The Spectacle Blog

The Issue That Can’t Be Named

By on 8.1.07 | 10:24AM

Robert Samuelson has a column out about a major issue that none of the presidential candidates are talking about: that is, the aging of the the baby boomer population. The numbers are staggering:

Consider the outlook. From 2005 to 2030, the 65-and-over population will nearly double to 71 million; its share of the population will rise to 20 percent from 12 percent. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- programs that serve older people -- already exceed 40 percent of the $2.7 trillion federal budget. By 2030, their share could hit 75 percent of the present budget, projects the Congressional Budget Office.

The 2030 projections are daunting. To keep federal spending stable as a share of the economy would mean eliminating all defense spending and most other domestic programs (for research, homeland security, the environment, etc.). To balance the budget with existing programs at their present economic shares would require, depending on assumptions, tax increases of 30 percent to 50 percent -- or budget deficits could quadruple. A final possibility: Cut retirement benefits by increasing eligibility ages, being less generous to wealthier retirees or trimming all payments.

I have long considered the looming entitlement crisis the most important domestic issue, and have tried to make the case to big government neoconservatives that if we don't deal with this mess now, our ability to spend money on defense will suffer. There is even evidence that this has already happened.

Samuelson suggests as the beginning of a solution that some Warren Buffett-like figure sponsor a book in which 6 leading think tanks (three conservative and three liberal) offer their solutions, with the goal of prodding the presidential candidates into talking about it. Unfortunately, those of us who want action to resolve this crisis are competing against human nature, which is always focused on the short term. Once you talk about what is going to happen in 2030, you lose the audience.

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