HOWARD: We Can’t Ignore the Social Security Third Rail


Saturday, March 18, 2023

“Do you not know, my son, with how very little wisdom the world is governed?” – Axel Oxenstierna 

As of the moment this article is being written, the US Debt Clock has our national debt at $31.6 trillion. Our deficit stands at $1.4 trillion. Our federal debt-to-GDP ratio stands at 120 percent, the same level it was in the immediate aftermath of WWII. Current interest paid on the debt for this fiscal year alone sits at half a trillion dollars; that number is projected to reach one trillion by the end of the decade. The United States is facing a looming debt crisis on all fronts, one we cannot afford to ignore any longer. The GOP, as the traditional party of fiscal responsibility, must make the case to the American people that hard choices will have to be made on every program–including the third rails, Social Security and Medicare. 

Currently, both President Biden and House Republicans have made promises to leave Social Security and Medicare out of any potential spending cuts, now or in the future. The House GOP in particular has made it a point to emphasize how untouchable those programs are as they negotiate raising the debt ceiling before this summer. However, these promises are unrealistic. As it currently stands, Social Security and Medicare spending make up $2.8 trillion of this year’s budget, far outpacing the rest of our federal spending. 

In 2021 the Social Security Trust Fund ran a deficit for the first time since 1983 when Congress passed a bipartisan Social Security funding program. That trust fund is projected to run out by 2035, at which time beneficiaries will face a 20 percent across-the-board cut to benefits. Even after that happens, Social Security will continue to run a deficit; the program is projected to cost $21 trillion more than it takes in revenue for the next thirty years. Medicare is projected to cost $48 trillion more, and with added interest payments, these two programs are projected to cause a total shortfall of $116 trillion by 2052 

However you want to slice it, there is no way to look at the future of these programs and come to the conclusion that they are untouchable. No matter where you stand on the Right–whether you’re a Reaganite, NatCon, integralist, libertarian, etc–placing the country on sound fiscal footing should be and must be a number one priority. These programs will have to be reformed, and cuts will have to be made. The can has been kicked down the road; it cannot be kicked any further. 

Thankfully, we have at least one example to look towards on this issue. Sweden faced similar issues with their pension program in the 1990s, after decades of reckless government spending. 

The reforms they instituted included partial privatization, and today the Swedish pension program is much more stable than it was decades ago. 

This goes to a much larger issue facing American conservatism, and the American political sphere broadly. For decades our leaders have promised us that the bill will never come due regarding federal spending. Whether it is war abroad or welfare at home, the go-to line from the American statesman is always “someone else will pay for it.” Conservative leadership today has fallen into that trap, whether it comes from the Old Guard who did nothing but cut taxes or the new guys who promise a new slate of federal action on issues such as the decay of the Rust Belt. This reluctance to be honest with the American people has brought us to the brink of catastrophe. The political ramifications of saying “no, we cannot afford that” pale in comparison to the disaster that waits for us if we continue to sell out our future. Regardless of where you stand on the question of what conservatism should be, the time for sober responsibility has come. 

The third rail of American politics has always been seen as too charged to touch. With time running out, however, Republicans cannot afford to ignore it anymore. If we abandon our commitments to free markets, limited governance, and a society free from the reckless machinations of government (including irresponsible welfare spending), we become no better than the Left. We must be better than them, and that necessarily means being honest with the American people about what must be done. That honesty should begin with reforming those programs we already spend money on, and putting a halt on new spending.

Scott Howard is a junior political science major at the University of Florida. His other work can be found on Substack, where he writes the newsletter The Conservative Muse.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.

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About Scott Howard

Scott Howard is a junior political science major at the University of Florida. His other work can be found on Substack, where he writes the newsletter The Conservative Muse.

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