Focus on the big picture

Week after week, month after month, since 1992, the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group of concerned Americans, has continued to sound alarms about the nation’s constantly growing fiscal problems. The coalition has been forced into its bellwether role for one reason: the United States Congress has refused to address, in any meaningful way, the growth in a handful of programs driving the federal debt to levels that cannot be sustained.

In August 1999, when this newspaper began its weekly front page publication of the U.S. national debt, the debt stood at $5.6 trillion — $20,600 for each man, woman and child. Just 15 years later, the debt has more than tripled, to $17.7 trillion, and each citizen’s share stands at $55,560.

Last week, the Concord Coalition cited updated projections from the Congressional Budget Office showing that “growth in just a few programs due to the retirement of the baby boom generation, combined with increasing debt service, have and will continue to push our federal debt to levels not seen since World War II.” At war’s end, debt held by the public peaked at 113 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. That percentage declined over the next three decades as the nation’s post-war economy expanded. But on June 30 of this year, that debt-to-GDP ratio was back up to 104 percent, with nearly half of the debt owned by foreign investors.

The status quo simply cannot continue.

There is a vast chasm between the nation’s two major political parties. Congress appears unwilling to put the nation’s collective interest ahead of its own partisan concerns. With few exceptions, members of Congress are unwilling to educate their constituents about difficult choices when soliciting their support.

Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are sacred cows to millions of Americans. Together, those programs consume 45 percent of the entire federal budget. But it’s the comparatively miniscule $576 billion spent last year on non-defense domestic programs that inevitably is the target of budget-cutters too timid to tackle the big issues.

Any recommendations involving Social Security — whether raising the eligibility age and curbing benefits for wealthier Americans or eliminating the $117,000 cap on income subject to the payroll tax — are met with howls of objection. In truth, it will take a combination of both proposals to address the system’s underlying problems. In 1950, 16 taxpayers supported every Social Security recipient. By 2009, the ratio had dwindled to three-to-one; soon it will be one-to-one.

Medicare, which pays the cost of prescription drugs, physician care and hospitalization for the elderly, faces an even greater problem. It is open-ended, with no spending limits. Life expectancy has increased from 68 in 1950 to 78 today. With millions of Baby-Boomers retiring and living longer, the pressure on Medicare will only increase.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, total spending for Medicare is projected to grow about 6 percent per year over the next decade. Medicare case loads are expanding as Baby Boomers become eligible for benefits at age 65. In 2013, there were about 51 million Medicare beneficiaries. That number is expected to climb to 71 million by 2024.

Today’s politicians can — and do — cite poll after poll in an attempt to prove that Americans are unwilling to raise taxes or change Social Security. But Americans also know that, in their own lives, spending money they don’t have is a losing proposition.