Of Truth, Trust Funds and Think Tanks

By August 1, 2007Economy

The Trobriand Islanders of the South Pacific (also known as the Kiriwina Islands, an archipelago of coral atolls off the eastern coast of New Guinea) have a marvelous word with no counterpart in English – mokita. It means the truth that everybody knows but nobody speaks.

Columnist Bob Samuelson today makes another one of his periodic attempts to call attention to our biggest mokita – the pending crisis of entitlement programs (link). “Consider the outlook,” Bob writes. “From 2005 to 2030, the 65 and over population will nearly double, to 71 million; its share of the population will rise to 20 percent from 12 percent. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid – programs that serve older people – already exceed 40 percent of the $2.7 trillion federal budget. By 2030, their share could hit 75 percent of the present budget” taking away funds for other programs, such as national defense and medical research.

This crisis looms a lot bigger and sooner than global warming, but there is zero willingness in Washington to grapple with it, not even among the vaunted think tanks that are often eager to embrace controversial issues. Bob theorizes that the think tanks on the left don’t want to get into it because they know the solution will involve reductions of retiree benefits, and the think tanks on the right shy away because they know an expansion of government is inevitable. He challenges the six leading Washington think tanks, three on the left and three on the right, to get off the sidelines and show some intellectual courage by collaborating on a book that recognizes the pending crisis and proffers solutions, which of necessity will be unpalatable.

I could offer a little subchapter of my own about the mythical Social Security Trust Fund which is supposed to keep the system solvent until 2042. The trust fund consists of a few pieces of paper – non-negotiable bonds — that say in effect that our government owes itself a lot of money. It is a liability, not an asset. When Social Security begins to pay out more than it takes in, about eight years from now, Congress will have to make up the difference with real money from current revenues.

So will the think tanks accept Bob’s challenge and out the mokita? Don’t hold your breath.

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