Why Can’t We Fix What Needs Fixing?

The ability to repair Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid is more a matter of will and compassion, not know-how.

If we’ve heard it once we’ve heard it a hundred times.  “If we can send a man to the moon why can’t we fix ________”? – fill in the blank.  This of course is the American know-how to get difficult things done.  But this reference to the space program is a micro look at making things happen compared to more grander, complex issues that need fixing.  Case in point: Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid.

The news from the Social Security Administration this week comes as no surprise but is bleak none the less and indicates a failure on our part that the “can-do” spirit that created the means to propel men past earth’s gravity and reach the surface of the moon over 40 years ago is somehow sputtering.  According to the SSA:

The financial conditions of the Social Security and Medicare programs remain challenging. Projected long-run program costs for both Medicare and Social Security are not sustainable under currently scheduled financing, and will require legislative modifications if disruptive consequences for beneficiaries and taxpayers are to be avoided.  SOURCE

It’s less clear that this problem with one of the most successful and necessary federally funded programs can be easily fixed than it is on how to deal with those who deem it unsuccessful and unnecessary and obstruct the ability to make necessary corrections to it; corrections that require those better off in our economy to pony up some of the excesses gained through measures that left the rest of us with lower incomes or none at all.  With more demands being put on these programs due to retiring baby boomers and a higher rate of jobless people due to the Recession, payments at current levels cannot be sustained as long as they were earlier estimated to do.

Medicare’s Hospital Insurance Trust Fund – which pays for hospital, home health, skilled nursing and hospice care for the elderly and disabled – will run out of money in 2024. That’s five years earlier than last year’s trustees report projected.

Social Security has enough cash to cover benefits for 25 more years, but will become insolvent in 2036 when revenue no longer will cover full benefit payments. Last year’s trustee report projected the Social Security Trust Fund would go broke in 2037. Longer life expectancy was the main cause of the year-to-year change.   SOURCE

The efforts needed to address this issue are continually being kicked down the road, primarily by conservative forces in Congress and the private sector who feel such programs are not the responsibility of the government.  Yet the fact that they exist at all is clear evidence that the free market system in this country has failed to address the needs of millions, who for reasons not always under their control, are unable to provide  for the aging and health issues that are expensed beyond the reach of many seniors , poor families with children and those with mental and physical disabilities.

Clearly we have a moral obligation to “help the least of those” amongst us.  This fundamental view is inherent in a religious philosophy by some who claim that America is a Christian nation.  It’s always been a part of the idealistic view that neighbors help neighbors in times of strife; a view held by many of those conservative-oriented people who are often the obstructing force in establishing and sustaining social programs that help their neighbors.

These humanitarian views evolved from a time when there were fewer people who required our help and where aid was often nothing more than meeting basic needs of food, clothing and shelter.  Incorporated within these noble gestures was the understanding that this assistance was intended to get people by until they could get back on their feet unless of course your age or physical condition worked against this.

Families worked together within their small tribal existences to care for the elderly. children and disabled.  Seldom if ever do we hear of cultures that wrote these people off or assumed they could fend for themselves.  But this idea is being stretched as we ask people to express the same concern for their fellow human beings who they will never come into contact with.  The idea that small clannish concerns could be extended beyond this level were never really considered because up until the Industrial Revolution some 250 years ago populations trends were pretty much the same as they had been for centuries.

With the means of production creating more abundance for people, life expectancies increased and populations began to grow exponentially.  And with this growth came the same conditions that required a certain amount of care for the least powerful within society to survive.  Though opportunities abounded and still do, not everyone can be expected to achieve financial success on their own.  The need to help certain groups  still exists but at a greater level that apparently hasn’t settled in with many who had no trouble with it on the smaller scale.

We cannot ignore that if we are still expected to live up to those values we once held so high that we must be willing to invent and carry out a process that achieves this in this newer age.  That is what we have done with the creation of Social Security in the 1930’s and later in the 1960’s for Medicare and Medicaid.  These systems still  basically require us to share a portion of our  financial resources, time and energy to care for those who simply cannot do it alone.

In order to do this we must have a large enough structure in place to meet the demands of this need.  There exist none in the private sector.  The private sector is more wrapped up into the self-interest philosophies of market capitalism.  Entailed in this philosophy is the essential driving force of making a profit.  Clearly there are no profit motives in monetary terms that encourage people to help others who cannot pay them for their time and services.  Thankfully though we do have a structure in place with a certain mandate to provide for the “general welfare” of those people who fall outside of self-interest concerns found within the private sector.

The government is essentially there to insure security and economic progress for its citizens but unless there is also a system in place to provide for the education and good health of all of its citizens, prosperity becomes a task more difficult and more expensive for all of us.  Unless we lose our moral compass and simply refuse to help those at a meaningful level who need our assistance we have to take necessary steps to ensure that those who have depended on us historically as family and neighbors are still taken care of.

The means to address shortfalls with Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid can be found in revenue sources.  With more people out of work now the loss of tax revenue hurts our ability to sustain these programs at current levels.  That means the more wealthier should be called on to alleviate our shortfalls until more prosperous times return.  The sacrifice this entails for this income group does not diminish their ability to provide adequately and sufficiently for themselves and their families.

Spending cuts should be viewed only in terms of their effect on how they do or don’t remove basic needs of adequate health care and nutrition.  Go after those who abuse these programs to line their own pockets.  Ask the wealthiest who have ample pension retirement funds to forego the services of these programs aimed to help the poorest of the poor.  Billions could be saved here to correct the projected deficiencies the SSA speaks to.

Seniors shouldn’t be forced to forgo necessary medications to sustain their health and children shouldn’t be expected to survive and fully develop without adequate nutrition and education.  Nor should the disabled be expected to sit in some facility out of sight and waste away and until they are robbed of their will to live.

That same can-do spirit that enabled this nation to become one of the most economically successful and powerful nations in the world still resides within us.  But we need to confront the reality that our social structures are not what they were a couple of centuries ago.  Life expectancies are now greater than they were because of advances with medicine and nutritional food production processes.  If we are to be a society that truly values every life then we must take the necessary action to promote that life and enable it to contribute to our continued success.

Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid are now the manifestation of our compassionate actions that existed when we lived in small tribes and when essentials were fewer.  If we come to the conclusion that our culture can only advance by methods that were adequate for tribal living then we are setting ourselves up for failure.  We need that continued concern for the least powerful amongst us if we wish to claim we are a civilized society. This will of course entail some sacrifices by those better able to handle it in tough economic times.

Rather than complaining about what it’s going to cost in terms of our own personal treasures let’s look at what it’s going to cost us in terms of moral integrity if we don’t meet the challenges needed to sustain Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. There are doable plans out there where minimal sacrifices will allow us to keep these social programs viable for future generations.  We just need to get past that belief that this is bigger than we can deal with.  If we don’t then the systems of belief that advanced us to this point are no longer meaningful and become hypocritical when compared to our actions.

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22 responses to “Why Can’t We Fix What Needs Fixing?

  1. If it is illegal to behave immorally, what is the point of morality? How do we prove we are good people if all our good actions are performed out of fear of the law? Aren’t there some decisions that should be between the human and his or her God?

    I have witnessed the destruction of charitable feelings within myself, ingrained in me by my parents, and I know the source of the destruction: coercion. When you remove people’s choice as to whether or not they act generously, they tend to feel less generous, and this infects their attitudes and their behavior.

    Charity and welfare are two methods that appear to have the same goal, but because of the effects of freedom and coercion, they have opposite effects. With Welfare, we might end up with most people having the same amount of material well-being, but the cost in spiritual well-being will far outweigh it.

    Seek progress through education, not coercion. The programs you mentioned are all funded by government coercion. Why not make contributions to support them optional, and see how that affects society?

    • “If it is illegal to behave immorally, what is the point of morality? How do we prove we are good people if all our good actions are performed out of fear of the law? Aren’t there some decisions that should be between the human and his or her God?”

      This is perhaps a little too existential David. There’s not a strict code of “good”. Most people recognize what’s good and what’s bad without some scriptural reference. There are a lot of gray areas but they pose no real threat except in people’s minds who hold rigid views about life. How does a few extra penny’s out of your earned income that help’s the elderly with their healthcare and children in poor families get daily nutritional meals pose a threat to you. Sure you can make the decision to help a small group in your home town or you can share a very small part of your income to see that many more get taken care of who truly need it. Isn’t that part of what the story of the loaves and the fishes address? Maybe you want to think Jesus used magic but he took what other people had to share with those who didn’t. As it turned out more people had food than they needed and the spirit of sharing generated by Jesus enabled everyone there to be fed.

      Your coercion argument is kind of nonsensical David. Are you only concerned that you may be coerced to help feed and clothe people in need but turn a blind eye to that part that goes to war profiteers and government largesse to wealthy individuals?

      “With Welfare, we might end up with most people having the same amount of material well-being, but the cost in spiritual well-being will far outweigh it.”

      Welfare to you I suppose is where we just keep throwing money at lazy people who have no intention of trying to make it on their own in this world. If I thought that was what was going on then we would be on the same side. But this view just simply is not borne out by the facts. Many were like my Mom who depended on social security and medicare/medicaid because without she would have had no means to provide for herself. We as her kids were not overly wealthy and if she had to depend solely on us she would have been worse off. Instead, I can take some pride that the small amount of money that came out of my check not only enabled her to live less painfully and stressfully but did the same thing for multiple other people like my Mom. You and others like you need to get past this notion that welfare is being used mostly by deadbeats.

      I’m all for education but your over simplified view of reality just doesn’t grasp that there are people who work hard all their life and still can’t make ends meet. That’s not the government doing it to them. It’s the economic system that promises great things for people if they just work hard and apply themselves without making them aware that only a few are truly going to be fortunate and live comfortably most of their lives. Your 18th century view of free-markets envisioned by Adam Smith just isn’t applicable in all categories these days.

      • Yay! You posted my comment!
        Here are the answers:
        “How does a few extra penny’s out of your earned income that help’s the elderly with their healthcare and children in poor families get daily nutritional meals pose a threat to you.”
        A threat? Not sure where you’re coming from. Perhaps you mean “Why is it bad to take a few pennies…?” To that, the simple answer is that they are my pennies, and if I don’t get to decide legally whether or not I support needy people with them, then I am robbed not only of a few cents, but of my honorable intention to help. Taking that away has much deeper psychological consequences than simply taking a few pennies from me.
        “Are you only concerned that you may be coerced to help feed and clothe people in need but turn a blind eye to that part that goes to war profiteers and government largesse to wealthy individuals?”
        That’s part of it, but see above. Coercion is always destructive. We should have none of it.
        “Welfare to you I suppose is…”
        By “Welfare” I mean taking the choice away from the taxpayer as to whether or not that part of his money is used to support people who need support. For me, it’s all about taking choice away.
        “It’s the economic system that promises…” I’ve never heard of any promises from the economic system. What are you talking about here? Public Education, maybe? (Tax supported, I should point out…)
        “Your 18th century view of free-markets envisioned by Adam Smith just isn’t applicable in all categories these days.”
        You must have read something else I wrote. I do see the value in Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”, though only through references others have made to it, and I am aware that there was somewhat more freedom in American markets in the 18th century, but I’m not sure what that has to do with my comment.

      • I couldn’t reply to your response that started with “Yay! You posted my comment!” so let me do it here.

        In brief your argument seems to be that you feel you’re being unfairly taxed, a kind of 18th century expression that the colonists used claiming “No taxation without Representation”. If that is your position then it is a bogus one.

        The colonists had no say in how they were to be taxed at all and that simply doesn’t apply here. Enough people, through their representatives, have said they do support these taxes under certain conditions. We must all guard to make sure the government and the contractors they issue permits to don’t abuse this funding.

        But try as you or I might, we cannot protest some things we don’t like and and expect not to have taxes deducted to pay for them. Unless enough people vote for representatives that pass constitutional laws forbidding this, you and I are obligated under a system that requires us being taxed

        If we could do this I would have withdrawn my taxes for military expenditures long ago. The form of government we have is perhaps the best yet but we can be assured that it will not please all the people all of the time.

        Your argument that tries to make it look like you are being coerced to pay for something not of your own choosing is erroneous because you have already conceded you give to charities thus recognizing there are needs out there that require our assistance. But as I pointed out in another response, this generous nature by all who employ it is far too inadequate to meet the needs of modern society and the conditions created by our economic system, as good as it may be. The government IS capable of achieving this as long as we vigilantly monitor them and make sure there are little to no abuses and fraud.

        Again, it’s not an perfect system – no large endeavor of this nature ever is, private or public – but given people’s general tendency to be self-serving I doubt we can rely completely on the generous nature of enough people to do what needs to be done on their own. Can we be sure that adequate amounts will be sustained by the very wealthy when moderate income people can not afford to give sufficiently in times of economic hardships like we are facing today?

  2. This was a great post. I don’t understand how these cuts which are the brainchild of the GOP are met with acceptance by anyone. This is an issue of compassion of human dignity. To hell with a balance sheet in the black. Who cares?

    • I care, Donna. I have kids. You might want to study the reasons that counterfeiting is illegal, and see if they don’t apply to the failure of our government to balance their budget.

      Can you and I be compassionate and help provide others with dignity without forcing everyone else to go along, as the government programs do? That would be ideal.

  3. “Clearly we have a moral obligation to “help the least of those” amongst us. This fundamental view is inherent in a religious philosophy by some who claim that America is a Christian nation.”

    This sentiment is one I often have — many of those who claim that America is a Christian nation seem to be most appalled by helping those who have the least in society. Like Bill Maher recently said, These people should stop calling themselves Christians. Find another name.

    “If we come to the conclusion that our culture can only advance by methods that were adequate for tribal living then we are setting ourselves up for failure.
    We need that continued concern for the least powerful amongst us if we wish to claim we are a civilized society. This will of course entail some sacrifices by those better able to handle it in tough economic times.”

    I can just hear Eric Cantor say, We don’t know how you’re going to get healthcare coverage, but that’s not our problem, that’s the individual’s problem. But for those of us who see our society as a collective, rather than a bunch of individuals fighting for themselves, we recognize another’s suffering as all of our suffering.

      • Dave,

        First let’s be clear that general criticism about “the rich” isn’t across the board. I tend to be specific when I make reference “to some” or “many wealthy” individuals or corporations, not ALL.

        Second, I’ve heard the specious arguments in your McScrooge link. The author speculates that those who “believe in the altruistic power of government merely shift their own feelings of reponsibility (or guilt) onto others.” This doesn’t apply to me nor does it apply to other generous progressives I know. So the case can equally be stated that though some feel this way it is disingenuous to categorize everyone as such.

        What this argument omits or deliberately overlooks is that all of the generosity of happy giving free marketers is inadequate to take care of the needs of certain social strata that are a result of free-market economies. There are just simply too many people in genuine need for the charities of all stripe to address. If that were the case they would have achieved this long ago and there would be no need for people to petition their government to step in to assist with this.

        So, a good argument is not an iron clad case and it fails to address how we can let our government continue to find ways to subsidize wealthy people and corporations but find it threatening to the deficit to allow some of our treasure to serve genuine needs of many low income people, or more specifically, hard working people bering paid low inadequate wages by many profitable companies.

        How do you explain the historically high income gap that now exists as a result of removing many corporate regulations that began under Reagan? Lower taxes for everyone has not created wealth in this country of an equal nature but instead has created greater disparity between the haves and have-nots.

  4. Social Security would be in a lot better position today if politicians of old didn’t use it for their own ATM machines.

    I believe paying for older people’s social security is a duty. Someone’s gotta take care of mom and grandma.

    You and others like you need to get past this notion that welfare is being used mostly by deadbeats.

    OK. When there are 3rd and 4th generation welfare recipients, I believe this is a huge problem. Personally, I think people should be able to get welfare for a certain number of years. If there was a welfare to work program, when they reach that date, they can get help with housing and food, but to a lesser extent.

  5. “When there are 3rd and 4th generation welfare recipients, I believe this is a huge problem.”

    I would agree with you on this spinny but I think these cases are much less than people like Dave Scotese think. “Welfare” is a broad general term used by opponents to cover everything from Social security to food stamps to unemployment benefits. In other words anything that a low income individual would receive a check from the government on.

    Though there are abuses by low-income individuals that we need to weed out, these people are a drop in the bucket when you compare the abusers of corporate welfare. Medicare/medicaid alone loses about 10% of what it pays out to fraud and abuse. In 2007 dollars that total came to around $35 billion in one year. Then there are those abuses in the Defense Dept. where “reputable” companies defraud the defense dept. and yet still get contracts.

    We’re swallowing an elephant while attempting to strain a gnat.

    • Oh OK. Welfare isn’t all encompassing.

      The fraud and abuse needs to be weeded out of these programs. The corporate welfare and subsidies needs to stop. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Do you think they have a shot at ending the oil subsidies?

    • I agree completely that “these people are a drop in the bucket when you compare the abusers of corporate welfare.” And really, I don’t mind “these people” nearly as much as the subsidization of all kinds of industries (that corporate welfare is much worse, I think than welfare for individuals), and also seeing all of us robbed of the opportunity to choose to help.

      For Spinny’s sake, I’ll clarify, again:

      By “Welfare” I mean taking the choice away from the taxpayer as to whether or not that part of his money is used to support people who need support.

      You can read the first comment I made to see what I wrote about welfare, and it applies to any kind of transfer program – where money is taken (through taxes) from some and give to others.

  6. Clearly we have a moral obligation to “help the least of those” amongst us. This fundamental view is inherent in a religious philosophy by some who claim that America is a Christian nation. It’s always been a part of the idealistic view that neighbors help neighbors in times of strife; a view held by many of those conservative-oriented people who are often the obstructing force in establishing and sustaining social programs that help their neighbors.

    One of my conservative Christian friends who believes the US is a Christian nation would say the “we” is families and church communities not the government writ large. He would say there’s an important difference between family members helping one another, church bodies helping people in their communities, and government programs like welfare. The first two are more efficient and minimize the tendency towards dependency.

    One obvious counter-argument is that families and faith-based charities aren’t sufficient to meet all of the unmet social needs. To which he says that lets families off the hook. He’d says it only takes a village if families breakdown. The greater the government funded social safety net, the less likely family members are to fulfill their obligations to one another.

  7. “Can we be sure that adequate amounts will be sustained by the very wealthy when moderate income people can not afford to give sufficiently in times of economic hardships like we are facing today?”

    No. Shame and Guilt is about as far as any moral person can go in motivating those who can fill the gap to fill it. You advocate property seizure and imprisonment (the punishments if you, for example “would have withdrawn my taxes for military expenditures” – I would have too, but for fear of those punishments), and that is certainly immoral, isn’t it?

    “… all of the generosity of happy giving free marketers is inadequate to take care of the needs of certain social strata that are a result of free-market economies.”

    See above. Your solution is, in my opinion, immoral. However, it’s impractical too: Let’s pretend we are in need. Certainly, there are factors that contribute to our own efforts to reduce our own need, right? For example, if we’ve done some work and we are owed some pay, we will let the need languish and perhaps grow because of the legal obligation of our employer to pay us. Now, does it really matter whether or not we’ve done work to create that legal obligation? Why would it? In fact, if we did no work but the obligation to pay us was there anyway, doesn’t the motivation to earn by working suffer at least a tiny bit? Of course there are horrible people who do this consciously, but their number is small. I’m talking about the rest of us. How angelic and perfect must we be to avoid the motivation-destroying effects of such legal obligations to pay us? None of us can claim to be so perfect. So the solution you advocate is not only immoral, but impractical too, because it creates more need, especially in the worst of us, but also in the best of us.

    “How do you explain the historically high income gap that now exists as a result of removing many corporate regulations that began under Reagan?

    I added emphasis in case you’d like to explore your own bias: How would you know the cause? But I have a similar bias: The impracticality of the government solution to the income gap has real consequences. If you study coercion, you will see that while good behaviors can be produced, the motivation for them suffers, and when the group on which the coercion is used is large enough, the effects of the motivation degradation are much stronger than the effects of the good behaviors it produces. This is the basic principle behind “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Coercion can be effective in the short term, but on a large scale, over the long term, it will undo its positive effects and be a net loss to society.

    • ” You advocate property seizure and imprisonment”
      “Your solution is, in my opinion, immoral”

      Give me a break David. I think we’re done here. Go peddle your extremists views somewhere else. I’m not going to debate with someone who calls allowing some of my taxes to go to helping less fortunate people than me as theft and immoral.

      • Well, it is right to imprison people for vandalism murder, and theft, and to seize “their” property if they fail to pay for it, right? Somehow, when the government makes demands of us, these punishments become legitimate to be used against those who fail to comply, and I think that’s a problem. We don’t have to discuss it any more, but I think we can make progress if we continue.

        I didn’t mean to offend you. Your taxes are your money, taken by your government, and I say the best thing to do with them is give them back to you. You will put them to better use than the government.

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