Mitchell’s Musings 4-23-2018: Grandma is the Unfunded Liability

05 May 2018 11:49 AM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 4-23-2018: Grandma is the Unfunded Liability

Daniel J.B. Mitchell

A recent op ed in the LA Times points out that the Trump tax cuts are the first stage of a larger strategy:

Tax cuts do not pay for themselves — not the Trump tax cuts, nor in any other case in modern U.S. practice. So we face only two possible courses of action: Either we tax ourselves more, or we dismantle the social safety net (in particular, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) that protects Americans from destitution or disability. Which is the right direction for our country to pursue?

One political movement has its answer at the ready: Slash the safety net.

Five fellows at the conservative Hoover Institution recently laid bare in a Washington Post opinion piece how the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017 was just the first step in a two-step dance. The full tango goes like this: Note that our deficits are unsustainable. Blame "entitlement spending" (code for Social Security and Medicare) rather than tax cuts. Demand cuts to social spending on the pretext that some imaginary iron laws of reduced tax collections and deficit concerns require it…[1]

This strategy did not originate in 2017, nor is it confined to the Hoover Institution. It usually is accompanied by calculations of the “unfunded liability” of Social Security and Medicare which is viewed with alarm. And it assumes that if you cut entitlements, the unfunded liability will go away somehow. But that assumption ignores the demographics – particularly the demographics of the population bulge known as the baby boom.

Do you want to see the actual unfunded liability? You don’t need to wade through government reports. Here it is below. Grandma and grandpa are the unfunded liability.


Image not available for technical reasons. To see the chart go to:


The aging boomers that are the unfunded liability will eventually go away through the natural process, of course, but not because of tax cuts or budgetary calculations. So taking them out of the federal budget solves nothing. They exist and somehow society will have to fund their consumption.

Issues regarding “entitlements” involve how the GDP of 2030, 2040, 2050, 2060, etc., will be split between active workers, retirees, and other dependents (mainly children). We can have a sensible conversation about that division and come up with solutions. Or we can wait until the “strategy” described earlier creates a political crisis. As the chart below shows, the demographics are coming, tax cut or not.[2]


Image not available for technical reasons. To see the chart go to:


Years ago, I wrote a book describing political turmoil in the 1930s and 1940s in California which was then an elderly state.[3] Many of the elderly in California in that era, absent an adequate safety net, supported hair-brained plans and backed political con artists promising pie-in-the-sky solutions. If we get such results in the coming years at the national level, I suspect the folks at the Hoover Institution and other conservative think-tanks won’t like the outcome of their planned crisis. One thing about the elderly; they vote in large numbers.




[2] The chart is from

[3] Daniel J.B. Mitchell, Pensions, Politics, and the Elderly: Historic Social Movements and Their Lessons for Our Aging Society (M.E. Sharpe, 2000). Now available as an eBook and through Routledge.

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