Sunday, February 8, 2009

Defending entitlements

Ronald Brownstein's National Journal article of Feb. 7 presents a misguided and confounding attack on "entitlements." He states in the course of 2 sentences (in "The Solvency Solution"):

"The president's universal health care plan will cost at least $100 billion a year. Washington can't shoulder such costs, much less simultaneously increase investment, without eventually generating significant savings from existing entitlements..."

Medicare IS the major entitlement that threatens runaway costs, and if the President's "universal health care plan" actually succeeds, "Washington" could in fact "shoulder such costs," because it would be "eventually generating significant savings from existing entitlements."

We shouldn't choose. We can't choose. Health reform is the answer to the entitlement problem, and one of the answers to the current economic crisis.

But confusing statements by Brownstein, and more importantly by policy-makers, raise echoes of the roundly defeated attacks by the Bush Administration. They lumped entirely resolvable minor problems with Social Security funding (the other main entitlement) with the knottier - but also resolvable - problem of controlling health care expenditures. They also lumped endless tax cuts with alarms about entitlements to suggest that the solutions lie in undermining the already shaky social safety net: people's lives at the service of The Economy, rather than the reverse. This agenda was a non-starter even during the last 4 years, and showed no greater signs of life in the recent election.

There is not a feedback mechanism on the National Journal website. But I've asked Mr. Brownstein - generally a fair-minded observer, who has worked both for Nader and with the Hoover Institution, and is also a columnist at the L.A. Times - to explain what he means.

More importantly, what do Senator Conrad (quoted by Brownstein) and President Obama have in mind? Budget Committee Chair Conrad seems to get it right, commenting on health reform in a recent interview:

And not only does it [health reform] have to be paid for, but it also has to bend the longterm
cost curves so that we do begin to deal with what has been described here. Time
is running out. We can wait; we can kick this can down the road. However, if we
do, this problem only grows, and the solutions will become more draconian, more
difficult, more painful. It is in all of our interests to act. I believe the
President understands that. I believe his top economic advisers are committed to
an approach to take these problems on. This is not going to be easy, and it is
not going to be fun, but it has to be done.

Conrad has joined former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker in calling for the creation of a bipartisan process to confront the looming budget crisis. Walker, who is now the President and CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, has unveiled a new Peterson Foundation $1 million-plus advertising campaign to raise public awareness of the nation’s deteriorating long-term fiscal condition. The effort is also supported by Senator George Voinovich (R-OH), Representative Jim Cooper (D-TN), and Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA). The campaign rhetoric and agenda bear watching.

- Ellen Shaffer

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