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January 29, 2014 5:23 PM The Doomsday Machine

By Ed Kilgore

In the last scheduled installment of the “entitlement forum” over at The American Prospect, veteran center-left gadfly and Progressive Policy Institute president Will Marshall takes up the cudgels for rapidly shrinking public investments and argues progressives should care more about restoring them and less about keeping Social Security and Medicare in their original shape. He argues, in fact, that without stronger public investments we are unlikely to see the kind of robust long-term growth needed to keep the big entitlements solvent, much less the kind of wage growth and upward mobility we saw briefly in the 1990s.

I can think of many things to call this “crowding out” phenomenon, but progressive is not one of them. After all, domestic spending supports priorities liberals once fought and bled for. These include common goods like transport, water, and other vital infrastructure that supports economic growth; our national commitment to science and technology, perhaps our prime source of comparative advantage in global competition; and, the public education and training institutions that make “equal opportunity” more than a hollow slogan. Also being starved are progressive programs to help people lift themselves out of poverty, curb hunger, and expand early learning opportunities for families that can’t afford costly day care, not to mention environmental protection, public health and law enforcement.
Medicare and Social Security, which alone account for more than 37% of federal spending, are on track to absorb (along with interest on the debt) almost every dollar of revenue Washington collects over the next several decades. Meanwhile, the Urban Institute estimates that federal spending on children will decline about 20 percent over the next decade. This growing disparity seems perverse at a time when poverty rates are higher for children than seniors (18 versus 14.8 percent in 2012, as measured by the Supplemental Poverty Measure). From the standpoint of investing in children and families, uncontrolled mandatory spending on seniors is like a fiscal version of the Doomsday Machine from Dr. Strangelove.

Will had no way of knowing his essay would be published on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Strangelove, but it’s a nice piece of serendipity.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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