The Voting Majority

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George Will is not my favorite columnist, but I do like to read his commentary. If one can get past his pedantic vocabulary there is always actual reasoning that bears consideration. George never uses a small word when a large one will do. I can not usually read him without referring to a dictionary at least once, but I suppose it helps my brain cells work. On this January Monday George has undertaken some Liberal-bashing, no doubt as a warm-up exercise for the 2012 political year.

Just to summarize, he tackles the conventional meme that the Liberal agenda is to transfer wealth from the productive to the unproductive in society. For obvious reasons this message always plays well with conservatives. In this instance, as so often happens in such efforts to comprehend the dismal science of economics and its stepchild, politics, he makes some good points without exhorting actual solutions, solutions that would be unpalatable to the body politic. Interestingly, he undercuts the traditional redistributionist premise that the flow of wealth is downward. George said (emphasis added),

Most transfer payments redistribute wealth from workers to nonworkers in the form of pensions and medical care for retirees. The welfare state’s primary purpose is to subsidize the last years of Americans’ lives, and the elderly are, after a lifetime of accumulation, better off than most Americans: In 2009, the net worth of households headed by adults ages 65 and older was a record 47 times that of households headed by adults under the age of 35 — a wealth gap that doubled just since 2005.

The equalizing effects of redistributive transfer payments is less today than in 1979, when households in the lowest income quintile received 54 percent of such payments. In 2007, they received 36 percent.

Because Social Security and Medicare are not means-tested, the share of transfer payments going to middle- and upper-income households tends to increase, for several reasons. The retirement age is essentially fixed, but people are living longer. And because the welfare state is so good to them, the elderly are unusually diligent voters, and are especially apt to vote on the basis of protecting their benefits.

George is saying that wealth redistribution through entitlement funding is now flowing not downward, but upward. It is a process that is self-expanding and is likely the principal cause of the increasing income gap between haves and have-nots. The elderly, because of Social Security and Medicare, are increasingly the haves, but despite his evident desire to clarify the situation for us and even having mentioned the lack of entitlement means-testing, he declines to put it that way. We are indeed a self-indulgent society and we are living on borrowed money. Then, he offers this conclusion about what drives the entitlement process (emphasis added):

George Will

George Will, by Scott Ableman via Flickr

People are less dissatisfied by what they lack than by what others have. And when government engages in redistribution in order to maximize the happiness of citizens who become more envious as they become more comfortable, government becomes increasingly frenzied and futile.

George Will is good at describing what is going on, but he is no better than anyone else in offering a way to change society’s attitudes and behavior. The GOP candidates understand that too. They know that any mention of entitlement reform, or even adjustment of expectations, is political death. The prediction about the tyranny of the majority, that it is the “pervading evil of democracy” (small “d”), has come true. And the nature of that evil, not spelled out by Mr. Will, is that we are in the process of incrementally dismantling many needed functions of government, including military strength, infrastructure repair, and care for the sick and handicapped, because we as a people lack the political understanding that entitlement reform is the only economic solution.

But it’s OK that he didn’t finish the job.  (His complete column is here.)  I suspect that only a small percentage of voters read George Will’s columns anyway, and getting him to use simpler words would be about as hard as, well, entitlement reform.

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About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Independent, tending progressive as the GOP recedes from its Eisenhower roots.
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8 Responses to The Voting Majority

  1. jwhester says:

    The Republicans follow long-term strategies in their agendas. I have noticed that their new cry about Medicare and Social Security is that both should only go to the needy rather than the well-off. This appeals to progressives, but they have an ulterior motive. Their real goal is to undercut the popularity of such programs. These programs are very popular BECAUSE they go to everyone who is old. They were intended to care for the elderly. It is security for all of us as we age. If George Will and others can morph these into programs for the poor, then they will be able to later attack them more successfully. Programs for the poor are not nearly as popular. The are susceptible to the myths about the undeserving poor. Make no mistake. George Will’s agenda is to dismantle the social safety net of our society. This just reflects their his current strategy toward that end.

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    • Jim Wheeler says:

      You make an interesting accusation, JW. I can see how means-testing of entitlements would decrease their broad popularity, but you credit conservatives with far too much foresight in my opinion. From what I can see, they have a four-year horizon at most. But, even if this is their purpose in proposing means-testing it doesn’t change the fact that the nation can not afford Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security as they are. That has been my oft-repeated warning and and that is why I advocate the Public Option. Nothing less than radical change will permit affordable programs. I actually believe that President Obama understands that such change is needed, an idea that conservatives would reject out of hand. Anson B, in his comment above, blames the entire budget debacle on the Democratic Party, but there are many holes in that argument. The true blame in my opinion lies with a self-indulgent culture shared by both parties, one in which class-envy by all income groups has played a role, just as George Will rightly notes. In that sense, G. Will has tried to clarify the issue, but how many will understand it?

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  2. ansonburlingame says:

    Jim

    To a degree we both, today, this morning, are “barking up the same tree”. And we both are using, independently George Wills excellent (but hard to read) column to support our ‘tree barking”.

    I also used another theme and just posted a companion blog (to this one) using HLG’s metaphor (see comments on EC blog over African American voters) about “cleaning up” the Democratic Party.

    Frankly I do not see the entire nation caught up in a quest for MORE, as you do. I see the evolution of the Democratic Party since 1965 as the cause of that situation, by and large. I KNOw, some GOP Presidents got “caught up” as well, but it was political suicide then, not to do so.

    I believe we the peope, by a majority vote, have the chance this year to turn that now long running, Democratic Party lead, tide of more and more from the federal government. In fact, as you know, I believe we HAVE to now turn that tide. Not to do so, watch the debt as the indicator of the tide, will submerge us all.

    Thus my blog, just posted as this one was on “Cleaning up the Democratic Party” THAT along with my Sunday column calling for “changing the debate” are steps out of our current morase, at least in my view..

    Anson

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  3. ansonburlingame says:

    Jim,

    Now I come down HARD on you misquoting or “misconstruing” what I have been saying for a LONG time. BOTH parties are to blame, I say again, BOTH parties for putting us in our current situation with debt that cannot be repaid or even controlled. We MUSt stop that decline and for now NEITHER party has a path forward that is politically achievable.

    I “think” you and I agree on that broad point. But get off the “broad” and we depart dramatically in solutions. MEDICARE is driving us to bankruptcy at some point It is a government run program, insurance or “social” program being beside the point. Medicare provides money to ALL old Americans, not just poor old Americans.

    And you want to trump that by providing money to ALL Americans for HC. CANNOT be done in my view, and you argue otherwise. Fine. Let your readers decide and vote accordingly.

    I don’t lay ALL the blame on Democrats. Actually I lay the primary blame on we the people for demanding, incessantly, more and ,more from OUR government. Now we are at the point where, as I said in the Sunday column, LESS is before us, like it or not.. So now what? LESS, NOW, is our only real option. But tell that to voters or God forbid a liberal!!

    Anson

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    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Misconstrue? Misquote? Here are your words:

      “I see the evolution of the Democratic Party since 1965 as the cause of that situation, by and large. I KNOw, some GOP Presidents got “caught up” as well, but it was political suicide then, not to do so.”

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  4. ansonburlingame says:

    Jim,

    JFK, RFK and Johnson, all Democrats started the whole declijne with legislation in the 1960’s that has resulted in our current inability to be able to function without massive debt accumulation. The “people” loved all the new “gifts” and the GOP went along with the spending over the decades.

    Even the “mighty Reagan” had to compromise with Dem spending programs and raise taxes to support such programs. Left to his own desires of course we all know what he would have done. But even he could not overcome the spending juggernaut, STARTED by the Democrats.

    Now here we are today, 40 -50 years later. And now we cannot even determine what our DEBT really is. Nope the government cannot be “audited” by the GAO, as required by law. Is that strictly an Obama problem? Of course not but he “owns” it right now as the sitting President.

    The very simple point is that for 50+ years we as a nation have grossly overspent and now the chickens are coming home to roost. When did it begin? Pick the New Deal or the Great Society, whichever you like the most. But with NO New Deal or NO Great Society, do you really think the GOP would have inititated such spending programs. Of course not.

    But arguing over exactly which party caused our current ecll onomic mess, epitomized by our massive DEBT and continuing deficit spending, ,massive deficit spending, the argument should be over what to do about it.

    So what do you and the EC call for right now? MORE massive spending, NO debt reduction, even HIGHER deficits today, etc., etc. You are opposed by the Tea Party that would cut everything and an entire GOP that will NOT raise taxes, at least income taxes, no matter what, today.

    Thus here we are in a situation that I cannot even get you and the EC to agree is a terrible situation in terms of DEBT and DEFICITS, right now. You continue to call for more HC reform, he calls for Medicare for ALL, both think the government can and must create more jobs and the list goes on.

    Well, again, there is election 2012, right in the face of the country. And NEITHER Party has a clear and politically achievable path forward right now. And I DOUBT whoever wins in Nov will have one then. Why not? NEITHER PARTY will control all three “bodies”, House, Senate and White House in my view. Frankly I hope that is the case as well but then we remain stuck with stalemate, divide, you name it for “four more years”.

    Just to put a finer point on our disagreements, please tell me what YOU think our debt to GDP ratio actually was on Sept 30, 2012. Be careful as I have my own copy of the financial statement to show you the REAL numbers.

    Anson

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    • Jim Wheeler says:

      @Anson,

      Even though you always imply it I have never denied that the national debt is a serious problem. What you routinely recommend is that we should begin immediately to cut spending back to match revenues in this depressed economy. If the administration were to do that it would immediately plunge the country back into deep recession and quite possibly depression. That is why I have repeatedly stated something you have never even acknowledged, perhaps because you don’t understand it: a national budget differs from a family budget.

      When I advocate healthcare reform I do it with the conviction that, properly done, it would cut costs in half. Do I think that will happen? Of course not. The GOP would not let it because it would halve (at least) the profits of the most profitable industry in the country. I have repeatedly called for other ideas and I have yet to see a convincing one. But one thing I am completely convinced of is that immediately going on a starvation budget is the absolute worst thing the government could do during this recovery.

      The debt to GDP ratio is about 1:1 now. Just for kicks, I looked up some others for you. I will follow that by a link to the source for that which you probably won’t use.

      Australia: 138%
      Germany: 185%
      France: 250%
      Switzerland: 401%
      United Kingdom: 413%

      LINK: http://www.cnbc.com/id/30308959/The_World_s_Biggest_Debtor_Nations?slide=1

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  5. ansonburlingame says:

    Jim and others “watching” this exchange.

    Recal I asked our DEBT (not net worth) to GDP ratio as of Sept 30, 2011. Jim said about 1:1.
    He obviously considers our DEBT to be the well known number of about $15 Trillion and our GDP about the same number. I would have thought that as well until spending time looking at the government own consolidated financial statement.

    As pointed out in a recent blog and now published as a Globe editorial, the CFS issued on Dec 23rd states very clearly that our NET LIABILITIES, that is the sum total of money owed right now to other people and institutions (and NOT counting the money owed from one agency to another like reimbursing SS trust fund with money previously “borrowed” by Congress from that fund is $17.492 Trillion as of the above date. That is our DEBT to others encurred legally by the Department of Treasury and authorized by Congress.

    OK, our GDP I will agree is about $15 Trillion in 2011. Do the math, 17.492 (debt) divided by 15 (GDP) and the result is 116% as a ratio.

    Now what figure does the government use to report that ratio. Be careful. You must look at the small print. They report the ratio as about 71%. Why? Well they use the “debt held by the public” about $10 Trillion. Why that number instead of the one I use? Beats the heck out of me! Except it does show a smaller ratio thus…..?

    So what is our real debt right now (as of Sept 30)? Is it $10 Trillion, $14.798 Trillion as reported by the government as a “Net position” , meaning our net worth I suppose or is it $17.492 Trillion as also reported by the CFS.

    Finally, Jim shows European and other countries debt to GDP. So what. At least for the European ones we already know their financial situation, worst than ours for sure. So is it OK for us to go down that same path? No way is my position. And if “granma” dies 5 years sooner, well, I feel sorry for granma and her family but…… I also feel sorry for the people in Detroit who have shown us clearly the results of Dem politics over the last 50 years.

    Blame ONLY the Democrats for conditions in Detroit. You bet I do. They have not had any GOP leadership since 1961, And look at them today. I do know how to buy some really cheap property in Detroit however if you are interested.

    Let me pose a final thought in this string. What exactly is THE biggest problem in America today? You only get to name one. Tell me what you think the TOP priority for the next president should be. Again I asked for the top priority. He can have a list of priorities as long as your arm. But such lists of necessity must be ranked, one through whatever. Not everything can be “number one”.

    Anson

    Anson

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