Entitlements – Part 1, The Bad Check We Wrote to Ourselves

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Entitlements are not something Congress has done for us (or to us) nor something that they owe us. “Entitlements” are a post-dated check we have written to ourselves via our elected representatives.

Good news – the selection of Paul Ryan as the Republican Vice Presidential candidate put Medicare, and entitlements in general (Social Security, Medicaid, Food Stamps and Unemployment), in the center of the campaign debate.  Americans need to deal with this issue and improve the situation.  Bad news – unless we tune in to the Sunday morning news shows, we will hear a lot of extremist rhetoric, but very little honest, thoughtful discussion.  I’ve recently read three articles on entitlements: Get the Old off the Road!, David Frum, Newsweek, July 2 & 9, 2012; Are Entitlements Corrupting Us?, [YES] Nicholas Eberstadt and [NO] William A. Galston, Wall Street Journal, September 1&2, 2012; and Hey Washington: Enough Already!, Geoff Colvin and Allan Sloan, Fortune, September 3, 2012.  [No hot link available] These articles make a variety of points, why we should or shouldn’t continue the status quo for moral or ethical reasons.  However, they agree that the entitlement programs as they are presently written and funded will go broke in the not-so-distant future.

The American Heritage Dictionary provides the following definition: entitle…”3.a. to give (one) a right to do or have something; allow: qualify. b. to give (one) a legal right or claim to something.”  We tend to think of entitlements as “rights” similar to definition a, as somehow inherently belonging to us.  But they meet definition b; they are monies that we have a legal claim to because Congress has passed laws which say we get them.  However (this is my key point) Congress is simply an extension of the citizens.  Congress didn’t give us anything, because they have nothing to give.  It is our money that they are spending, as we direct them – by (re)electing them and writing letters.  Entitlements are promises (via Congress) of payments from us… to us.  They are promises of future payments, the equivalent of post-dated checks.  The problem is we haven’t put enough money in the bank to cover the checks.  We’ve convinced each other that somehow, magically, our children and grandchildren will have excess funds to cover those checks.  We’ve (re)elected presidents and congressmen/women who have established new spending programs but then lowered taxes.  The math won’t work.

So if these are promises we made to ourselves via Congress, we can (from a moral and legal standpoint) un-make those promises to ourselves as easily as we made them.  And what about today’s elderly?  They were in on those past promises to themselves (ourselves).  They were, and are, active players in these decisions.  They are not innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire of today’s politics.

We can choose to rip up those post-dated checks and re-do the programs, but should we?  That’s the subject for Part 2.

If we are to give our Grandchildren a better America, we need to take ownership of, and responsibility for, the entitlement programs Congress has passed.  They are our programs. They are our Grandchildren’s future.

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