Notes From Babel

Entitlements: “Cutting them will lead to human misery and death”

with 7 comments

So says Freddie deBoer:

Here’s what you won’t find at the Daily Dish, or at the Corner, or in any of the other places showily demanding seriousness: the actual, human, negative consequences of harsh entitlement cutbacks. I mean, from reading online today, you’d be hard pressed to know why we have Social Security and Medicare at all. I’ll tell you why: because our winner-take-all economic system leaves defenseless, impoverished people in its wake. We have Social Security because the sight of so many elderly people left literally homeless and starving , too old and weak to work, was unseemly to an earlier generation that was willing to take less for themselves to provide for others. We have Medicare because it is an obscenity for a country responsible for the atom bomb and the moon landing and the Hoover Dam to allow suffer and die from lack of health care access due to the vagaries of birth and chance. That’s why those programs exist.

Cutting them will lead to human misery and death. It will. Cutting Social Security will mean the difference between subsistence and a pitiful existence for untold thousands of senior citizens. Cutting Medicare will mean some people won’t get the health care they need when they need it and will suffer the physical pain and indignity that comes with that. That’s just the way it is. Yet I keep reading all of these very serious people today failing to mention this reality at all. It’s as if we have entitlement programs for no reason.

Certainly many on the left believe this, and increasingly with the distance from the center.  I’m on the right, so I don’t believe it.  Now, being on the left or right or any disposition comes with lots of biases, which one ought to earnestly challenge.  But frankly, I think Freddie’s been overcome by his when he suggests the weeping and gnashing of teeth that would occur if we compromise the current entitlement state.  At this advanced stage of the American economy, it is difficult to imagine that scaling back some of these entitlements would result in the significant human casualties Freddie suggests.  Am I too impoverished of imagination?

On a different note, a couple of Freddie’s recent posts reminded me of what Daniel Walker Howe said about Robert Owen’s social engineering ideas, which captured the imagination of even president John Quincy Adams.  Yet, when Owen publicly confessed his disbelief in the scriptures and denounced the institution of marriage, he betrayed his views as too far beyond the mainstream of acceptable American opinion.  Today’s more moderate leftists, like Ezra Klein, might compromise their beliefs not because they don’t care about the ideals of the left, but because they actually “care[] enough to actually get SOMETHING done for justice.”

Yet, Freddie has confessed he has no intention of confining his views within the limits of mainstream or acceptable opinion.  This is something I find admirable.  Ideas announced apart from their preconditions and derivatives are not ideas at all, but schemes.

[Update: To be more specific about the kinds of entitlements I’m thinking about, consider these hand-outs we currently provide to even ostensibly able-bodied Americans (note I have not verified each of the cites, but the sources at least appear to be reputable):

H/T Professor Mondo.]

[Update 2:  Notice I do not include the 57 million Americans are on Medicaid, or the 46.5 million Americans on Medicare, for a total of nearly one-third of the United States population on government insurance. In conversations about health care reform, the question invariably arises whether I’d let the poor and the old die in the streets, to which I invariably point out we already have Medicaid and Medicare for just these reasons.  Implicitly, then, I gather I must be in favor of the continued existence of these programs on some level.  More to the point, eliminating these programs altogether would lead to “human misery and death.”]

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Written by Tim Kowal

February 16, 2011 at 10:10 pm

7 Responses

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  1. I think people who believe this way one, Don’t know many people who utilize entitlements two, Believe that people cannot rise to the challenge of providing for themselves and three, don’t believe that people are charitable enough to care for the few truly helpless.

    I personally grew up in an area and still am in regular contact with people who use gov’t programs.
    I don’t know that I can think of anyone off hand who truly needs them but I can think of several who clearly don’t. Granted I live in California and our entitlements are lavish but I will give a few examples. I know one person who deals marijuana for a living also dj’s but since he doesn’t report his income he gets WIC (food stamps), energy assistance (we pay some of his electric bill) and he also receives SCHIP (state medical insurance) for his
    daughter (which by the way he had to tell the social worker he is estranged from his wife to get which is just an indicationof how easy it is to commit fraud and how entitlements encourage single motherhood which is one of the main factors that contribute
    to poverty and incarceration). These are just among the entitlements he brags about I am quite sure he also gets Medicaid himself. In addition to that I know several single mothers who get WIC and other assistance who always have plenty of money to
    go to the club and buy drinks. I watch them routinely pass on good guys and opt for low life’s that are more attractive and exciting because after all, they don’t need to worry about providing for themselves the gov’t is their baby daddy. These are anecdotal to be sure but I welcome any real life evidence from the left of the virtue of these programs. I am certain they will find less than 10-15% of recipients worthy of help. A number that personal charity could easily handle without govt coercion.

    I don’t believe people need the gov’t to survive. In fact things like Social Security become a substitute for responsibility. I am one of the few people I know that has a reasonably healthy retirement account. I am quite sure this is because people do not have a healthy fear of running out of money after their working years. Why would this be? Clearly it is because the gov’t has given the false impression they will provide. They cannot and we are seeing that. The govt takes large sums from my checks to give to other people. This is illegal in the private sector. Madoff went to jail for it. Couldn’t I save that money myself? That is clearly nanny state. Uncle Sam decided I won’t save adequately for retirement so he will confiscate my money and give back to me (maybe…..if I live long enough and he doesn’t go broke). Ridiculous. That is not American exceptionalism it is Weimar foolishness. Originally social security didn’t kick in until most people where already dead. Now the average person will be on social security for 13 years when it was instituted most people would never have lived to collect. But, of course if we cut it now people will die in the streets? No, I think they will save more and live more modestly. Something that clearly needs to take hold again in this country.

    For the truly helpless there is charity and it is more efficient because there is accountability and more money can go to people who truly need it. I always ask myself when someone I barely know asks me for money, Where is their family? Where are their friends? Certainly I would ask these people before a stranger? When I engage many of these people
    I find that they have already borrowed from and burned all the traditional places. The govt doesnt ask these questions. So is the answer more money or more accountability? Am I to believe all these people are widows and orphans? Very few, and I am happy to help them with my own money. The govt doesn’t need to confiscate my money to do for me what I am willing to do myself.

    Let’s just be honest about this. Constitutionally the federal gov’t in the US was never supposed to be involved in retirement plans, and medical insurance. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid should only even be permissible at the state level to begin with.

    Josh Barlow

    February 17, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    • I was hoping you’d chime in on this, Josh, since I know you have a lot of direct experience with the constitutent that most comfortable, educated, middle class bloggers and journalists and politicians don’t. I don’t know how to take these stories from being mere “anecdotal evidence” to a broader statement about human nature, but it’s clear that most conservatives’ intuition matches your experience, and most liberals’ is that these folks’ helplessness is beyond scrutiny. This is why I think it comes down to a bias issue. And it’s why I think maybe all that can be done is for writers to start doing more exposés on those who defraud entitlements, the same way libertarian writers, for example, love to do exposés on cops who use excessive force or abuse their authority, etc.

      Tim Kowal

      February 17, 2011 at 12:20 pm

  2. I would add the mortgage interest deduction and non-tax-ability of employer-provided health insurance to any list of entitlements in the US. These are perhaps even more pernicious because at least some of these other programs are targeting some who may actually need it. Also, 99 weeks is the current limit to when you can collect unemployment benefits, so there are not any Americans who are collecting any unemployment benefits beyond 99 weeks. From the article you linked to: “Ninety-nine weeks is a milestone for the jobless because that’s the limit for unemployment benefits (though 99 weeks are not available in all states). Beyond that point, the jobless aren’t eligible for much help besides food stamps and charity. The job market for anyone out of work that long is downright hostile.”

    Regardless, in a larger sense, I feel like there’s a balance between helping people when they’re down and giving them the opportunity to help themselves. This is why something like trade works much better than aid at improving the lot of people in places like China, India, and Brazil. It’s also why programs like welfare-to-work (which was pioneered by my home state governor Tommy Thompson) are successful. Likewise, a lot of Social Security checks go out to the elderly that are otherwise fine, and the same with Medicare. SS is already means-tested so that the bulk of assistance goes to those that actually deserve it.

    Aaron W

    February 17, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    • Aaron,

      There might be some useful distinctions to draw between things like the mortgage interest deduction and things like food stamps, but I’m basically with you. There are a lot of sacred cows on the right that I find really annoying.

      As to your broader points, I also agree at a certain level. Basically, I see the government having stuck itself in all facets of life, making society increasingly secular and sterile, and thus hobbling the important roles community and religion and basic neighborliness used to play. Just as important, the economy is quite complex, and while we all have access to wonderful lifestyles miles beyond mere sustenance living (which was all that was available before the government encroachment and secularization described above), it does take some training and patience and an ability to operate in a primarily industrial/corporate world. I think a lot of the “poor” tend to succumb to psychological despair more than anything. This is why I’ve started to take more of an interest in what schools are doing wrong, as I don’t think we’re training enough people for actually useful jobs. Sometimes actually useful jobs aren’t the most fulfilling, so if they have no training for an actually useful job, and if they’d have to give up entitlements and free time to pursue DJ’ing or whathaveyou to do it, then they won’t.

      So I’d be interested to see entitlements replaced with training programs or some such things. Aside from that, I have little sympathy for the able-bodied on the dole.

      Tim Kowal

      February 17, 2011 at 2:10 pm

  3. Sorry for the sloppy writing and weird formatting. Writing between calls at work. Whenever I deal with people on the left it always seems they have created an imaginary upper class and imaginary lower class. I always ask for examples of the hard working guy
    who’s doing all the right things but just can’t make ends meet, but I have yet to be met with a serious answer. I think while the examples I gave are anecdotal they confirm what one would expect. The left has a view of the world where up is down and down is up. People who work hard are poor and rich people are the “leisure class”, just privileged and greedy. But I have met a lot more greedy poor people in my life and a lot of generous wealthy people. I believe that good virtues bring good results and bad virtues bad results. Sure there are exceptions, but that is the problem. The left has built their worldview on exceptions not the rule. Big mistake.

    Josh Barlow

    February 17, 2011 at 12:46 pm

  4. […] I should’ve saved my Robert-Owen-ism (the early American socialist who lost the initial favor he enjoyed with JQ Adams when he defied […]

  5. […] might be true.  I’ve mentioned that I probably have to agree that we need a safety net when it comes to health insurance.  […]


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