If present trends continue as expected, Medicare will go broke seven years from now, and Social Security will become insolvent 25 years later.

But that grim prospect doesn't bother the Bipartisan Commission of Entitlement and Tax Reform enough for its members to muster anything resembling a sense of urgency.After spending eight months and $1.9 million in pursuit of specific remedies, this high-profile panel in effect threw up its hands and decided only not to decide.

The most concrete recommendation last week from the 32-member commission is its call for Washington to start making spending and taxing decisions 30 years in advance, instead of the five-year period now involved in federal budget-making. Never mind that many politicians have trouble seeing beyond the next election, let alone the next decade.

Beyond that limp suggestion, the commission contented itself with calling for more efforts to educate the public about the problems facing popular benefit programs whose sharply escalating costs could eventually saddle Americans with higher taxes and a lower standard of living.

By taking this namby-pamby approach, the commission showed it would rather avoid controversy than make the tough choices offered by the panel's own leaders - Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., chairman, and Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., vice chairman.

Kerrey and Danforth have proposed raising the retirement age for full Social Security benefits to 70 over a 30-year period, reducing the Social Security tax and requiring workers to invest the money saved in Individual Retirement Accounts, and imposing a means test for Medicare, Social Security, unemployment insurance and veterans' benefits.

Bitter pills to swallow? Of course. But serious problems require stringent solutions. Besides, these proposals are not entirely unpalatable.

For example, limited means testing already applies to taxes on Social Security that kick in when incomes are above a certain level. By phasing in the changes now, no one over 50 would be directly impacted, and younger workers would have enough time to revise their retirement plans. Americans, after all, are living longer and enjoying better health. Automation is making many jobs less onerous.

Moreover, repeated studies have shown that conservative investments produce far bigger dividends than are ever gained from putting the same amount of money into Social Security. Many Americans lack the discipline and knowledge to do their own investing. Necessity, however, can be a rough but effective teacher.

If Washington is wise, it will take a close look at Chile, which has gone much farther than Kerrey and Danforth propose in privatizing its version of Social Security. In 1981, Chile abandoned its state-funded pension plan in favor of one that allows workers to choose from more than a dozen private - though government-approved - mutual investment funds. Since then, the returns have been so impressive that some workers will be able to retire with pensions larger than their salaries.

Though it won't be easy to sell drastic changes to the American public, the fact remains that little else will work. Despite the unhappy example set by the study commission, further temporizing will only hurt. The longer Americans wait to make the sacrifices required to achieve fiscal responsibility, the more complicated and expensive the job will be. To postpone the inevitable day of reckoning is not only imprudent, it's downright cowardly.