What Old and Young Americans Owe One Another

Gratitude should lead us to make sure that older Americans can live comfortably in retirement. Solicitude should lead us to do so in ways that do not needlessly leave the next generation less prosperous than it could be. Those should be the terms of our debates about Social Security and Medicare. And they would clearly call for some changes to those programs, undertaken in a protective spirit of repair. Treating those programs as wasteful spending is one kind of failure of responsibility; but treating any proposed reforms of them as attacks on the aged is another.

Social Security and Medicare provide essential financial security to older Americans, but they still leave about a tenth of the elderly in poverty and increase the complexity and cost of American health care. These programs won’t bankrupt our spectacularly wealthy society, but they are the primary drivers of our growing federal debt, which will burden today’s young and those who follow them.

In its recent overview of budget trends, the Congressional Budget Office projected that discretionary spending (including defense) will decline as a share of the economy over the next three decades, but that spending on Social Security and Medicare will grow significantly — roughly to 12 percent from 8 percent of the economy — and the interest paid on our borrowing to fund that growth will rise to more than 7 percent of the economy in 2053, from 2.4 percent today. This is not quite borrowing to build something for the generations who will pay the cost; it is borrowing for present consumption. We can afford it, but it will make the future less abundant than it might have been, so we should seek restraint.

We can do better both at gratitude and at solicitude. For instance, my American Enterprise Institute colleague Andrew Biggs has proposed restructuring Social Security so that it provides a universal minimum benefit set above the poverty level (ending poverty for seniors altogether) and then facilitating enrollment in subsidized retirement savings plans beyond that. Our colleague James Capretta has proposed related reforms of Medicare, which would make the program much simpler for seniors, provide a universal entitlement topped by means-tested additional support and strengthen the core insurance benefit. Both would have these reforms take effect gradually for future retirees, and would also put tax increases on the table, while recognizing that those too come at a cost to the future.

We are conservatives, and surely some progressives would dispute these particular reform ideas. They can propose others, and politicians and voters can decide. But taking any changes off the table, as both parties now do because they cannot talk honestly about these programs, means failing to meet our obligations to both the young and the old.

Too often, our politics conceives of the future by imagining a sharp break between now and then — a fiscal catastrophe, an ecological holocaust, a cultural collapse or a political cataclysm. Such death-wish futurism is the natural outgrowth of our intense polarization. We have persuaded ourselves that if the wrong people are in power, the sky will fall on our country and then — just before we are all eaten by zombies — everyone will finally see that we were right.

Reality is both better and worse: It won’t offer undeniable proof of either party’s moral superiority, but it also won’t bring the future crashing down on us. The future will be continuous with the present and the past. We should look for ways to build that future that properly balance our veneration for the retiring generation and our devotion to the rising one.

Yuval Levin, a contributing Opinion writer, is the editor of National Affairs and the director of social, cultural and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of “A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream.”