Spending our way into oblivion

President Dwight Eisenhower gave the nation a farewell address 48 years ago in which he outlined an urgent warning.

That warning is coming true. We are spending our way into oblivion.

Eisenhower said: "As we peer into society’s future, we — you and I, and our government — must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow."

We are coming to the point where Social Security will run out of money. We are even closer to the point where Medicare will be out of funds. If we do nothing, entitlements will be 90 percent of our total revenues, and our country will be bankrupt by the end of the century.

Eager to find a bipartisan solution to make Social Security solvent (the trustees say it will be insolvent by 2037), President Obama proposed a Social Security task force (whoopee!), but Democrats in Congress shot down the idea. They’d rather concentrate on health care.

We have had innumerable commissions studying Social Security, and the one common denominator is the realization that we are headed for fiscal disaster unless we limit benefits, raise taxes or raise the age when Social Security benefits are paid. (No more 62-year-olds deciding to retire early.) Or, many say, we need a combination of those distasteful options.

President George H.W. Bush knew about the coming catastrophe but refused to do anything that did not include privatizing Social Security. That idea has been completely discredited by the stock-market crash, which wiped out 50 percent or more of most 401(k) retirement plans.

Obama, currently trying to mend relations with Arab nations and deal with a deep recession, GM’s bankruptcy and at least a dozen other crises, thought it would be helpful to raise payroll taxes on those earning over $250,000. That idea has gone nowhere.

The baby boomers — all 78 million of them — start turning 65 in 2011. We are not ready. We have nowhere near enough nurses, doctors or geriatric services to accommodate them. We do not have the wherewithal to retrofit their houses so they can stay in them instead of going to nursing homes ($75,000 for a private room for a year) or provide them transportation. Our laws make it hard for them to work part time and make ends meet.

We were once appalled by a $300 billion annual deficit. This year it will be $1.8 trillion. It’s hard to believe that President Bill Clinton prophesied surpluses "as far as the eye could see."

The nation has so many problems that we don’t blame the White House for over-the-top spending. We’re in so much fiscal shock that we can barely muster any outrage at all or know where to direct it.

During the George W. Bush years we were so distracted by terrorism that we started two wars that cost hundreds of billions of dollars we didn’t have and sapped our will to worry about the long term. Many think our biggest future threat is domestic overspending.

As a nation, we’re that family that spent too much on a house we couldn’t afford, failed to put anything away for a rainy day or save for college and retirement. Now our income is vastly exceeded by expenses, and it’s raining hard.

The Democrats in Congress are wrong. We need to have a national discussion about this now even if it means another bipartisan task force. There is enough alarm that this time we might achieve compromise. At the least, we might scare the young into saving for retirement because our current path is unsustainable.

We Americans have existed on optimism. We can’t conceive that our spending habits and failure to save may doom our superpower status. A bankrupt USA? An insolvent phantom, as Eisenhower worried? It is no longer impossible to imagine.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)