No, Mr. Armey, you’re not the only one worried about Social Security

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It’s just that most of us don’t express our concerns quite like this:

The impending collapse of Social Security and Medicare will be the largest bankruptcy in human history. It is an avalanche aimed squarely at the American economy.

Now, I’ve been guilty of some Social Security and Medicare alarmism of my own in the past. And I remain somewhat alarmed. But I’ve come to think “bankruptcy” and “impending collapse” are the wrong words to describe the situation. Future Social Security and Medicare commitments aren’t debts that we owe to a third party. Both (especially Medicare) are government programs that if current revenue and spending patterns continue will be deep underwater in a few decades. Which means current revenue and spending patterns won’t continue. How we’ll bring them into balance is a huge political dilemma. But it’s not a looming bankruptcy.

As several commenters to Armey’s latest Swampland post have pointed out, Social Security’s financial condition isn’t even all that dire–a few benefit cuts and a modest payroll tax hike would bring it back into long-run balance. We definitely ought to be talking right now about one of those benefit cuts–raising the retirement age a couple decades down the road to reflect longer life expectancies–because the longer we wait the more disruptive such a change would be. But let’s cut the bankruptcy talk.

Medicare’s tougher. The main problem is that health care costs have been rising much faster than inflation; if they keep doing so, the program will become prohibitively expensive. But again, this strikes me as a (very difficult) health-policy problem, not “the largest bankruptcy in human history.”

That said, I’m loving Armey’s guest stint on Swampland. He’s addressing big issues that often get swept aside in Time and elsewhere by political horse-race talk. Yeah, he’s addressing them with a sledgehammer (and without any links to back up anything he says). But that leaves an awful lot of blog fodder for the rest of us.