Your Federal Government: a Massive Insurance Company with an Army

 ... here’s the quick-and-dirty summary of what the federal government does: It’s a giant insurance company, mainly serving older people, that also has an army.

So writes Paul Krugman in his column today, Seniors, Guns and Money.  Like most Krugman pieces, it is well worth reading.  

I don't often write on Krugman, because I know others will.  

But I am one of the leading (or bleeding) edge of the baby boomers - as I have noted, I turn 65 on the 23rd (although I will not retired from teaching for at least one more year).  Thus Krugman was writing about me when he opined

And in case you hadn’t noticed, there will soon be a lot more seniors around because the baby boomers have started reaching retirement age.

Yes, we have.  

I urge you to read the Krugman.  I will touch on part of it.  I will explore somewhat differently than does he.




First, Krugman does goes go after the 42 freshman Republicans who now want to "wipe the slate clean" so that they are not beaten up on for wanting to end Medicare.  They are complaining about "Mediscare" tactics while conveniently forgetten their own use of scare tactics to get elected.  Of course there is a difference - their support of the Ryan proposals would effectively end Medicare, while their rhetoric about "death panels" was flat out untrue.   How nice to see them hoist by their own petard.

What is key is this:  

Given the realities of the federal budget, a party insisting that tax increases of any kind are off the table — as John Boehner, the speaker of the House, says they are — is, necessarily, a party demanding savage cuts in programs that serve older Americans.

It is true that technically Social Security and Medicare are funded by separate streams, but while the former is effectively financially secure for the next few decades, the latter is badly underfunded, and its revenue stream will have to be addressed.  

But then there is Medicaid.   And this is critical.  As Krugman notes,

... while Medicaid is often thought of as a poverty program, these days it’s largely about providing nursing care, with about two-thirds of its spending now going to the elderly and/or disabled.

 He also calculates that in 2007 Seniors counted for roughly half of Federal spending.

Demographics present a problem.  In that year, the ratio of seniors 65 plus to those of working age (20-64_ was 20.9 to 100.  By 2020 that will rise to 27.5, and in another five years to 31.7.

Krugman also uses a rhetorical question from a Stanford professor who noted that the commitment of GDP to programs for seniors in 2007 was about 19-20%, as he argued for a freeze on spending on such programs.

Except there will be more of us.  And medical costs continue to rise -  here I note how much worse it would be without the changes we will see with Health Care reform, and how much better it would be with even more meaningful health care reform.  We should remember that not only do Republicans want to slash support for programs for Seniors, they also want to gut health care reform.  

Ultimately we will have to raise taxes to cover the additional costs for the bulge we baby boomers will impose upon the system.   We already recognized that in Social Security, when what we and our employers have been paying in FICA was raised to provide a cushion for the impact as we reach retirement age.  

But there is another issue, one upon which Krugman touches but does not explore thoroughly in the limited space of his column.   That is the guns part of his title.   There is a real question of whether our current pace of military commitment overseas, which goes far beyond Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, is affordable at all.  It is certainly not affordable unless we are willing to pay for what we are doing.  Those costs are not merely those of military operations, but also the future costs of care for our wounded warriors.   It is immoral to commit men and women to harm's way without also committing the resources to care for them when they are injured in national service, and to pay for the operations in which they are engaged.

If the United States wishes to remain as significant a military presence overseas as Republicans insist, then Republicans should be willing to pay for that presence, and not by cutting other programs.  Too many people are profiting from war and conflict without coming close to paying their share.

In one sense, we are increasingly a nation in which selfishness is rationalized.   You could hear that in the testimony of oil executives and the arguments on their behalf by Republicans who want to cripple the government by restricting its revenues and by Democrats such as Landrieu and Begich who as Senators from the oil patch seem to have a greater commitment to the energy companies than to the American people.  

That is a failing of our society.   It is one that should be addressed both by our religious and other moral institutions as well as by our public schools -  of course some of the former distort  and misread religious texts in order to justify selfishness and our public schools are in the process of being destroyed either so some can profit additionally or because some would rather impose training that excludes critical thinking, ignores the educational needs of minorities, and reduces America to profit motives and a Hobbesian world view where there is no Commons, no shared sacrifice (except of those in the military to protect their personal economic benefits).

My sense is that there is an opportunity right now to change the dialog.  Americans reacted viscerally against the Republican proposals to slash Medicare.  Too many still think that Medicaid is for other people, those "undeserving" poor people.  But there are enough around who have already had to use it for their parents, there are increasing numbers who are realizing that given the disappearance of defined benefit pensions access to federal support for medical care becomes even more important.

I can only hope that those of us facing these issues that affect us directly do not so narrow our perspective that we fail to realize that to address our needs should require of us that we understand how many other needs there are in our society that the Republican approach would deliberately ignore.  

Republicans do not want to pay taxes.   Perhaps they do not want to receive benefits?  Oh wait, THEIR benefits are fine, they just don't want to pay for those of anyone else.  That includes not being willing to pay with their own bodies and those of their children in military misadventures that too often exist because we won't address other issues, such as our dependence upon petroleum increasingly derived from overseas.  And no, more drilling at home and increasing fracking for natural gas does not solve the problem, it merely postpones the reckoning that is inevitable if we do not change our approach to energy and creates  "collateral damage" that by itself should serve as an absolute bar to such an approach.

It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.

 Four days after I turn 65 we should celebrate the 100th birthday of the man who offered those words, Hubert Humphrey.  While I still work I am now entering the twilight of my life.  I am able to keep working if I so chose, so I do not face the economic pressures so many of my generation will.  One cannot realistically continue many kinds of work even to the age I now am, much less into one's 70s.  

We have financial issues we need to address.   How much of what we pay in taxes should be for guns, how much for Seniors, how much for all the rest of what government should do?

We also have moral issues to address.  Who should pay, and how?  What is our responsibility to those other than ourselves?  What is our moral responsibility not to use our politics to try to turn one part of our society against another?

Krugman concludes by noting that the Democrats are telling the truth, not engaging in scare tactics:  

Policy details aside, the G.O.P.’s rigid anti-tax position also makes it, necessarily, the enemy of the senior-oriented programs that account for much of federal spending. And that’s something voters ought to know.

I agree.  They should know that.  

They also should know that we need to rethink how all of our policies and politics interact.   We should be aware of the consequences to those other than ourselves and our kith and kin.  

There have been times when as a society we chose to act on a moral basis.  Such actions gave women the vote, workers the right to unionize, minorities the right to equality in society.   We recognized the need for oversight of our food and drug protections, regulation of railroads, providing for seniors with Social Security and Medicare, providing for the poor in many ways, including Medicaid.  Remember, it was not so long ago that the largest portion of our poor were seniors.  

Our politics should be moral.  They should be about more than merely winning for its own sake.

And if our politics should be moral, so should our economics.

I am about to officially be a senior.  Today I read Krugman.  I had some additional thoughts.

Thanks for taking the time to read them.



AlterNet / By Kenneth J. Bernstein

Posted at May 13, 2011, 12:44pm

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