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Retiree Entitlements ‘Undermine’ Everything Else: Robert Samuelson

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The Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson took a scorched-earth approach on Monday to what he sees as out-of-control entitlement spending, criticizing unrealistic liberals and hypocritical conservatives.

Referencing President Barack Obama’s recent charm offensive, Samuelson wrote that what is really needed is a candor offensive.

“The budget debate’s central reality is that federal retirement programs, led by Social Security and Medicare, are crowding out most other government spending,” he argued. “Until we openly recognize and discuss this, it will be impossible to have a ‘balanced approach’ — to use one of President Obama’s favorite phrases.”

Entitlement spending is already crowding out other areas of the federal budget, he noted. The Army is to be cut by 80,000 troops, the Marines by 20,000. As a share of national income, defense spending ($670 billion in 2012) is headed toward its lowest level since 1940. Even now, the Pentagon says budget limits hamper its response to cyberattacks.

“Domestic discretionary spending,” he added, “a category that includes food inspectors, the FBI, the National Weather Service and many others—faces a similar fate. By 2023, this spending will drop 33% as a share of national income, estimates the Congressional Budget Office. Dozens of programs will be squeezed.”

And whether or not politicians deal with it is of little matter; decisions will be made.

“Choices are being made by default. Almost everything is being subordinated to protect retirees. Solicitude for government’s largest constituency undermines the rest of government.”

This is an “immensely important story,” he noted, and one almost totally ignored by the media.

“One reason is that it’s happening spontaneously and invisibly: Growing numbers of elderly are simply collecting existing benefits. The media do not excel at covering inertia.”

Turning his sights to the aforementioned politicians, Samuelson writes that liberals “drive this process by treating Social Security and Medicare as sacrosanct.”

“Do not touch a penny of benefits; these programs are by definition progressive; all recipients are deserving and needy. Only a few brave liberals complain that this dogma threatens programs for the non-aged poor. “

By contrast, hypocritical conservatives are liberals’ “unspoken allies.”

“Despite constant grumbling about entitlements, they lack the courage of their convictions.”

He specifically noted the latest budget plan by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.

“From 2014 to 2023, he proposes cutting federal spending by $4.6 trillion. Not a cent comes from Social Security, while Medicare cuts are tiny, about 2%. His major Medicare proposal (in effect, a voucher) wouldn’t start until 2024. Most baby boomers escape meaningful benefit cuts.”

Concluding with a few shots at the public, he wrote, “What frustrates constructive debate is muddled public opinion. Americans hate deficits but desire more spending and reject higher taxes. In a Pew poll, 87% of respondents favored present or greater Social Security spending; only 10% backed cuts. Results were similar for 18 of 19 programs, foreign aid being the exception.”