Thursday, January 11, 2007

In Denial

Robert Samuelson summarizes the ugly facts about the future of social security:

It's no secret that the 65-and-over population will double by 2030 (to almost 72 million, or 20 percent of total), but hardly anyone wants to face the realistic implications:

-- By comparison, other budget issues, including the notorious "earmarks,'' are trivial. In 2005, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (the main programs for the elderly) cost $1.034 trillion, twice the amount of defense spending and more than two-fifths of the total federal budget. By 2030, these programs are projected to equal about three-quarters of the present budget, if it remains constant as a share of national income.

-- Preserving present retirement benefits automatically imposes huge costs on the young -- costs that are economically unsound and socially unjust. The tax increases required by 2030 could hit 50 percent, if other spending is maintained as a share of national income. Or much of the rest of government would have to be shut or crippled. Or budget deficits would balloon to quadruple today's level.

-- Social Security and Medicare benefits must be cut to keep down overall costs. Yes, some taxes will be raised and some other spending cut. But much of the adjustment should come from increasing eligibility ages (ultimately to 70) and curbing payments to wealthier retirees. Americans live longer and are healthier. They can work longer and save more for retirement.

There's more at the link. It is a shame that when Bush proposed a solution to the looming crisis a couple of years back, the Democrats fought him hard on it and the Republicans simply waffled. Bush shrugged, and nothing got accomplished, but the day of reckoning continues to draw closer.

Now that the Democrats control both houses of congress we can be sure they'll come up with a plan to avert the crisis.


The Speech

The only problem, in my opinion, with the President's speech last night was that it came last night and not last year. Better late than never, I guess. It seems hard to argue with what he said and what proposed, but I'm sure some will carp at it anyway. The President is right. The consequences of an American failure would be catastrophic for the world and an American success in Iraq would be an enormous benefit for the entire world. Here are some key passages from the speech in case you missed it:

Our troops in Iraq have fought bravely. They have done everything we have asked them to do. Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me.

It is clear that we need to change our strategy in Iraq.

The consequences of failure are clear: Radical Islamic extremists would grow in strength and gain new recruits. They would be in a better position to topple moderate governments, create chaos in the region, and use oil revenues to fund their ambitions. Iran would be emboldened in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Our enemies would have a safe haven from which to plan and launch attacks on the American people. On September the 11th, 2001, we saw what a refuge for extremists on the other side of the world could bring to the streets of our own cities. For the safety of our people, America must succeed in Iraq.

Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons: There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents. And there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have. Our military commanders reviewed the new Iraqi plan to ensure that it addressed these mistakes. They report that it does. They also report that this plan can work.

In earlier operations, Iraqi and American forces cleared many neighborhoods of terrorists and insurgents - but when our forces moved on to other targets, the killers returned. This time, we will have the force levels we need to hold the areas that have been cleared. In earlier operations, political and sectarian interference prevented Iraqi and American forces from going into neighborhoods that are home to those fueling the sectarian violence. This time, Iraqi and American forces will have a green light to enter these neighborhoods - and Prime Minister Maliki has pledged that political or sectarian interference will not be tolerated.

I have made it clear to the Prime Minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people - and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people. Now is the time to act. The Prime Minister understands this.

To establish its authority, the Iraqi government plans to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November. To give every Iraqi citizen a stake in the country's economy, Iraq will pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis. To show that it is committed to delivering a better life, the Iraqi government will spend 10 billion dollars of its own money on reconstruction and infrastructure projects that will create new jobs.

Succeeding in Iraq also requires defending its territorial integrity - and stabilizing the region in the face of the extremist challenge. This begins with addressing Iran and Syria. These two regimes are allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq. Iran is providing material support for attacks on American troops. We will disrupt the attacks on our forces. We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.

Many are concerned that the Iraqis are becoming too dependent on the United States - and therefore, our policy should focus on protecting Iraq's borders and hunting down al Qaeda. Their solution is to scale back America's efforts in Baghdad - or announce the phased withdrawal of our combat forces. We carefully considered these proposals. And we concluded that to step back now would force a collapse of the Iraqi government, tear that country apart, and result in mass killings on an unimaginable scale.

A couple of things jump out at the reader. First, "Mookie" al-Sadr and his merry band of thugs is no longer off-limits. This is wonderful news for everyone except the Shia death squads. Second, Iran and Syria can expect regular visits from the U.S. military. This is also heart-warming news. If we're going to send our young men and women abroad to risk their lives we have a moral obligation to do everything we can to see that they make it home in one piece. To treat Iran and Syria as insurgent sanctuaries is to fail in that obligation. It also guarantees that we'll never succeed in Iraq.

Like a football coach who makes halftime adjustments to unexpected tactics employed by his opponent, Bush is making some much needed changes to meet the challenges we're facing in Iraq. It's too bad he waited as long as he did, but now that he's making them, all Americans should join together in hoping and praying that he succeeds.