A Frightening Figure, Setting Off Ethics Alarms

We don't even know how to play Russian Roulette responsibly.

On Friday, the day before Christmas Eve when much of America was thinking about sugar plums,  lay-away plans, and protesting Christmas pageants, the Federal Accounting Office released its analysis of  the net present value of the nation’s Social Security and Medicare obligations, “net present value” being  the total funds that would have to be set aside today to pay the costs of these programs in the future. Seldom do figures so clearly indict the unethical practices and statements of so many.

In fiscal 2011, the cost of the catching up on the required funding of Medicare and Social Security rose from $30.9 trillion to $33.8 trillion. That $2.9 trillion increase should be regarded as adding to the $1.3 trillion cash deficit for fiscal 2011, making a $4.2 trillion deficit—and this coming in a year in which the rising national debt was supposedly recognized, at last, as a threat to America’s stability, prosperity, and welfare. The costs of Social Security and Medicare are rising at a frightening rate, nearly doubling in the last decade, with little or nothing being done to address the problem. And there is good reason to believe that the Medicare estimates are based on unrealistic assumptions. The GAO report also includes an alternate, less rosy scenario (or perhaps “more putrid” is a better phrase) in which the projected Social Security-Medicare debt is more than $46 trillion. How serious is that? Well, the combined value of the equity in U.S. homes and the value of all publicly-traded companies is less than 20 trillion dollars.

What do these figures tell us about the ethics of the various players on the national scene?

  • Republicans: The figures tell us that the Republican insistence that  taxes can’t be raised is reckless and irresponsible, as well as dishonest and cowardly. In addition to having to deal with these obligations, there is also a 15 trillion dollar national debt that shows no sign of falling, and that must be reduced for the nation’s economy to have a fighting chance of thriving again. You can’t pay debts with program cuts.  Responsible leaders of both parties need to be building consensus for a concerted national effort to reduce the debt, the deficits, and the looming entitlements bill in real terms. For elected officials to continue telling voters that avoiding tax increases for everybody is anything less than suicidal amounts to an unconsionable breach of trust. They are lying, or they are too dumb to be in office. It is as simple as that.
  • Democrats: The figures tell us that Democrats playing the class card and insisting that Social Security and Medicare “not be touched” (as Rep. Gerald Nadler (D-NY) did a couple of weeks ago) are every bit as irresponsible, dishonest, reckless and cowardly as their Republican counterparts. The figures are pretty clear: even if the U.S. became nothing but a check-writing entity for the sick and elderly, it could not afford the system as currently structured and funded. Yet nothing in the policies being put forward acknowledges this. The payroll tax cut, for example, takes money from the Social Security trust fund. The budget needs to be cut dramatically; all the protesting interest groups need to be confronted and resisted.  Real programs, good programs, have to go, and there needs to be major tax increases. It’s not debatable.
  • The Tea Party:The figures tell us that the Tea Party’s militant “no new taxes” position is willfully ignorant or intentionally contemptuous of reality, making any politician who kowtows to its pleasure either cynical, incompetent or both.
  • The media:The figures tell us the news media is more interested in describing political machinations, dwelling on the inside-baseball of politics and flacking for its favorite party rather than telling the public what it needs to understand, and understand now, about the nation’s real fiscal peril. Instead, “Fact Check” columns in publication after publication “debunk” statements by Ron Paul, Rush Limbaugh and others that the U.S. is “bankrupt,” saying, in essence, that the critics are fear-mongering, that things “aren’t so bad.” Yet most companies would consider declaring bankruptcy, if their obligations exceeded their wealth by similar proportions. Yes, of course: the U.S. has assets in land and resources that make technical bankruptcy all but impossible, but the same could be said of Greece—boy, the Parthenon alone would fetch billions. The American public needs to be concerned enough about the problem to commit to real sacrifice in a shared initiative as a people. The media need to tell the bad news; instead, its playing games and politics.
  • The public: The figures tell us that, so far, at least, the public is too selfish, lazy, gullible, and irresponsible to insist that its government do what is necessary to avoid looming financial disaster. Even the knowledge that our children and grandchildren will be the primary victims hasn’t created a nationwide willingness to be responsible.
  • Seniors: The figures tell us that the cries of injustice from well-off seniors (it is the richest demographic group in the U.S.) who argue that they are owed the full measure of their Social Security benefits whether they need the money or not mark some of “the Greatest Generation” and their successors as “The Selfish Generation.” The obligation has to be reduced, and the program was designed as a safety net, not retirement benefit for those who would be fine without it. Financially secure seniors can help address the crisis with a minimum of pain. They should be ashamed of themselves.
  • The Obama Administration: The figures tell us how much of a sham and a betrayal the Administration’s pledge of transparency has been. Why was this data dumped into the news pool when it was least likely to be noticed? Why isn’t the Administration trumpeting the problem, rather than hiding it? Don’t Americans have the right to know when their country is in trouble? Where is honesty, trustworthiness, courage, and accountability.
  • President Obama: The figures tell us what a truly negligent. passive, politically cynical and irresponsible leader he has been. He should be reprimanding both parties. He should be building consensus among the American people for a long period of shared sacrifice, instead of working to turn black against white, rich against poor, old against young, veteran against civilian, immigrant against native born, all at a time when every citizen will have to make serious sacrifices. He should be giving speeches explaining exactly what these figures mean, how they will make it difficult to afford keep our sewers from erupting and our roads from crumbling, harder to stop aggressive regimes abroad, more difficult to care for the environment or improve our education system. He should be asking sources of private wealth to develop plans to shoulder a greater share of the social burden of caring for America’s most vulnerable while the nation gets its finances back on a survivable course.

In his interview on “60 Minutes,” the President said that he thought his first term was one of the four most successful in U.S. history. That is delusional or dishonest. No matter what his other accomplishments, no President can call his time in office successful or even responsible when such a major, growing, undisputed and dangerous problem as the burgeoning debt and deficit is not only ignored, but made worse and deliberately hidden from the public.

All of this and more can be seen in those stark GAO figures that our government wanted us to ignore in the haze of holiday cheer. Robert Samuelson, in a recent column, described what is going on as nationwide denial, and wrote that we were “playing Russian roulette with the country’s future.” He is right about that, but too kind about the reasons the deadly game goes on. It’s not denial. It is selfishness, cowardice, and incompetence.

The numbers don’t lie.

10 thoughts on “A Frightening Figure, Setting Off Ethics Alarms

  1. And isn’t Obama and pack of liars brilliant to release the GAO figures when they knew no one was really paying attention. Even the news media spent its time talking about holiday parties, Christmas controversies, etc. After all, even those few who actually could understand the report didn’t want to add anything substantive or negative to the news. And the Iowa Caucus — interview after interview after interview — is it really more important than the GAO report? Lazy, shameful.

    Lying, unethical, incompetent, devious — oh yeah, what a successful term Obama has had so far. Too late for the blame game, so they make up new lies, deceive, obfuscate, and go out of their way to confuse the public instead of educating it. Obama’s egotism is pathological, and clearly his “team” has caught the disease. And his primary interest is clearly more image and power than the future of our country.

    More later on the Congress, the parties, and etc.

  2. Wow, great post!! The situation is like a dirty little(momentous) secret. A few walk on eggshells. Some are selfish. And some are ignorant!!

  3. Jack
    I was wondering if you might include a piece re/ the travesty of false allegations against teachers. I was a teacher for 20 years and couldn’t believe the contrast between what some administrators did in terms of accepting the veracity of the student statements. ie. presuming that teenage students sometimes lied or obfuscated and then seemingly taking them at face value whenever they accused a teacher (maybe a targeted one), of improprieties. I was suspect to begin with (male). Every year I was accused of physical abuse and it later changed to sexual misconduct. I would not have believed it before it happened to me. It became a real sport for the kids and the admin in the end. if you looked beyond the surface, it was always because their grade wasn’t what they or parents wanted, or they were disciplined for some reason. Look a bit deeper and you see admin’s fear of lawsuits is driving much of this behavior….to the detriment of educational progress.

  4. At the risk of sounding classist is it not the rich who opress us? With all the news of money being made by corruption at our expense I just have to be a little angry when the government starts chopping. They always start at the lower classes and spare their criminal cronies. Would be helpful if we could bring industry back home. A nation of either white collars or burger flippers aren’t going to build a strong economy. Okay,that’s simplistic. I’m a simple person but somebody better come up with some plan and quick.

    • Successful people create jobs, right? We are NOT oppressed by “the rich,” please. ALSO, there are so many definitions of this term that it boggles the mind. The average family income runs in the $50, 000 range; the average Federal employee makes about $100,000. So are we “oppressed” by Feds who make twice what the average middle class family makes? Lenin and Stalin didn’t think so, and they lived like kings in an impoverished,socialist society. THINK! It’s inherently evil to work hard, create things that improve life, do well, and make more money than some others?

      Let’s just appropriate all the millions made by successful people. shut down all the philanthropic good they do, pay off the national debt by limiting all families to $10K a year, remove all personal property so we can all share equally, and enjoy a healthy life in a 3rd world country.
      And if you want to “bring corporations home,” go straight to Bill Clinton. NAFTA was HIS baby, the the damage obvious. Also go to our state department and their fear and refusal to enforce fair import/export laws.

    • But yours is the attitude I am talking about, Karla, not that you’re alone. You can be as angry as you want, but the entitlements and social programs are the biggest part of the budget, and the fastest growing, we can’t afford them, and they have to be cut—it will hurt, it’s too bad, but the government has to do other things too—it can’t afford to continue on the current path, and taxes alone won’t solve it, not even close. So let seniors be mad that they paid into a system believing they could retire at 65, and let government workers be furious that their royal pensions will have top be cut back, and let business owners be mad that they have to pay more of the money they earned fair and square to support people that don’t work at all, and let families be mad that the estate’s their parents built up for their children by sacrificing themselves are going to be cut into by the government and let Sesame Street fans be ticked that they have to endure commercials and let the environmentalists cream because regulations have to be scaled back to get people working again, etc, etc ETC. Let everyone be pissed of because its nobody’s fault and everyone’s fault. We’ve let our leaders take the easy road and pass along the bill for too long, and now we all have to swallow hard, point out fingers right at ourselves, and do the right thing.

      • I’m not talking about people who got rich ethically,Elizabeth. I’m talking about crooks who have gotten rich by hurting others and contributing to the mess we’re in.
        Jack,I’m not saying we don’t have to shave off some entitlements. What I’m saying is begin with the elderly wealthy…skim from the top,not the bottom. That’s not how it seems to work though.

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