During the Cold War, anti-Communists often referred to the totalitarian bloc as “The Red Menace.” By 1991, the United States stood triumphant over the vanquished remains of the Communist empire as a democratic, capitalist hegemon. The old Red Menace was relegated to Reagan’s “dust heap of history.”
Today, however, we face a new and far more powerful Red Menace. Armies, navies and missile barrages from foreign despots pale in comparison to the doom that awaits us at the hands of the new Red Menace: the tidal wave of red ink that threatens to drown everything great about America.
The problem is not unexpected, nor is it inevitable: those who actually pay attention to the republic’s ledgers have been warning about the impending explosion in entitlement costs for decades. The American voters and their characteristically self-serving politicians, however, have been content to kick the can down the road in the hope that a problem ignored will disappear. Unfortunately, problems of basic arithmetic — like spending more than you take in — don’t tend to solve themselves, and America’s big three entitlements are all on course to spend tens of trillions more than they take in for many decades.
This past Friday, a ray of hope appeared for America’s finances. Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana delivered an address in which he eschewed empty platitudes and forced his audience to actually think about America’s financial future. He explained to the audience that America’s current course would guarantee ruination, and America must reform entitlements in the immediate future or it will soon spend more money making interest payments on its debt than on its entire discretionary budget.
Daniels took the unusual step of acknowledging that the traditional conservative complaints about government, namely that the discretionary budget is wasteful and inefficient, are simply too small to explain the magnitude of the fiscal mess America is entering. There are no excuses; the problem lies directly in front of us. We designed our entitlements badly and our leaders have avoided the political firestorm of fixing them in order to improve their odds of reelection. If no one steps up in this decade to fundamentally reinvent America’s entitlements, America will soon have to decide between growth and Grandma, between basic national security and basic social safety nets.
Daniels continued by warning that modest adjustments won’t solve our problems. Social Security will go bankrupt if it issues checks to wealthy and well-to-do retirees. And with retirees living 15 years longer than they did when Social Security was created, the age requirement needs to be increased by a couple of years.
Daniels pressed on. He lambasted the rightfully maligned “Obamacare” expansion of entitlements, but he did so without accusing President Obama of socialist intent. Rather, he excoriated the President for selling his “reform” bill as a solution to the crisis of rising healthcare costs when in reality it will do little more than increase the number of Americans demanding medical insurance. Daniels then contrasted Obamacare’s trillion dollar price tag and tax increases with his own Healthy Indiana Initiative, which has covered many poor Hoosiers inexpensively by focusing on needed care and cheap preventative measures that deliver the most bang for the buck.
We don’t know yet if Daniels will run for President in 2012, but we can hope. He’s the first conservative politician to rise above rhetoric and accusations of socialism and engage the status quo’s leaders on their failure to deal with America’s actual fiscal crises. He’s taken tough stances on issues studiously avoided by most politicians, with our crumbling and poorly designed entitlements as a prime example. He has become the anti-Obama: where the handsome Chicagoan ran a vague campaign devoid of specific promises and rhetorically focused on bland platitudes like “hope” and “change,” the honest Hoosier is focusing on specific reforms that will stem the tide of red ink and put America back in the black. We need more leaders like Daniels who are willing to put their political careers on the line to bring attention to the disastrous course we are on. Only time will tell if he succeeds.
Trevor Wagener is a senior in Pierson College. His column runs on alternate Mondays.