I wonder if there’s ever been a time in America when we had such a vacuum of leadership. I’m not kidding. Diogenes searched Athens for an honest man. Right now I’d settle for a national leader with an ounce of guts.
Let’s take the debate about entitlements.
As Ezekiel Emanuel pointed out recently in the New York Times, if nothing else is changed – entitlement spending stays the same, taxes remain where they are – in roughly 12 years, all tax revenues will go to some form of entitlement: Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and interest on the national debt. To pay for anything else— defense, education, energy, you name it – the government will have financed it with deficit spending. And that’s when the bank breaks.
Everyone in Congress, everyone in the Administration knows this; but no one has had the courage to come up with a workable plan that addresses the problem. Why? Because today, it’s not good enough just to win – your rival also has to lose. What one side proposes, the other despises and vice versa. Bipartisan compromise? Even worse. Where’s the victory in that? When you have a bitter, polarized climate like ours has become, win-win becomes impossible. The other side losing is what’s important.
It’s as if we’re driving toward a cliff, and the two people in the front seat have their hands on the steering wheel, pulling in opposite directions. One is screaming “go left”; the other’s hollering “turn right.” The abyss keeps getting closer, and the idea of slamming on the brakes never even comes up.
Let’s take a breath and remember what these entitlements are and where they came from. Social Security started out essentially as an insurance program to ensure that no one who had worked would be penniless in their old age. In the same way, Medicare was created to ensure that older people would always able to see a doctor, even if they were poor.
The problem is that because all workers are eligible for these programs, over time they’re become essential parts of everyone’s retirement plan, like a 401K or simply one’s personal retirement savings. Everyone now feels “entitled” to their piece of the Social Security and Medicare pies. Because older people vote, enhancing these programs has become a good way to curry favor with one’s constituency. And criticizing your constituents is like saying that you’re tired of living in Washington DC. Even good faith bipartisan attempts to fix the programs, like 2010’s Simpson-Bowles act, go down in flames.
Emanuel advances a simple idea, which I fully endorse, that should be effective and would cause minimum disruption: simply link the total amount of money you’ve made during your working years to the age at which you become eligible for Social Security or Medicare. For example, if your lifetime earnings are in the top quarter of nation, you wouldn’t become eligible for benefits until 70 or 71. If you’re in the bottom quarter, you’d be eligible at 65 for Medicare and 66 for Social Security. This plan would require no “job-killing” tax increases, no “class warfare,” but it might just slow down our fiscal game of chicken.
I’m writing this for the people who read Med Ad News. Chances are that 95% of us have retirement plans that we (and perhaps our employers as well) contribute to. Some of us may even have defined pensions. We make salaries that are competitive. Hell, most of us have JOBS! And here’s another secret – people who make more money live on average longer than the poor. Forget the famous 1% — if you’re in the top 50% of wage earners in men over 65, you’ll live on average 5 years longer than a man in the lower half. And a similar disparity exists for women.
I’m guessing that most people who read this proposal will agree that it’s a fair and sensible way to approach the entitlement crisis. Although you never know. When Warren Buffett pointed out that his secretary paid a higher Federal tax rate than he did, and that perhaps some adjustment was called for, he was shouted down by a chorus of millionaires.
What worries me most is thinking about how this, or any other sensible program, can possibly be enacted in today’s climate. We’ll need to identify leaders with real courage and a true passion for the welfare of our Country. If you can think of any politician with the guts to put the country’s future first, please ask him or her to step up on this most important issue.
We’re entitled to have great leaders once again.