Opinion: Entitlement state not sustainable

January 3, 2013


— Connoisseurs of democratic decadence can savor a variety of contemporary dystopias. Because familiarity breeds banality, Greece has become a boring horror. Japan, however, in its second generation of stagnation is fascinating. Once, Japan bestrode the world, jauntily buying Rockefeller Center and Pebble Beach. Now Japanese buy more adult diapers than those for infants.

America has its lowest birth rate since at least 1920 — family formation and workforce participation (which last year hit a 30-year low) have declined in tandem. But it has an energy surplus, the government-produced overhang of housing inventory is shrinking and the average age of Americans’ cars is an astonishing 10.8 years. Such promising economic indicators, however, mask America’s democratic decadence, as explained by the Hudson Institute’s Christopher DeMuth (The Weekly Standard, Dec. 24):

Deficit spending once was largely for investments — building infrastructure, winning wars — which benefited future generations, so government borrowing appropriately shared the burden with those generations. Now, however, continuous borrowing burdens future generations in order to finance current consumption. Today’s policy, says DeMuth, erases “the distinction between investing for the future and borrowing from the future.”

December’s maneuverings made clear that most Americans will be spared the educational experience of fiscal cliff-related tax increases and spending cuts, which would have been a small but instructive taste of the real costs of the entitlement state. Still, December’s maneuverings taught three lessons.

First, there will be no significant spending restraint. Democrats — you know: the people respectful of evidence and science — even rejected a more accurate measurement of the cost of living that would slightly slow increases in myriad government benefits. Accuracy will be sacrificed to liberalism’s agenda of government growth.  

Second, Barack Obama has (as Winston Churchill said of an adversary) “the gift of compressing the largest amount of words into the smallest amount of thought.” His incessant talking swaddles one wee idea — raising taxes on “millionaires and billionaires,” including couples earning less than half a million. He has nothing pertinent to say about the steadily worsening fiscal imbalance that will make sluggish growth — under 3 percent — normal.

Third, one December winner was George W. Bush because a large majority of Democrats favored making a large majority of his tax cuts permanent. December’s rancor disguised bipartisan agreement: Both parties flinch from cliff-related tax increases and spending decreases. But neither the increases nor decreases would have tamed the current $1 trillion-plus budget deficit nor made a discernible dent in the 87-times-larger unfunded liabilities of the entitlement state.

This state cannot be funded by taxing “the rich.” Or even by higher income taxes on the middle class. Income taxes cannot fund the government liberals want, and they dare not seek the consumption and energy taxes their entitlement architecture requires. Hence, although Republicans are complicit, Democrats are ardent in embracing decadent democracy. This consists not just of infantilism — refusing to will the means for the ends one has willed — but of willing an immoral means: conscripting the wealth of future generations.

As economists Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane explain in National Affairs quarterly, America’s political system “cannot govern the entitlement state” that “exists largely to provide material benefits to individuals.” Piling up unsustainable entitlement promises — particularly, enactment of Medicare in 1965 and the enrichment of Social Security benefits in 1972 — has been improvident for the nation but rational for the political class. The promised expenditures, far in excess of revenues, would come due “beyond the horizon of political consequences.”

“Our politicians,” say Hubbard and Kane, “are acting rationally” but “politically rational behavior is now fiscally perverse.” Both parties are responding to powerful electoral incentives to neither raise taxes nor cut spending. Hence, “the clash over raising the debt limit that gripped Washington during the summer of 2011 was just the beginning, not the end, of our fiscal woes.” But the perils of the entitlement state are no longer (in Hubbard’s and Kane’s words) “safely beyond the politicians’ career horizons.” Furthermore, a critical mass of Republicans reject the careerists’ understanding of “politically rational” behavior. These Republicans have a different rationale for being in politics. The media, which often are the last to know things because their wishes father their thoughts, say the tea party impulse is exhausted. Scores of House Republicans and seven first-term Republican senators (Rand Paul, Mike Lee, Pat Toomey, Ted Cruz, Ron Johnson, Marco Rubio and Tim Scott) will soon — hello, debt ceiling — prove otherwise.

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Paul R Getto 1 year, 11 months ago

America has its lowest birth rate since at least 1920 — family formation and workforce participation (which last year hit a 30-year low) .......

Perhaps the most critical point and why we need good immigration laws and a serious reform of visa requirements.

jhawkinsf 1 year, 11 months ago

How about for every hard working immigrant we let in, we kick out one lazy bum? Asked in jest. I think. Maybe. Perhaps.

Water 1 year, 11 months ago

Dude you're behind the curve.

Immigrants are not getting the jobs now, it's robots. Automated thingys are taking our jobs. Automated mechanized thingys make sushi, mow the grass, hand us money, drive cars, drop bombs on terrorists, weld, vacuum, route phone calls, milk cows, remind us to get the milk, etc., etc., etc.... It is now the human's job to sit on his ever growing bottom and use his pointy head to spread his sophistry.

Uncle_Jerry 1 year, 11 months ago

Maybe those having children should....not have children if they can't provide for them. If you knowingly get pregnant and can't afford a child w/o assistance then you're just adding to the problem.

We don't need a fundamental change of America. Perhaps we need to return to our fundamentals.

The president's job isn't to organize community.

Uncle_Jerry 1 year, 11 months ago

Or go the free route. Don't get pregnant.

Armstrong 1 year, 11 months ago

assanine posts like the one above. Sex is poor peoples entertainment

Richard07 1 year, 11 months ago

Is disappointed_regressives' comment poorly written satire or honest to goodness, full fledged stupidity? Seriously, I can't figure it out. To that purpose it as been successful.

voevoda 1 year, 11 months ago

Since you don't like NPR as a source, disappointed_regressive, try this one:

"A new CBPP analysis of budget and Census data, however, shows that more than 90 percent of the benefit dollars that entitlement and other mandatory programs spend go to assist people who are elderly, seriously disabled, or members of working households — not to able-bodied, working-age Americans who choose not to work."

"Social Security benefits in the United States are modest both in dollar terms and by international standards, and most beneficiaries do not have significant income from other sources. Some reductions in future Social Security benefits may be necessary as part of a bipartisan solution to restore the program’s long-term solvency. But any benefit reductions will need to be modest, carefully targeted, and phased in gradually to give those who will be affected ample notice and time to adjust."

"Raising Medicare's eligibility age from 65 to 67, which the new Joint Select Committee will likely consider this fall as a deficit-reduction measure, would not only fail to constrain health care costs across the economy; it would increase them. While this proposal would save the federal government money, it would do so by shifting costs to most of the 65- and 66-year-olds who would lose Medicare coverage, to employers that provide health coverage for their retirees, to Medicare beneficiaries, to younger people who buy insurance through the new health insurance exchanges, and to states."

Uncle_Jerry 1 year, 11 months ago

That's an excellent point. End foreign aid and tell Obama to stop assassinating US citizens and killing women and children. You see for Obama, if the kids you kill are in another country it's collateral damage. If kids are killed here in the US it's a tragedy.

Uncle_Jerry 1 year, 11 months ago

I have my fair share of problems with Bush, but seeing as how Obama has continued Bush's foreign policy they're one in the same to me.

Yes end all foreign aid. Yes close all foreign bases.

beatrice 1 year, 11 months ago

Hey rc, did you know that Mitt Romney lost the election despite your many, many predictions otherwise? hahaha

funkdog1 1 year, 11 months ago

How about American businesses start acting like good citizens and pay fair wages, not attempt to cut workers' hours back to part time to avoid providing health care benefits and most importantly, provide decent insurance without arm-twisting from the government? Heck, what if businesses went back to providing some pension funds so that citizens wouldn't have to access Social Security until later in life? There's plenty of money to go around in the private sector. Then government wouldn't have to take up the slack.It's really very simple.

Cant_have_it_both_ways 1 year, 11 months ago

You can go into debt up to your eyeballs, provide that employment for mostly ungrateful entitlement minded workers, then come back and tell the rest of us how you feel.

verity 1 year, 11 months ago

Most of the workers I know were very dedicated despite often being treated like dirt by their employers. They may have disliked their employers, but they had pride in themselves and still went above and beyond in their jobs.

Uncle_Jerry 1 year, 11 months ago

That's a terrible way to go about changing policy and providing a "solution".

yourworstnightmare 1 year, 11 months ago

It is one thing to say this, but another to come up with a plan to make it sustainable through reform, cuts, and taxes.

Will is just adding to the tea party noise.

Cait McKnelly 1 year, 11 months ago

I seriously think the Romney loss unhinged Will. He's gone off the deep end. Maybe he needs to be tested for organic brain syndrome. He's getting up there.

beatrice 1 year, 11 months ago

Oh cait, that isn't fair picking on Will like that. Clearly Romney's loss has unhinged a lot of disappointed regressives.

voevoda 1 year, 11 months ago

There is a D in Laus_Deo, but that D isn't silent.

Katara 1 year, 11 months ago

All of the returning ones do that.

I'm waiting to see how long for the latest one to blow their cover. It should be entertaining.

pti3 1 year, 11 months ago

The topic of debt reminds me of a talk by NSA whistle blower William Binney where he describes his experience. Link pasted then exerpt below; (2parts) NSA whistleblower William Binney Keynote at HOPE Number Nine

...When we solved that problem(meta data - how to see w/o looking at data) the NTO (nsa transition office) they were running all these multibillion dollar transition programs... The chief there knew we were doing this and he sent his deputy down and said, 'what could you guys do with 1.2 billion dollars? And we were sitting there, we're looking at him, what are we supposed to do with 1.2 billion, okay, give us a few days, we'll look at it...we took a few days and said 'gee, we could upgrade the entire world, everyplace we have, even back here in the states and everything, but we could only spend about 300 million of that. They went back and said gee that's really great and started going downtown and briefing and saying that's really what we should be doing. At the same time there was a seperate issue with a program called Trailblazer, they wanted to start a program named Trailblazer - nothing existed there at the time but it was planned for development, so we were coming into conflict with that.

Also, what we were coming into conflict with was what I refer to as the 'feasting' by the corporations that were leeches on the side of NSA and other agencies of the government. I refer to that process of government feeding all these corporations as the 'military industrial happiness management complex'. They were keeping each other happy- they would retire from government, go to work for those corporations, the corporations would send people in to manage the programs, they'd get the contracts back and they'd feed some more. It was all a feasting program, and it's still going on. That's why we have such a large debt. At any rate, shortly after they were briefing that downtown, they were planning on doing this with us, the chief o the NTO was fired, because he didn't conform to the corporate position, which was to feed corporations which existed on the side of NSA. In order to correct the problem, NSA management brought in, and hired them directly to take over the NTO, which is a senior executive position, they hired a vice president of SAIC to come in and manage that. Of course ...that meant that SAIC got some large chunks of contracts, which they did. And at the same time the NSA transferred the SARC to the same organization,to the same man, so he was managing all of that.

pti3 1 year, 11 months ago

Part 2 of William binney exerpt from above link:

And the first thing he did, he calls me up to his office and the first thing he said to me was"I don't want you briefing Thin Thread, which was our program to do the world wide web, to anyone, anymore." That's because it was showing success and he didn't want success because that means you solved the problem. You don't have the problem to ask for the money to get the feeding for the corporations. It's a circle, it just keeps going round. That's the process going on right now, and I put is, ' the forces of evil are too numerous here and that's when I decided I was going to resign. There wasn't anything I could do internally in the NSA. The entire leadership at NSA was focused this way and they wanted no creativity, no innovation, no problem solved as I came up with a later version of their vision statement, keep the problem going so the money keeps flowing' that was their vision statement, I just didn't realize it.
I was this naive hillbilly from the hills of Pennsylvania and I always thought that operations was important and it's not. Instead it was the money and the flowing and the feeding and the feasting... So at any rate, 9-11 happened, so I started thinking, gee maybe I should reconsider retiring because I always wanted to do something positive like stop the bad guys, even though there was all this corruption around me. But, it must have been right after, a few days, no more than a week after 9-11, that they decided to begin actively spying on everyone in this country...

Water 1 year, 11 months ago

"America has its lowest birth rate since at least 1920 —" Yeeeaaaaaahhhhhhh! Good job USA!

"...the average age of Americans’ cars is an astonishing 10.8 years." This is because they're built better than previous generations of cars which allows us to not spend our money on another expensive item. Yeeeeaaaaaahhhhhhh! Look at us. We're saving! Good job USA.

Richard Heckler 1 year, 11 months ago

I'm with George Will about the GOP entitlement state.

--- This GOP ENTITLEMENT - TABOR is Coming by Grover Norquist = Grab Your Wallets!

--- This GOP ENTITLEMENT - Bailing out The Reagan/Bush Savings and Loan Heist aka home loan scandal sent the economy out the window costing taxpayers many many $$ trillions (Cost taxpayers $1.4 trillion), Plus millions of jobs, loss of retirement plans and loss of medical insurance.

--- This GOP ENTITLEMENT Bailing out the Bush/Cheney Home Loan Wall Street Bank Fraud cost consumers $ trillions, millions of jobs, loss of retirement plans and loss of medical insurance. Exactly like the Reagan/Bush home loan scam. Déjà vu can we say. Yep seems to be a pattern.

--- This GOP ENTITLEMENT - Bush/Cheney implied many financial institutions were at risk instead of only 3? One of the biggest lies perpetrated to American citizens. Where did this money go? Why were some banks forced to take bail out money?

--- RECKLESS GOP Tax cuts = THE GOP ENTITLEMENT program for the wealthy which do nothing to make an economy strong or produce jobs. Tax cuts are a tax increase to others in order to make up the loss in revenue = duped again. Bush Tax Cuts aka

--- This GOP ENTITLEMENT program for the wealthy is at the expense of the middle class = duped one more time.

streetman 1 year, 11 months ago

Too bad that education has been dumbed-down so much in this country that the average citizen can't comprehend simple math. It is simply impossible to tax enough to pay for all of the national (and states') debt, current entitlement, and future obligations. And since this horse will get trotted-out, eliminating national defense wouldn't make much difference.

Kirk Larson 1 year, 11 months ago

The wages of of most Americans has been stagnant for 30 years while the incomes of the top few percent has tripled. They whine that they can't pay a few more percent taxes on their income over $250k (now $450k) and they call the rest of us "entitled". Go figure.

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