Halloween is getting close, but in Washington the bogeymen never left. They aren't your traditional holiday frights. No ghosts, goblins, or zombies here. I'm talking about the political scare tactics—taking away grandma's Medicare, gambling away our retirement in the stock market, and slashing education spending. These electoral memes are the zombies that never die, but they are killing our chance to fix our long-term fiscal problems.
To be fair, the political hyperbole is a bipartisan curse. Republicans used the powerful image of death panels to derail the Democrats' healthcare bill. Moreover, the words "Communist" and "Socialist" have been used so often to describe President Obama, even Joe McCarthy is saying "OK, enough."
The key to creating a truly good election year bogeyman is the presence of an underlying grain of truth. But eventually the grain of truth is lost under pile of mistruths.
Our nation is facing real problems. A debt that is frightening without partisan embellishment. Budget deficits that are unsustainable even when we cut through the hyperbole. The scare tactics that we are creating are diluting our ability to actually debate and solve these problems.
According to the Congressional Budget Office,
The federal budget is on an unsustainable path, because federal debt will continue to grow much faster than the economy over the long run . . . Measured relative to GDP, almost all of the projected growth in federal spending other than interest payments on the debt stems from the three largest entitlement programs—Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.
In other words, something must be done to change the course of these entitlement programs. Their budgetary projections are simply untenable as they currently stand, meaning we are going to be faced with enormous tax increases, benefit cuts, or the more likely scenario—both.
Unfortunately, each of these programs is an election year bogeyman that halts any momentum towards reform. Social Security is the most prominent. Washington Post opinion columnist Katrina vanden Heuvel said that "if Democrats really want to rally their base and win over voters . . . they'd be smart to start talking Social Security." The reason is that voters, regardless of the unsustainable economics underlying the program, are incredibly protective about their benefits.
The same applies to Medicare, in which Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has said that "Republicans not only oppose improvements to our seniors' healthcare system, but pledge to repeal them and end Medicare as we know it."
The backlash is a perfect, if sad, lesson in why politicians on either side of the aisle aren't willing to put forth intellectually honest proposals on how we're going to fix our very real budget crisis. Voters are the ultimate budget shoppers; they are consistently looking for more stuff for less money. Traditionally, politicians have been all too willing to provide such deals. It's easy for a candidate to promise a generous benefit in future years yet still fight to keep modest payments today. It's much harder to actually live up to these promises.
The result is that with each passing generation, the amount of money paid out in entitlements grows. And once people receive a benefit, they don't want to let it go. Who can blame them? It's exactly why Americans, by a 54 to 41 percent margin, say they prefer a "smaller government with fewer services," and yet large majorities also favor keeping our entitlement programs intact.
Americans deserve an honest debate. One that doesn't play to people's fears of destroying Medicare or Social Security as we know it. The greatest threat to our beloved entitlements is not change. As Rep. Paul Ryan explains, "the greatest threat . . . is the icy indifference shown by those unwilling to have an adult conversation on how to avert their looming collapse."
These programs cannot survive without change. Save the bogeymen for Halloween. Our budget trajectory leaves plenty to be afraid of without turning reform efforts into election year scare tactics.