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):
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.
- Ron Paul: ‘Entitlements Are Not Rights’ (crooksandliars.com)