The real dirty words in presidential campaign have yet to be spoken

Published 10:39 am Wednesday, October 12, 2016

To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long strange trip it’s been in the 2016 presidential election.

We’ve talked about sex, purloined emails, hidden tax returns, fainting spells, and bad manners. We’ve watched one candidate who has worked hard at being unlikeable and another who has worked equally hard at not being trustworthy. Their supporters reject both notions, but the polls indicate hard realities in public opinion.

For many voters, this is the first presidential election in their lifetimes in which it’s truly difficult to find a candidate to feel good about and support. And, as many have pointed out, the third party alternatives are no picnic this time, either.

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After watching the second presidential debate this week, it occurred to me that for all the media frenzy over dirty words in recent days the dirtiest words in American presidential politics simply haven’t been spoke during the 2016 presidential campaign. Those words? Social Security and Medicare.

Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton are talking about those topics, but the U.S. Social Security and Medicare programs are continuing their inexorable slide toward insolvency. Congress continues to spar over which party has control but does nothing to address the approach of that monumental insolvency.

Americans were reminded in June by the U.S. Department of the Treasury that the $2.7 trillion Social Security Trust Fund will run out of money in 2034. So what does that mean? Well, it means that after 2034, Social Security could still pay three-fourths of scheduled benefits to retirees using its tax income even if Congress took no action to shore up the program.

Of course, there’s that pesky little thing of a virtual if not actual taxpayer revolt when 2034 arrives and full Social Security benefits aren’t available to taxpayers who paid into the system realize that the federal government took them for a ride.

In a filing cabinet in Parkersburg, West Virginia, the Treasury Department’s Bureau of the Public Debt keeps a three-ring binder notebook with paper representing essentially government IOUs for four government trust funds including the Social Security Trust Funds — one for Social Security benefits and one for disability benefits — and two others for Medicare.

Social Security upside down in terms of benefits paid versus payroll deductions received and the Social Security trust fund has been reduced by over $2.5 trillion worth of congressional borrowing and spending for other purposes.

Medicare is projected to be able to meet obligations through the year 2028. In calendar year 2015, Medicare provided benefits to about 55.3 million people (46.3 million people aged 65 and over, and nine million disabled people) at an estimated total cost of $648 billion.

The future of Medicare — and the Medicare-related trust funds — are tied directly to the future of the Affordable Care Act. Democrats see the ACA as a means of “saving” Medicare, while Republicans argue vehemently for repeal of the ACA.

The plethora of Social Security and Medicare numbers resound as retirees and the 78 million Baby Boomers who aspire to be retirees find out that their retirement nest egg has been compromised by years of congressional mismanagement. There are currently some 60 million Americans drawing Social Security with average benefits of $1,342 per month.

Do we solve these issues by raising taxes, cutting benefits, both, neither, or do we just continue to careen down the path of “know-nothing, do-nothing” politics and call it leadership? And let’s make no mistake, when it comes to Social Security and Medicare, neither party has the high ground and both parties bear direct responsibility for the current financial quagmire.

There are no more relevant issues for the future of this country than how to deal with the implications of the slide toward insolvency of Social Security and Medicare. Perhaps in the third and final presidential debate, there will be some discussion of the nation’s economy and our plans for stabilizing Social Security and Medicare — unless someone finds another lewd tape recording or another cache of deleted emails.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at