Scare tactics won’t resolve big issues

As a nation we need to have a sober discussion — Gov. Mitch Daniels calls it an “adult conversation” — about the future of Medicare and Social Security.

In theory, this would be the perfect time for that conversation, since we’re 11 weeks out from presidential and congressional elections. It’s clearly not shaping up that way, however.

Both presidential campaigns, both major political parties and multiple candidates running for the U.S. House and Senate have pointed fingers at their opponents and shouted, in effect, “They want to cut Medicare!” The tactic is meant to scare voters, but it also tends to shut down substantive debate on the future of entitlement programs.

Here’s why it’s crucial to have that debate: In April, the Medicare trustees reported to Congress that the Medicare Trust Fund will run out of money in 2024. That means that in only 12 years Medicare expenses will exceed tax revenue collected for the program.

Medicare is under heightened financial pressure for two reasons: health care costs continue to rise rapidly and the large baby boomer generation is starting to retire.

The future of Social Security also needs to be addressed, although there’s a longer timeline before it would become insolvent. Social Security’s trustees project that its trust funds will be exhausted between 2036 and 2041 unless significant changes are made in the program.

What does this mean to ordinary citizens? If nothing is done, smaller benefits, higher taxes or both may well lie ahead. But the pain inflicted by such changes can be mitigated if the problems are addressed soon. Unfortunately, most political leaders -- from both parties -- have avoided being straightforward about the future of Medicare and Social Security. Those who do try to realistically address the problems tend to be pummeled by their opponents for the sake of political expediency.

Voters, however, have the power to change that. They can insist on that “adult conversation” about the future of programs that are now staples of American life. They also can reject the partisan sniping, coming from the left and the right, and at the very least listen to candidates who are willing to offer realistic plans for fixing Medicare and Social Security.

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