Deficits and Old Folks

There’s a new Simpson-Bowles plan out today, and your interest in it probably depends not only on your political views but on which news sources you consult–some of which are greeting it as divine revelation and others as a nothing-burger.

Since the latter category includes most of the actual key decision-makers in Washington, Simpson-Bowles 2.0 is likely to serve as a symbol (and to certain deficit hawks, an idol) of a theoretical Austerity Deal (higher taxes and reduced spending) that remains out of reach. But as Matt Yglesias notes today, let’s don’t pretend Simpson and Bowles are just bringing out the green eyeshades and nothing more:

The main policy debate here isn’t about deficits, but about spending, and specifically spending on the elderly. The number of elderly people is expected to grow as a share of the population, and because some of our elderly-focused spending specifically targets health care, the volume of spending per old person is also poised to rise. What to do about that—to increase the taxation of the non-elderly to pay the tab, or to cut the tab by reducing our commitment to helping the elderly—is what’s being debated.

I’d add there is obviously another path: maintaining our commitment to the elderly but finding ways to reduce the cost, especially through health care cost containment measures that don’t simply shift costs and risks to the old folks themselves. One of the maddening aspects of budget discussions is that observers often lump “savings” together as identical in nature regardless of whether they are generated by actual benefit cuts or some other means. Indeed, it’s sometimes difficult to get Republicans to agree on a definition of “cuts,” since they often refuse to accept a current-services definition of “spending” and so trumpet actual cuts as modestly limited increases.

But since even Erskine Bowles says prospects for a “grand bargain” on the budget are “on life support,” we should have plenty of time to sort out what we mean by this or that framing of the “entitlement” issue.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.