Rite of Spring or Time to Panic?
Dana Milbank’s Washington Post column today captures the skepticism toward prophecies of the coming apocalypse due to unsustainable entitlement spending. Milbank attended a 14-minute press conference where Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said that the government is in crisis. Soon, Washington won’t be able to pay for social security and medicare alone, much less pay all the things government spends money on.
But if the situation is so dire, why there is an annual 14-minute press conference devoted to it each spring that the President doesn’t even attend? Aside from the dreariness of the subject matter, part of the reason would seem to be that there is no discernible threshold when widespread panic sets. Should it be when medicare costs exceed government revenue (which, as Milbank notes, is projected to happen this year)? Is it when the federal deficit reaches three-hundred billion? Four-hundred billion?
My piece on retiring fiscal crusader and GAO head David Walker suggests that panic starts when there is widespread public understanding of an issue that’s rather hard to comprehend (What does three trillion dollars look like?).
If and when there is that understanding it will become very much a hot-button, partisan political issue. How much do we raise taxes? Do we privatize social security? Or scrap the web of government health programs and nationalize health care? Those debates will receive more than facetious coverage from Dana Milbank.