Frankly, I was surprised by how little attention the news out of Washington got on Tuesday — that the Social Security program has to dip into its trust fund for the first time since 1982.
Oh, there were stories in the major media. You may have heard it on morning radio programs.
But by afternoon, the nation was focused on more interesting things, such as the president disinviting a championship football team from the White House and the swimsuit competition being eliminated from the Miss America pageant, which many people were surprised to learn still exists.
Really, though, I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is how it is with things that don’t affect us immediately.
The annual report from the trustees of America’s premier entitlement program said the Social Security trust fund — built up during all those years when the program collected more than it spent — will be depleted in 2034, which is a year sooner than projected last year.
Yeah, and kids being born today will need an astronomical sum to attend college in 2036. File these under things good to know. We’ll get to them someday, right?
Meanwhile, they aren’t even speed bumps for many of us as we move on to see what Amazon and eBay have to offer today.
They’re racing over the bumps in Washington, too.
I have found it instructive to speak with the candidates for major offices who have come to the newspaper in advance of this month's primary election. Every one, including a prominent former presidential candidate, has mentioned the need to get the nation’s fiscal house in order as a top priority. And every one has struggled to reassure my colleagues and me that he has what it takes to rally other politicians in Washington to the cause.
It may be a comfort to you that so many Utah candidates want to focus on the mess that is our national checkbook. But then, the halls of Washington these days are filled with fiscal alcoholics. They still may be able to function normally in society, without giving any outward appearance of their problem. But no one knows which drink or, rather, which expenditure, will be the one that puts them, and us, over the edge.
Not long ago, you could count on a lot of Republicans to at least pretend to hold the line, threatening fiscal cliffs and sequesters. But now?
Well, after all, we seem to be doing OK with a $21 trillion debt, which some people didn’t think we could.
So — bartender!
Before we get too carried away with the year 2034, it’s important to understand one thing. The Social Security trust fund doesn’t exist. All the extra money collected for the program through the years hasn't gone into a giant vault somewhere. The government has been spending it on other things. The trust fund is a giant IOU.
That means Washington now has to begin taking from other parts of the government to pay for Social Security — or, more to the point, it has to borrow for it.
It’s also important to understand one other thing. The sooner Congress and the president deal with this problem, the easier. Right now they could raise the retirement age or means-test benefits for the nation’s youngest workers and avoid too much pain. But the longer they wait, the harder it will get.
And did I mention the same report found that Medicare's fund is projected to be insolvent by 2026? That will be an even tougher one as baby boomers age and demand care.
Not everyone let this news slip by quickly. Washington Examiner editor Phillip Klein put things in perspective by noting we are now closer in time to Social Security’s insolvency than we are to the attacks of 9/11.
The Chicago Tribune editorial board put it differently last year, noting that a 50-year-old worker would hit retirement about the time the money runs out.
Klein also reminisced about how George W. Bush was considered “an alarmist” for focusing on the problem during his presidency. Back then, the projected insolvency date was 2042. In other words, political leaders keep doing things that make it worse, not better.
Either way, you ought to get the point by now. If only the same could be said for politicians, for whom 16 years seems a lifetime of re-election campaigns away.