal debt. It’s not as though the stakes are high: just our standard of living, national security, all the discretionary activities of government, and literally our future as an autonomous, self-governing people. Every honest observer knows what will cause the coming crunch, so aptly termed by Erskine Bowles as “the most predictable crisis in history”: the runaway autopilot programs we call “entitlements.” Without changes there, no combination of other measures can come close to preventing the reckoning.
We all understand the silence. Our political class was long ago scared witless by the career-killing cheap shots aimed at anyone daring to commit candor about the topic.
So far, no one has fashioned a vocabulary that an elected official can use to level with voters about Social Security and Medicare and live to tell about it politically. Everyone believes, and polls confirm, the fabled third rail is as electrified as ever.
A well-functioning democracy would, by now, have had a mature national discussion marked by a recognition of the need to set priorities among finite resources, as well as the intergenerational unfairness of the status quo, the ethical wrongness of borrowing for current consumption instead of investing in the future, the feasibility of alternative remedies if only we would start now, and so on. Regrettably, but realistically, our republic at this point doesn’t seem capable of discussions like that. Meanwhile, action really can’t wait much longer; the can is getting heavier, and we’re running out of road.