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Entitlements for the elderly

Here's a loaded question:

What is the primary business of the federal government?

    a. to guarantee the national defense
   b. to maintain an interstate highway system
   c. to define, interpret, and uphold the laws
   d. to care for the poor and disadvantaged
   e. to take from the young and give to the old

The answer, of course, is "e."  The primary function of the federal government is to take from the young and give to the old.

If this answer seems surprising to you, consider the following list of the top 10 categories of federal spending for fiscal year 1995 (from the 1996 Statistical Abstract of the United States, U.S. Census Bureau):

1. Social security (22.1%)
2. Defense (17.9%)
3. Interest on the debt (15.3%)
4. Pensions, income security (14.5%)
5. Medicare (10.5%)
6. Medicaid (7.6%)
7. Transportation (2.6%)
8. Veterans' benefits (2.5%)
9. Education, training, employment (2.0%)
10. Government and administration of
justice (2.0%)

These 10 items accounted for 97% of all federal spending. Note that all items on this list except 2, 7, 9 and 10 involve, to one extent or another, taking from the young and giving to the elderly. (Item 3 counts, since a large part of the national debt results from unfunded entitlements.  Item 6 counts, since the most rapidly increasing expense in Medicaid today is nursing home care for the elderly.) 

Notice also that the programs on this list (except, of course, paying interest on the debt, and possibly defense), are extremely popular ones.  That’s the beauty of creating entitlements to which everybody is entitled.  When you do, everybody loves you. 

Obviously, any meaningful effort to cut federal spending would have to affect one or more of these entitlement programs.  Yet, any politician who talks seriously about cutting them is toast. The programs politicians like to talk about cutting – things like welfare, foreign aid, and support for the arts – are so trivial they don’t even show up on this list.  The so-called “conservative revolution” notwithstanding (whose myth is that the government takes our hard-earned dollars and busily spends it on wacky, unpopular social-engineering projects), we like what our government does.  Our society is completely melded to its entitlements. 

And thanks to those entitlements, the continued aging of our population will pile ever-growing and ultimately unsustainable burdens on younger working people.

Consider, for instance, that a few decades ago every Social Security beneficiary was supported by more than 5 working Americans.  (It is important to realize that the notion of a Social Security “trust fund” is false – the Social Security system is actually a pay-as-you-go scheme).  Today there are only 3.3 working Americans supporting every retired beneficiary.  In 2040, however, when the number of beneficiaries will be twice what it is today, only 1.6 workers will be available to pay Social Security entitlements to each retiree.

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