Entitlement crisis not top priority for candidates

| Sunday, March 30, 2008

What an epitaph for the greatest country on earth: "Born in Liberty 1776, Died of Entitlements mid-21st century."

The United States is going bankrupt -- still on a gradual enough path to head off, fortunately -- thanks to three "people" programs, none of which is in the Constitution. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

They will gobble up the entire U.S. federal budget in coming decades if current trends continue. Of course they won't. Can't. But no major candidate for president is talking about how to head them off.

"America's Looming Fiscal Crisis," as it's correctly called, is not a 2008 election stump priority.

Trouble is, the immense fix that needs to be done -- our $53 trillion of entitlement promises now are growing $2 trillion-plus a year -- gets more expensive, more painful, every day it's put off.

Imagine the government being unable to take care of what it's supposed to -- defense, courts, prisons, roads and all the rest -- because government benefits are so hard-wired into life expectations.

We're moving toward 77 million retirees. That's more than a quarter of the total population. Baby boomers just starting to turn old have been promised payoffs the national purse can't handle. Not without killing the productive economy.

The "crisis" drew a crowd of 200 at a public forum last week by the University of Pittsburgh. Robert L. Bixby, head of the co-sponsoring Concord Coalition, said the Big Three of entitlements have mushroomed to 42 percent of the federal budget. And they're heading for two-thirds.

"Unsustainable," he called it, not even to mention how state and local governments have to add on.

David M. Walker, former U.S. comptroller general, said whatever the coming tax-and-benefit adjustments, Americans will have to set aside more personally for health and retirement. "Universal" care, he said, should be limited to catastrophic illness that can ruin a family. Everything else ought to be a personal option and expense.

No forum speaker blamed President Bush's tax cuts for the entitlements crisis. It's been building since the 1930s -- but with accelerating costs of late. Medicare's 2005 entitlement for prescription drugs is a fiscal monster. Bixby said its outlays will eventually outstrip those of all Social Security. The latter's "trust fund" of Treasury IOUs won't be depleted until about 2041; Medicare's date with insolvency is 2019.

Ex-Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill, a Pittsburgher, warned that failure to reform out-of-control entitlements could put America "on its deathbed as a nation." The tax code's "10,000 pages of gibberish" cry for reform, he said. The entitlements bill might, in fact, be paid with $350 billion to $450 billion of taxes that go uncollected.

And here's an O'Neill tip to limit your personal medical costs: "Don't take a prescription you can't read." He said physicians' scribbles cause accidental deaths every year.

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