Commentary Magazine

America’s Entitlement Crisis Is a Global Security Crisis

AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File

The Mercatus Center at Virginia’s George Mason University has some bad news for progressive Democrats. According to its analysis, Bernie Sanders’s “Medicare for all” proposal would cost the U.S. Treasury an unfathomable $32.6 trillion over ten years. Liberals might try to discredit the analysis by pointing out the fact that the conservative Koch brothers partially fund Mercatus, but their estimate aligns with the non-partisan Urban Institute’s review of Sanders’s proposal. It’s an unworkable fantasy promulgated by blinkered liberals or cynics betting on the innumeracy of their constituents.

Anyone with a healthy suspicion of Democratic profligacy is, however, utterly without champions in Washington. The GOP is no longer the green-eyeshades party; if it ever was. House Speaker Paul Ryan is exiting stage left without using the Republican Party’s primacy to tackle the central threat to America’s financial security: the looming entitlement crisis. In June, Medicare’s trustees announced that the largest payer for health care in the United States would become insolvent in 2026—three years earlier than previously projected. Social Security is slated to reach insolvency in 2034.

Neither major American party is committed to addressing the crisis before it hits, so it is incumbent on forecasters to do the gloomy work of identifying how American lawmakers will respond when it is upon us. To his credit, George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen has done just that.

In an op-ed for Bloomberg, Cowen frames the oncoming crisis as a series of choices. Americans have chosen insolvency, and they are now faced with the inevitable realities associated with mitigating the damage that choice will produce. Ultimately, he notes, Americans will choose to avoid the prospect of politically untenable pain associated with mandatory cuts to entitlement benefits. Instead, American elected officials are most likely to offset the non-discretionary costs of America’s ballooning entitlement state by forcing the United States into retreat from its commitments abroad. Since forward deployments are among the most expensive aspects of the defense budget, policymakers will be forced to accept retrenchment.

Cowen paints a bleak portrait of the circumstances that this power vacuum would create. China will become more belligerent and revanchist, possibly culminating in the annexation of Taiwan. Nuclear weapons will proliferate across the Middle East. North American political and economic integration will deteriorate and tensions will rise. Russia will continue to test the inviolability of the borders in states constituting the “near abroad,” potentially instigating a crisis with a NATO-aligned state like Latvia or Estonia.

The only problem with Cowen’s analysis here is that he suggests Americans will be placid and complacent as they watch the world burn from behind the walls of Fortress America. The dystopian future he presents is one in which over-medicated Americans dozing off behind the wheels of self-driving cars or vegetating in front of screens exist in a dreamlike state of passivity. But the United States is not exempt from the forces of history. The rise of populism, both its progressive and nationalistic variations, has not spared Americans.

Aggressive nationalism by nature seeks out and prosecutes conflicts with other states. Docility will not typify the post-American world. American political leaders will be obliged to agitate voters to convince them of the value of abandoning the current status quo, as Donald Trump has. When the president says that America’s forward positioning in places like South Korea and Germany is not in the best interests of the United States, he does not claim that the liberal U.S.-led world order is a valueless proposition. He says that we’re getting stiffed by an abusive collection of free riders. This kind of nationalistic antagonism fuels the rise of hostile populists in the states against which Trump aggresses, and the cycle soon becomes self-sustaining.

Even if American decline could be managed by the most passive of leaders, the likelihood that the United States can remain neutral in a world in which Russia and China threaten to absorb all or part of its allies is a dubious proposition. It is Vladimir Putin’s fondest hope to engineer a crisis on NATO’s periphery and to force American and Western Europeans to back down from their obligations to the Atlantic Alliance’s members. Surely, no one in Berlin or Paris or Washington wants to go to war with Moscow over Tallinn, but that’s not to say that they won’t. And if they don’t, the lessons learned in the first half of the 20th century are clear. Thousands will die if you go to war for Danzig. Millions will die if you don’t. The alliance structures we’ve erected and the involuntary mechanisms for mutual defense we’ve established since World War II reflect this fundamental assumption.

As the lone superpower, the United States cannot avoid being drawn into conflicts on strategically valuable turf. Barack Obama spent four years trying to avoid entanglement in just such a conflict, and that was a failed experiment with disastrous knock-on effects for much of the Western world. The U.S. was eventually drawn into that conflict, only at a time and place not of our choosing. We should not want to see Obama’s choices repeated.

The United States does not enforce its global hegemony out of a sense of altruism. America’s prohibitive ability to project power abroad deters competitors and defers military costs for our formally fractious allies in places like Western Europe. Instability abroad and the increasing appeal of nationalism will ensure that Americans are targeted with violence and harassment, both at home and abroad, and Americans are unlikely to be persuaded against retaliation.

The deterioration of American military power will yield rearmament, nationalism, and conflicts that will exert a gravitational tug on the U.S. The slow-boil dystopia Tyler Cowen envisioned in the event of an entitlement crisis is both chilling and easily imagined. He only seems to have underestimated the scope of the disaster he expects.

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