There was much giggling among the intelligentsia a few years ago when some curious signs started showing up at tea party rallies. The ones that said something like "Keep the government's hands off my Medicare," and were interpreted by critics of the movement as betraying a popular ignorance of the fact that Medicare is, and always has been, a federal government program.
But another interpretation of that message is possible, and is suggested by a recent Associated Press-GfK poll asking Americans what, if anything, ought to be done to save another federal program for the elderly Social Security from either bankruptcy or a substantial reduction in benefits for future retirees.
A clear majority of those polled want the program protected, with minimal reductions in benefits for future retirees, mostly through two approaches: raising taxes and delaying the age at which future recipients can claim full benefits. Both of those would be, of course, acts of government. But in the most traditional sense of the word, those acts would be conservative, as in conserving the status quo.
Despite the phobia most politicians have about even suggesting a tax increase of any kind, the poll shows 53 percent of Americans would support increasing the tax take for Social Security, while only 36 percent would prefer to cut benefits rather than face any tax hike. Identical percentages favored increasing the age for full retirement over benefit cuts.
There is more than one way to increase revenue. The most effective one would be to apply the 12.4 percent (half from employee, half from employer) payroll tax to all wages, not just the first $110,100. That would be a tax hike only for those making more than the current cap. But those folks have an interest in preserving Social Security, too. And they have the means to make sure it happens.
The AP, using data from the Social Security Administration, figures that move alone would eliminate 72 percent of the forecast shortfall. (If it had been put in place two years ago, it would have taken care of 99 percent of the gap.)
The rest of the deficit could be eliminated by some other, relatively simple, steps, including bumping up the age for retirees to claim full benefits or using a formula that results in smaller cost-of-living adjustments for beneficiaries.
Leaving everything as it is, Social Security has enough money in the bank to pay all promised benefits through 2033. So there is still time to phase in some rescue measures, if the politicians hear the people and act.
Then, they can go on to the truly tough nut we all have to crack: Saving, well, Medicare.