Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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The Coming Sacrifice

Peter Lawler and James Poulos wonder if we have what it takes to make the sacrifices needed to get the federal budget under control.  I think the answer is yes, but only because we have no choice.  It also depends on what we mean by sacrifice.  Old (and near-old) people are terrified of any changes to the existing system.  They can see the enormous budget deficit and they feel that they are in no position to take care of themselves if their current benefits are cut.  That is one reason why the sentiments that "government is getting too big" and "don't cut my Medicare" tend to go together.  It isn't merely hypocrisy.  Older people have built their lives around certain government guarantees and many are not in a position to make major adjustments now.  There will be no new savings and investment to make up for Social Security cuts.  Whatever benefits might come from voucherizing Medicare will come too slowly to help off-set cuts in reimbursements.

The  question is not how we will take care of those who are already too old to work.  The question is what adjustments will be made for middle-aged and younger people.  One choice we do not have is keeping the existing system for younger workers at the current tax burden.  That isn't going to happen no matter who wins what election.

There are false and comfortable choices that only promise sacrifice for someone else.  Obama says that "if you like your health care plan, you can keep it" and "no tax increases if you make less than $200,000."  John Boehner says "extend the Bush tax cuts, and repeal Obamacare and...uh...I'll get back to you."  These kinds of misleading tactics are designed to disguise either long-term policy goals (Obama) or get through one election cycle without having to say anything real about the problems we can't escape (Boehner.)  You won't find our actual policy future in either man's rhetoric.

While there are many intermediate options (and innumerable details), our policy options fall somewhere between two poles, and reality will probably end up much closer to one than the other.  The real challenge of statesmanship (as opposed to merely grasping for a chairman's gavel) will be to influence policy making between those two poles. 

1.  The first might be called the Bernie Sanders/Nancy Pelosi pole.  People would pay higher taxes during their working years in order to finance the full Social Security benefit for currently young and middle-aged high earners.  There will be centralized government control over health care.  The wealthy will still be able to pay for their own care but the vast majority of the public would get their health insurance through the government and have no other realistic options.  Medical providers would be oriented around providing (or not providing) the services that the payer (the government) wanted provided.  Individual middle-class consumers would be marginal and have no bargaining power with medical providers.  The vast majority of people would get the health care that government decided to pay for.

2.  This second might be called the Mitch Daniels/Paul Ryan pole.  Higher earners would get somewhat less from Social Security when they retired.  That means more saving and investing now.  Some large fraction of workers in physically less demanding jobs (and who had not developed crippling injuries or conditions) would have to retire later.  In return, we will all pay lower taxes during our working lives.  Most people would pay for most (this part is negotiable) of their routine health care costs out of pocket or out of Health Savings Accounts.  The government or private insurers would cover catastrophic health care costs.  That means that individuals would have to choose which health care providers provided the best services at the lowest price.  In return, they would get lower costs for many services, lower premiums, and higher take-home pay.

Both poles (and every real world-oriented plan in between) involve sacrifices by lots of somebodies, but none involve cutting off people who are retired or near retirement.  It also means that older people who sense that government's current promises are unsustainable in the long-term are wiser than smug and malicious creeps who can't understand why people in Medicare-provided scooters don't support creating an expensive new middle-class entitlement.   

Categories > Politics

Discussions - 8 Comments

A large problem is that a boomers are a pampered and coddled generation (and I include myself). We were endlessly told as children that our lives should be better than those of our parents, that we should have more. Now, at or approaching retirement, we still think we should have better and more. I'm convinced that the great majority of boomers think that "austerity" means cutting back on the wine list; or vacationing in the United States rather than Europe or Asia; or moving from a house with a two-car garage to a house with no garage.

The boomer generation is very much a material generation, and they (we) have never learned to suck it up and deal with a little adversity. We've accepted the premise that the good life is filled with material goods, and I think that's a pathetic shame and a great moral failing.

These are precisely the people who say "cut government" (= don't take more from me in taxes), but "don't cut my Medicare" (= don't expect me to give up any of the material goods that the WW2 generation promised me as my God-given birthright.

Given the size of the boomer generation and its moral weakness, America will be a long time in cutting government down to anything like the size and scope intended by the Founding Fathers.

What is Rolling Stone going to do when it figures out that leftism is no longer cool & rebellious?

It will hire someone like P.J. O'Rourke to make ironic fun of the Left -- oh, wait....

Yeah . . . been there, done that, learned nothing. Fine publication, that.

Maybe all my life I have been hearing that we have no choice but to deal with government spending and the national debt. Have we arrived yet? No, maybe not yet. Does doom impend, though?

i agree that ours is a selfish generation. However, we are no more so than our parents' generation. We think we are owed what they have had, but they were wise or fortunate to have enough children and enough growth of the economy to make wealth to sustain retirement -- mostly. As I said, I have been hearing about the debt we put our government in -- when do such things come due?

Was there ever a nation so comfortable during economic hard times?

Selfishness is not so much the problem as the big promises made and the lavish programs established. Individuals dealing with the political and economic landscape as it is is not imprudent, at least so long as the landscape does not change. I am retired and nearing (gasp!) 70 and have been practically forced into Medicare because the existing private alternatives are considerably more expensive. What is facing seniors now is the prospect of the federal government cutting back on that less expensive alternative and our getting even less for it. It's not obvious that everyone now receiving Medicare is selfishly cllinging to it with no concern for others or for general fiscal health. Rather, Democrats have demagogued the issue every time Republicans have suggested that the imbalance between contributions and benefits be addressed. That is because their long-standing power and authority rests on the dependence of the people on the government for their material well being. The current situation presents a rare opportunity to deal with the entitlement crisis because many now understand that Obama's big promises and big spending got us into this mess, and by reference to relevant principles can be made to see that similar bad policies of the past are also in need of reexamination. "Cold, hard, calculating, unimpassioned reason" is what we need now, not moralizing.

Sometimes the words offered for typing are impossible to read!

As you suggest, Richard Reeb, people are dependent on government and government programs because that is what is available. I wasn't really accusing us all of selfishness as much as suggesting that we are no more selfish than previous people. We have been hearing the big promises of the good that government will do for us since the New Deal and FDR's Second Bill of Rights. If our elected government officials tell us this is what government owes us as a right, then we are not unreasonable to think it right that we get what has been promised.

What the heck are we going to do to back our national way out of the system we have got in place? The current administration has said there is no way out but to go forward, but are now acknowledging that forward is bankrupting -- to which we all can nationally say, oh good grief as we step on each other's toes in the too tight space we have before us.

"Cold, hard, calculating, unimpassioned reason" usually means pain.

And "no pain, no gain," right? Actually, if we start now with the plan the George W. Bush proposed, which scared off Republicans and enraged Democrats--is that not the essence of "bipartisanship"--ultimately we will bring costs under control. That is, leave existing recipients alone, and offer (superior) private alternatives to persons still working while raising the retirement age by increments to reflect the reality that people live longer. One painful thing will be abandoning early retirement to get rid of people, which is very costly indeed. But that means permitting employers more discretion, and private and public organizations setting higher standards for employment. Jobs are not entitlements.

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