Commentary Magazine


Topic: Social Security

Presidential Longevity and Social Security

Today is George H.W. Bush’s 90th birthday. That is certainly an event worth celebrating, and may he enjoy many more. But it is also illustrative of a remarkable increase in longevity enjoyed by recent presidents (and the rest of us).

Before there were presidents there were English sovereigns. Not one of them lived to see his or her 70th birthday until George II, who died in 1760, aged 76. To be sure a few of them, such as Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI, were assisted early into that good night for political reasons.

Of the first six presidents, four of them (Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and John Quincy Adams), remarkably, lived to be over 80 and John Adams lived to be 90 and 8 months, a presidential longevity record that would last into the 21st century, until Ronald Reagan surpassed him in 2001. But from John Quincy Adams to Herbert Hoover, more than a century later, no president made it to 80. Hoover lived to be 90 and two months. Harry Truman, who died at the age of 88, was the only other president to live to 80 until Richard Nixon.

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Today is George H.W. Bush’s 90th birthday. That is certainly an event worth celebrating, and may he enjoy many more. But it is also illustrative of a remarkable increase in longevity enjoyed by recent presidents (and the rest of us).

Before there were presidents there were English sovereigns. Not one of them lived to see his or her 70th birthday until George II, who died in 1760, aged 76. To be sure a few of them, such as Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI, were assisted early into that good night for political reasons.

Of the first six presidents, four of them (Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and John Quincy Adams), remarkably, lived to be over 80 and John Adams lived to be 90 and 8 months, a presidential longevity record that would last into the 21st century, until Ronald Reagan surpassed him in 2001. But from John Quincy Adams to Herbert Hoover, more than a century later, no president made it to 80. Hoover lived to be 90 and two months. Harry Truman, who died at the age of 88, was the only other president to live to 80 until Richard Nixon.

But starting with Nixon, every president has either lived to the age of 80 or is still alive. Reagan and Ford each lived to be 93, and Ford holds the longevity record at the moment, dying at the age of 93 and five months. On October 1 this year, Jimmy Carter will also turn 90.

Living to 100 used to be exceedingly rare, but not anymore. Among the famous who have reached 100 in recent decades are Irving Berlin, the Queen Mother, Rose Kennedy, Brooke Astor, Bob Hope, and George Burns. I have a friend who is in robust good health at the age of 84. Her mother, in equally robust health except for being a bit deaf, is 109.

All this, while unreservedly good news for all of us, has profound policy implications regarding entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. The latter program was instituted in 1935 and set the age for receiving benefits at 65. The reason 65 was chosen is that that was the life expectancy in the 1930s. Today, in the United States, it is 79.8 for women and 77.4 for men and rising quickly. That is no small part of the reason both programs are headed inexorably toward insolvency unless Congress acknowledges mathematical and medical reality.

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Rubio and the Modernization of the GOP

For the last several years the right has been very clear about what government should not be doing, or should be doing much less of. But it has not had nearly enough to say about just what government should do: what intellectually serious reforms it needs to make to improve the lives of (in particular) middle-class Americans.

That’s changing, thanks in good measure to people like Marco Rubio.

I’ve had some differences with Senator Rubio in the past. (For example, I strongly opposed the legislative tactic that led to the shutdown of the federal government last October.) But Senator Rubio–along with Senators Mike Lee and Rob Portman, Representative Paul Ryan, and Governors Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, and Scott Walker, among others–is making an important contribution to the Republican Party by offering ideas on how to reform government to meet 21st century challenges.

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For the last several years the right has been very clear about what government should not be doing, or should be doing much less of. But it has not had nearly enough to say about just what government should do: what intellectually serious reforms it needs to make to improve the lives of (in particular) middle-class Americans.

That’s changing, thanks in good measure to people like Marco Rubio.

I’ve had some differences with Senator Rubio in the past. (For example, I strongly opposed the legislative tactic that led to the shutdown of the federal government last October.) But Senator Rubio–along with Senators Mike Lee and Rob Portman, Representative Paul Ryan, and Governors Bobby Jindal, Mike Pence, and Scott Walker, among others–is making an important contribution to the Republican Party by offering ideas on how to reform government to meet 21st century challenges.

On Tuesday the junior senator from Florida focused his attention on retirement security. In a speech at the National Press Club, Rubio offered a plan to open up to more Americans the Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) offered to every member of Congress and federal employee. The TSP allows federal employees to save pre-tax money for their retirement with fees lower than most private defined-contribution plans. Senator Rubio proposed that all Americans who do not have access to employer-sponsored plan be given the option of enrolling, which would boost Americans’ savings and help to supplement Social Security income.

“The twisted irony is that members of Congress – who are employees of the citizens of the United States – have access to a superior savings plan, while many of their employers – the American people – are often left with access to no plan at all,” Rubio said during his speech.

Other proposals include eliminating the 12.4 percent Social Security payroll tax for all individuals who have reached retirement age; eliminating the Retirement Earnings Test that can take away some Social Security benefits for recipients who continue to work (eliminating the RET would raise employment among early retirees); reducing the growth of benefits for upper income seniors; raising the retirement age for younger workers; and transitioning Medicare to a premium support system, which would give seniors a fixed amount of money to use for purchasing health insurance from either Medicare or a private provider.

There are several notable things about Senator Rubio’s speech. (I should say that in my position as a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center I met with Senator Rubio and several policy experts prior to the speech and reacted favorably to an early draft of it.) The first is the educative quality of the address, laying out the case for reform in a calm, reasonable, and empirical way. The second is an admirable candor, with Rubio saying, “While [economic] growth is essential, growth alone will not be enough.” A third thing to note about the speech is that Senator Rubio spoke about wanting to strengthen and save, not uproot and eliminate, programs like Social Security and Medicare. He spoke in personal terms about the role those programs have played in the lives of his parents. Fourth, he attempted to put opponents of reform on the defensive, saying, “Anyone who is in favor of doing nothing about Social Security and Medicare is in favor of bankrupting Social Security and Medicare.”

Fifth and finally, Senator Rubio put a frame around this issue that is quite important. He explained that the retirement system we have in place does not line up with the needs and realities of our post-industrial economy. 

“In this new century, most people will live longer and voluntarily work longer,” Rubio said. “And many people will change jobs countless times, often in business for themselves or working for companies that do not offer retirement savings plans or pensions. Therefore, our retirement programs must be modernized and restructured to address the new economy that is here to stay.”

What Senator Rubio is doing, then, is putting the Republican Party on the side of modernization and reform in contrast to reactionary liberalism, which is sclerotic and brittle, out of ideas and out of energy. This is precisely what needs to happen if the GOP hopes to become the majority party in America. Senator Rubio–energetic, engaging, interested in ideas, and cheerful rather than resentful–is among the most persuasive advocates for his party.

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Rescuing the Constitution from “Constitutional Conservatives”

National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke takes issue with an essay Michael Gerson and I wrote in National Affairs. Mr. Cooke, a thoughtful writer, cites this passage from our essay: 

many of the functions of the modern-day federal government, including Social Security and other social-service programs, were not envisioned by the framers, nor did the enumerated powers of the Congress specifically comprehend such programs. But neither do these federal roles violate a principle of our system or run counter to the prescient mindset of the founders.

Cooke reacts to this observation this way:

I hope I am not being unfair when I say that I detect a whiff of living constitutionalism in this passage — a tendency to subordinate “enumerated powers” to the subjectively imagined “principle of our system” or “prescient mindset of the founders.” The ultimate value of the rule of law is not that it entrenches the positions of men who are long dead but that it establishes the regulations by which governments may operate, outlines the political scheme for all to see, and short-circuits the temporary government’s capacity for caprice. If the authors believe that “the enumerated powers of the Congress” did not “specifically comprehend such programs” as Social Security — which, remember, is not justified by an amendment but by judicial reinterpretation — then they should be up in arms about it. I fail to see how one can acknowledge in one breath that a governing document that is the collective work of a generation of thinkers is being violated, and in the next say that that is what they would have wanted.

Actually, our argument is different than what Cooke presents. The fact that there exist programs created in the 20th century that our Federalist founders didn’t (and couldn’t possibly) envision doesn’t mean that those programs necessarily violate the system of government created by them. Gerson and I lay out in some detail the case for concluding that, “The government created in the late 18th century by the inhabitants of a coastal, agrarian republic was designed to accommodate the development of a more spacious and ambitious nation: an eventuality that many of the founders foresaw and embraced.”

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National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke takes issue with an essay Michael Gerson and I wrote in National Affairs. Mr. Cooke, a thoughtful writer, cites this passage from our essay: 

many of the functions of the modern-day federal government, including Social Security and other social-service programs, were not envisioned by the framers, nor did the enumerated powers of the Congress specifically comprehend such programs. But neither do these federal roles violate a principle of our system or run counter to the prescient mindset of the founders.

Cooke reacts to this observation this way:

I hope I am not being unfair when I say that I detect a whiff of living constitutionalism in this passage — a tendency to subordinate “enumerated powers” to the subjectively imagined “principle of our system” or “prescient mindset of the founders.” The ultimate value of the rule of law is not that it entrenches the positions of men who are long dead but that it establishes the regulations by which governments may operate, outlines the political scheme for all to see, and short-circuits the temporary government’s capacity for caprice. If the authors believe that “the enumerated powers of the Congress” did not “specifically comprehend such programs” as Social Security — which, remember, is not justified by an amendment but by judicial reinterpretation — then they should be up in arms about it. I fail to see how one can acknowledge in one breath that a governing document that is the collective work of a generation of thinkers is being violated, and in the next say that that is what they would have wanted.

Actually, our argument is different than what Cooke presents. The fact that there exist programs created in the 20th century that our Federalist founders didn’t (and couldn’t possibly) envision doesn’t mean that those programs necessarily violate the system of government created by them. Gerson and I lay out in some detail the case for concluding that, “The government created in the late 18th century by the inhabitants of a coastal, agrarian republic was designed to accommodate the development of a more spacious and ambitious nation: an eventuality that many of the founders foresaw and embraced.”

As for the charge of embracing a “living Constitution”: It is one thing, and I believe quite a problematic thing, for judges to invent and create and impose on the public invented rights. But in the representative democracy the founders created, they certainly believed that within certain parameters the will of the people, ratified in election after election and by Congress after Congress, needed to be taken into account. And Social Security has been ratified in dozens of staggered elections (presidential, Senate, and House) over the course of most of the 20th century and all of the 21st century. No elected representative of any serious standing is arguing for the repeal of Social Security on constitutional grounds; and it hasn’t faced a serious constitutional challenge under either a liberal or a conservative-led Supreme Court in more than a half-century. Yet Cooke seems to believe conservatives should be “up in arms” about it and, I can only assume, energize their movement around an effort to largely dismantle, on constitutional grounds, the New Deal and more.

To help clarify what is, in truth, a pretty interesting and important philosophical discussion–how narrowly or broadly should the enumerated powers in the Constitution be interpreted–it would be instructive for Mr. Cooke to respond to some queries, perhaps starting with this one: Is Social Security unconstitutional? If he believes it is, does Cooke therefore believe conservatives and Republicans should run for elective office and base their governing agenda on repealing Social Security on the grounds that it qualifies as an assault on the Constitution? He seems to suggest they should.

In addition, what do Cooke and others, including so-called “constitutional conservatives” who praised his article, make of the fact that Ronald Reagan, the most important figure in the history of modern conservatism, praised Social Security and went out of his way to assure voters he had no intention of dismantling the New Deal?

In the 1964 speech that effectively launched his political career, Reagan, in describing conservatives, said, “we’re for a provision that destitution should not follow unemployment by reason of old age, and to that end we’ve accepted Social Security as a step toward meeting the problem.” And on April 20, 1983, Reagan signed a bill to preserve Social Security, saying, “This bill demonstrates for all time our nation’s ironclad commitment to Society Security.”

Does Cooke detect a “whiff of living constitutionalism” and a “tendency to subordinate ‘enumerated powers’” in Reagan’s words? Surely he must, since Reagan never challenged the constitutionality of Social Security and the New Deal and in fact affirmed them. Reagan, rather than being “up in arms” over Social Security, the New Deal, and much of the modern state, made his own inner peace with their constitutional legitimacy. Others should as well.

Mr. Cooke also makes this claim: “The federal government is able to do only what the Constitution permits it to do — and, until around 1913, the Constitution prohibited the federal government from doing almost everything.” I can’t help but note that even Thomas Jefferson, who was more skeptical of a strong federal authority than many others of the Founders, managed to conclude the Louisiana Purchase without amending the Constitution to permit so massive an exercise of federal power. The founders, from Washington through Monroe, presided over what at the time were massive changes in the scope and reach of the national government. That continued through the post-founding period to the Civil War–despite the fact that the Constitution was amended only twice during that period (in 1795, limiting suits against states; and in 1804, revising the electoral-college procedure). In addition, the claim that Abraham Lincoln believed the Constitution prohibited the federal government from doing “almost everything” is slightly bizarre. (See the Civil War, the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, the transcontinental railroad, and the imposition of tariffs and a federal income tax for more.)

It’s worth pointing out, too, that as president James Madison signed the act establishing the Second National Bank. He had opposed the creation of the First National Bank on constitutional grounds but, in revising his views, Madison wrote this:

The charge of inconsistency between my objection to the constitutionality of such a bank in 1791, and my assent in 1817, turns on the question, how far legislative precedents, expounding the Constitution, ought to guide succeeding legislatures, and to overrule individual opinions.

… It was in conformity with the view here taken of the respect due to deliberate and reiterated precedent, that the Bank of the United States, though on the original question held to be unconstitutional, received the executive signature in the year 1817. The act originally establishing a bank had undergone ample discussions in its passage through the several branches of the government. It had been carried into execution through a period of twenty years, with annual legislative recognition –in one instance, indeed, with a positive ramification of it into a new state — and with the entire acquiescence of all the local authorities, as well as of the nation at large; to all of which maybe added, a decreasing prospect of any change in the public opinion adverse to the constitutionality of such an institution. A veto from the executive, under these circumstances, with an admission of the expediency, and almost necessity, of the measure, would have been a defiance of all the obligations derived from a course of precedents amounting to the requisite evidence of the national judgment and intention …

In other words, the conduct of elections that tacitly or explicitly endorse existing policy, and people’s decisions with the passage of time to rearrange their own lives in light of the law, all amount to a public ratification. “Madison asserted that legislation passed by Congress and carried out successfully with the approval of the people over a significant period of time sets a precedent of constitutional interpretation for future legislation,” is how one commentator put it. It’s worth recalling that Madison is not only one of the authors of the Federalist Papers, the greatest interpretative work of the Constitution; he is also widely regarded as the “father of the Constitution.” So his example ought to carry significant weight.

One other observation. In a 1981 speech (featured in this book), Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan made this observation: 

Perhaps the most important act of the Continental Congress was the Northwest Ordinance which provided a direct federal subsidy for education. Almost the first act of the Congress established by the present Constitution was to reaffirm this grant. A plaque on the Sub-Treasury on Wall Street commemorates both actions. This does not invalidate the view that the federal government ought not to exercise any responsibility, but it does make nonsense of the view that the Constitution – presumably because it does not mention the subject – somehow bars such an exercise.

Pace Charles C.W. Cooke, I do not think that virtually the entire modern state–including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the National Institutes of Health, and so much more–is unconstitutional. But he and others like him apparently do, so they really should lay out what they realistically intend to do about it. And in doing so, they should explicitly state whether they consider Ronald Reagan, whom I consider to be among the handful of greatest presidents in our history, to have been an apostate when it comes to fidelity to the Constitution he swore to uphold.

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The Middle-Class ObamaCare Conundrum

A funny thing is happening on the way to universal popularity and acceptance for the president’s signature health-care legislation. No, I’m not referring to the dysfunctional website that turned ObamaCare and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius into a laughingstock. As bad as the website’s problems have been and continue to be, the growing coverage of Americans who have lost their coverage as a result of the new law, as well as the higher costs many, if not most of them are now facing, poses a far greater danger to ObamaCare’s supporters.

The key to understanding the strategy employed by the administration is their total faith in the idea that although the rollout might be problematic, once it is implemented the new benefits granted to poor Americans would become so popular as to make it untouchable. Like Social Security and Medicare, they reasoned that the reality of ObamaCare would render it invulnerable to criticism, let alone repeal. That was a belief shared by Republicans who feared the same thing and clearly impelled Tea Party supporters to back a government shutdown as a last-ditch attempt to derail the law. But the drip-drip of stories about those who are ObamaCare losers is showing that both liberals and conservatives may have been dead wrong about the bill’s staying power.

An example of this comes today from, of all places, the New York Times op-ed page where psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb writes about the misfortune of being a self-employed person whose insurance was dropped and then replaced with a new plan that cost her a whopping $5,400 extra per annum. As she writes, her new coverage is “better” as President Obama and his apologists keep insisting, but that comes with a few caveats:

Now if I have Stage 4 cancer or need a sex-change operation, I’d be covered regardless of pre-existing conditions. Never mind that the new provider network would eliminate coverage for my and my son’s long-term doctors and hospitals.

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A funny thing is happening on the way to universal popularity and acceptance for the president’s signature health-care legislation. No, I’m not referring to the dysfunctional website that turned ObamaCare and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius into a laughingstock. As bad as the website’s problems have been and continue to be, the growing coverage of Americans who have lost their coverage as a result of the new law, as well as the higher costs many, if not most of them are now facing, poses a far greater danger to ObamaCare’s supporters.

The key to understanding the strategy employed by the administration is their total faith in the idea that although the rollout might be problematic, once it is implemented the new benefits granted to poor Americans would become so popular as to make it untouchable. Like Social Security and Medicare, they reasoned that the reality of ObamaCare would render it invulnerable to criticism, let alone repeal. That was a belief shared by Republicans who feared the same thing and clearly impelled Tea Party supporters to back a government shutdown as a last-ditch attempt to derail the law. But the drip-drip of stories about those who are ObamaCare losers is showing that both liberals and conservatives may have been dead wrong about the bill’s staying power.

An example of this comes today from, of all places, the New York Times op-ed page where psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb writes about the misfortune of being a self-employed person whose insurance was dropped and then replaced with a new plan that cost her a whopping $5,400 extra per annum. As she writes, her new coverage is “better” as President Obama and his apologists keep insisting, but that comes with a few caveats:

Now if I have Stage 4 cancer or need a sex-change operation, I’d be covered regardless of pre-existing conditions. Never mind that the new provider network would eliminate coverage for my and my son’s long-term doctors and hospitals.

This complaint is acknowledged by yet another pro-ObamaCare editorial published by the same newspaper that finally acknowledged that millions of Americans are going to be adversely affected by the plan. The Times assures us that those who are being inconvenienced by liberal largesse are better off in the long run, but even if they are not, they are confident that “not all … will necessarily be upset” about it. But as the number of ObamaCare losers grows as the effects are gradually felt throughout the health-care system, that faith may prove to be misplaced. As more people like Gottlieb voice their grievances, the notion that the law is irrevocable may prove to be a myth.

Gottlieb, who clearly is part of a liberal milieu, complains that few in her circle are particularly sympathetic. Most seem to think that helping the poor is worth the cost of bilking those who are somewhat better off. Judging by the reaction of her 1,000-plus Facebook friends, her statement that “the president should be protecting the middle class, not making our lives substantially harder” isn’t getting much traction. But it would be foolish for anyone, especially those working hard to silence such complaints, to think that public opinion, which polls show has always viewed ObamaCare negatively, will react in the same way.

This is a critical point. So long as the discussion about ObamaCare was one pitting conservative complaints about an unconstitutional power grab by the federal government and the perils of moving a step closer to socialized medicine against the well being of the poor and the uninsured, both Democrats and Republicans were probably right to think that implementation would be the effective end of the debate. But, to the surprise of both the left and the right, the discussion has moved from economic and constitutional principles to something more visceral and far more dangerous to the president’s plans. Once those opposing ObamaCare are able to use that magic phrase, “protecting the middle class” in the context of opposing liberal projects rather than in defense of them, a tipping point may have been reached.

Lori Gottlieb’s liberal Facebook friends may not think her plight is worth caring about. But the critical mass of voters will always be moved to anger against anything that is perceived as an attack on the vast middle class that forms the majority of the electorate and the backbone of American society.

Americans are a goodhearted and generous people. That’s why the Times thinks they will absorb this blow without much complaint because creating a new federal “health care safety net” is worth it. But unlike previous federal entitlements that expanded benefits for many and hurt few, ObamaCare is predicated on a very different formula that may, despite the Times’s assurances, hurt as many, if not more, people than it helps. That is something very different from Social Security or even Medicare. Like the corruption and the social pathologies bred by the welfare state that liberals have also urged Americans to accept whether they like it or not, this makes ObamaCare a subject for permanent debate and possible repeal. Conservatives who acted rashly out of despair this fall need to understand that when Obama loses the Lori Gottliebs of this world, liberalism starts to lose.

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Debt Denial, Entitlements, and the “Caucus of Common Sense”

The Obama administration and its supporters have created a problem for themselves. Having spent four-plus years using straw men to delegitimize opposing viewpoints, they are running out of clever ways to insult the intentions of those who disagree with them while also blaming them for the president’s mistakes. So while the sequester was the president’s idea, those who would let it stand rather than let the president dictate policy to Congress are outside the vastly outnumbered “caucus of common sense,” as Obama has taken to calling it.

That’s a catchy phrase, but they can’t all be winners: this week the president’s advisor Dan Pfeiffer sneered that those who are criticizing the president’s budget proposals want Obama to “enact a Romney economic plan.” (Blaming the previous president at least retained some sort of logic; continuing to go after Romney makes no sense and is marked by a certain classlessness Pfeiffer should try to avoid displaying on behalf of the White House.) But the old standard, and the one to which self-styled “moderates” will forever return, is the label of “centrism.” Heading into the weekend, the president’s former “car czar” Steven Rattner published a piece in the New York Times titled “Reclaim the Center.” Rattner attempts to put both conservatives and liberals on the fringe with regard to budget priorities, and lays out what a true centrist approach–his, of course–would look like. In the process, however, Rattner unwittingly ends up showing that, despite the media narrative of extremist Republicans, it is the left that is much farther from the supposed center.

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The Obama administration and its supporters have created a problem for themselves. Having spent four-plus years using straw men to delegitimize opposing viewpoints, they are running out of clever ways to insult the intentions of those who disagree with them while also blaming them for the president’s mistakes. So while the sequester was the president’s idea, those who would let it stand rather than let the president dictate policy to Congress are outside the vastly outnumbered “caucus of common sense,” as Obama has taken to calling it.

That’s a catchy phrase, but they can’t all be winners: this week the president’s advisor Dan Pfeiffer sneered that those who are criticizing the president’s budget proposals want Obama to “enact a Romney economic plan.” (Blaming the previous president at least retained some sort of logic; continuing to go after Romney makes no sense and is marked by a certain classlessness Pfeiffer should try to avoid displaying on behalf of the White House.) But the old standard, and the one to which self-styled “moderates” will forever return, is the label of “centrism.” Heading into the weekend, the president’s former “car czar” Steven Rattner published a piece in the New York Times titled “Reclaim the Center.” Rattner attempts to put both conservatives and liberals on the fringe with regard to budget priorities, and lays out what a true centrist approach–his, of course–would look like. In the process, however, Rattner unwittingly ends up showing that, despite the media narrative of extremist Republicans, it is the left that is much farther from the supposed center.

Rattner knocks the “delusional” idea held by many liberals that the skyrocketing debt is really nothing to be too concerned about. Here is how he frames the issue on both right and left:

The magnitude of these obligations is just too gargantuan to ever be fully reversed, but we must start now to bend that curve, particularly because any changes in Medicare and Social Security must be phased in over a long period of time. (The menu of policy options is, by now, familiar; we need to start making hard choices.)

That said, in a fragile economy, with the average American still earning less than he did a dozen years ago (after adjustment for inflation), federal belt tightening must occur gradually, a concept that is apparently foreign to both Mr. Stockman and Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee.

You’ll notice something: though Rattner tries to make both sides look equally unreasonable, he doesn’t succeed. Conservatives are actually right about the problem–they just want to implement their solution too quickly for Rattner. In contrast, the liberal view, in Rattner’s telling, doesn’t face up to the existence of the problem in the first place, and thus left-wing “solutions” are destined to make the problem worse or, in some cases, consist of misidentifying the problem as the solution.

Though Rattner doesn’t say so, a good example of the latter view would be a post published the same day as Rattner’s piece in the Washington Post by Ezra Klein. Klein’s headline says it all: “Washington thinks entitlements are the problem. Maybe they’re the answer.” Klein writes that the “three-legged stool” of retirement income security–Social Security, private savings, and employer pensions–is collapsing, with only Social Security left standing. Private savings are in terrible shape, and employer-based retirement accounts are increasingly taking the form of 401(k)s, which are underfunded. He calls attention to a new study for the New America Foundation arguing the real crisis is that Social Security isn’t generous enough, and writes:

They would keep today’s income-based Social Security program, but add a “Part B,” which would be a flat payout to all retirees. When parts A and B are combined, all retirees would be guaranteed 60 percent of their average working wage in retirement, with low earners seeing closer to 100 percent replacement. Part B would be pricey, adding almost a trillion dollars to Social Security’s costs in 2037, and the authors don’t have a clear proposal, much less a politically realistic plan, for how to pay for it.

Repeat: the idea is for the government to add a trillion dollars to the cost of entitlements with no idea how to pay for it. In truth, that should really have been the end of the discussion. With no funding mechanism, it’s not a plan; it’s just a suggestion that the government gives lots more money to people. I don’t even understand the point of publishing the NAF “report.” It’s 27 pages and has four authors, but should really just be one sentence: People would have more money if we gave them more money.

You have to admit, it has a certain airtight logic to it. The president can call for a “common sense caucus” and his former economic advisor can demand they “reclaim the center” all they want, but they surely know where the holdouts can be found. And it’s not in the Tea Party.

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The Political Implications of the Increase in Life Expectancy

The new, April, issue of National Geographic has maps of life expectancy for each county in the United States for 1989 and for 2009. (Apparently the digital version allows you to click on any particular county and get the local information, once you shell out $19.95 for a digital subscription.)

The story emphasizes the fact that life expectancy for men has increased more than it has for women over these 20 years and suggests that this may be due to inadequate treatment for women with high blood pressure and cholesterol. But it seems to me (though I am no epidemiologist) that that discrepancy might be due to the fact that women live longer than men and thus have less upside potential.

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The new, April, issue of National Geographic has maps of life expectancy for each county in the United States for 1989 and for 2009. (Apparently the digital version allows you to click on any particular county and get the local information, once you shell out $19.95 for a digital subscription.)

The story emphasizes the fact that life expectancy for men has increased more than it has for women over these 20 years and suggests that this may be due to inadequate treatment for women with high blood pressure and cholesterol. But it seems to me (though I am no epidemiologist) that that discrepancy might be due to the fact that women live longer than men and thus have less upside potential.

To me, the most startling fact in this data dump is just how fast life expectancy has increased for both sexes: 4.6 years for men and 2.7 years for women. That’s a 6.4 percent increase for men and a 3.4 percent increase for women in just two decades.

There was a similar leap in life expectancy in the early 20th century, but that increase was due to much lower infant and childhood mortality thanks to vaccines against such child-killers as whooping cough and diphtheria and the mandated pasteurization of milk, which eliminated the horrendous number of infant deaths caused by impure milk.

This latter-day increase comes at the end of life. Partly it is due to medicine’s greatly increased ability to cure or manage such killers as pneumonia, heart disease, and cancer. Partly it is due to a greatly improved environment, especially in cities and factories. And partly it is due to improved life styles, with more exercise and less fat, alcohol and tobacco.

There is no reason to think that this increase in life expectancy will abate any time soon. Indeed, it may accelerate. And that has tremendous public-policy implications with regard to Social Security, Medicare, etc. And as the percentage of old people increases in the population, their political clout will increase with it.

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Entitlement Reform and Common Ground

In a New York Times op-ed, my Ethics and Public Policy colleague Yuval Levin offers a simple, excellent idea that offers a way out of our current political impasse on entitlements.

He argues that Medicare and Social Security should be means-tested (e.g., allocating benefits according to need) and explains, with typical intelligence and clarity, why that’s something both Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree on. He writes:

Some on the left might complain that curtailing our entitlement programs’ universal character would undermine their social purpose and political support. But targeting benefits to those who most need them is surely better than reducing payments to providers (many of whom will drop out of Medicare), as President Obama’s 2010 law does. Some on the right might complain that such reforms would punish success. But surely rewarding achievement with government aid is no one’s idea of conservatism.

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In a New York Times op-ed, my Ethics and Public Policy colleague Yuval Levin offers a simple, excellent idea that offers a way out of our current political impasse on entitlements.

He argues that Medicare and Social Security should be means-tested (e.g., allocating benefits according to need) and explains, with typical intelligence and clarity, why that’s something both Democrats and Republicans should be able to agree on. He writes:

Some on the left might complain that curtailing our entitlement programs’ universal character would undermine their social purpose and political support. But targeting benefits to those who most need them is surely better than reducing payments to providers (many of whom will drop out of Medicare), as President Obama’s 2010 law does. Some on the right might complain that such reforms would punish success. But surely rewarding achievement with government aid is no one’s idea of conservatism.

I simply want to add that Levin’s proposal not only would save money, which is urgent in and of itself; it would also alter the way we think about entitlement programs. As Levin puts it, means-testing Medicare would begin to treat it “less as a universal earned benefit and more as the transfer program that it effectively is.”

One of the hardest things to do in politics is to alter the way the public perceives things. But it can also be essential, the sine qua non for future reforms. And no institutions are more in need of reforms than our entitlement programs, which is why I hope this idea gets traction. 

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Republicans Won’t Play By Liberal Rules

The headline of today’s front-page feature in the New York Times on the future of health care in this country, “This Election, a Stark Choice in Health Care,” is exactly right. The future of President Obama’s attempt to impose a government-run system on the country that will raise costs and intrude into the personal decisions of individuals is on the line in November. If the president is re-elected, ObamaCare will survive even if the Republicans win control of both houses of Congress. If Mitt Romney wins and the GOP takes the Congress, it is certain to be repealed.

That’s a rather straight-forward choice, but what is interesting about the article isn’t the editorializing in favor of the bill’s retention in what is ostensibly a news article, but the historical context in which the Times attempts to place this choice. As far as the paper is concerned, the Republicans are not playing by the unwritten rules of modern American politics that state that once liberals pass a major expansion of government power, conservatives are forever barred from rolling it back. That was the conceit behind the president’s decision to ram ObamaCare down the throat of a reluctant Congress and a disapproving American public. He believed that once passed, that would end the discussion for all time. But the funny thing about democracy is that the voters always get the last word and it is that, rather than the rule-braking Republicans, that is the president’s problem.

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The headline of today’s front-page feature in the New York Times on the future of health care in this country, “This Election, a Stark Choice in Health Care,” is exactly right. The future of President Obama’s attempt to impose a government-run system on the country that will raise costs and intrude into the personal decisions of individuals is on the line in November. If the president is re-elected, ObamaCare will survive even if the Republicans win control of both houses of Congress. If Mitt Romney wins and the GOP takes the Congress, it is certain to be repealed.

That’s a rather straight-forward choice, but what is interesting about the article isn’t the editorializing in favor of the bill’s retention in what is ostensibly a news article, but the historical context in which the Times attempts to place this choice. As far as the paper is concerned, the Republicans are not playing by the unwritten rules of modern American politics that state that once liberals pass a major expansion of government power, conservatives are forever barred from rolling it back. That was the conceit behind the president’s decision to ram ObamaCare down the throat of a reluctant Congress and a disapproving American public. He believed that once passed, that would end the discussion for all time. But the funny thing about democracy is that the voters always get the last word and it is that, rather than the rule-braking Republicans, that is the president’s problem.

The Times comparison of ObamaCare to the passage of Social Security is no accident. Democrats believe that the election of Barack Obama meant they had carte blanche to change the country in much the same way that Franklin Roosevelt did after 1932. Indeed, Obama is seeking to duplicate FDR’s trick of winning a second term by running again against the man he replaced four years earlier. Yet even if George W. Bush is still unpopular (though not as unpopular as Herbert Hoover), Mitt Romney is not Alf Landon, the 1936 GOP nominee whose name the Times drags out of the dustbin of history in order to bolster the case for the retention of ObamaCare.

While the Times frames the issue as one of mean cost-conscious Republicans seeking to take benefits away from the people, they largely ignore the fact that the majority of Americans have always opposed the bill and that the 2010 midterm election was as much a referendum on it as it was on the president and the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

Unlike Social Security, a measure that filled a gaping void in the needs of the vast majority of the electorate, ObamaCare attempts to fix a problem faced by a minority by transforming the health care system that, despite problems, largely works for most people. In doing so, it will aggrandize government, raise costs and, via the HHS Mandate, impinge on the religious freedom of many Americans.

That is why so many people are deeply anxious that ObamaCare be repealed. That may outrage the sensibilities of liberals who think conservatives must always accept as permanent any legislative defeat. The voters will decide the fate of both the president and his namesake. But whatever choice they make, it will be based on their beliefs about what is right for the country, not the unwritten rules of politics that liberals seek to enforce.

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The Party of Status Quo

The Washington Post editorial board argues that Joe Biden’s comments on Social Security the other day were far more disturbing than his “chains” gaffe:

On the same trip to southern Virginia, Mr. Biden wandered into the Coffee Break Cafe in Stuart. According to the White House pool report, when a diner there said, “I’m glad you all are not talking about doing anything with Social Security,” Mr. Biden responded: “Hey, by the way, let’s talk about Social Security. Number one, I guarantee you, flat guarantee you, there will be no changes in Social Security. I flat guarantee you.”

Why is this so depressing? Because, as Mr. Biden knows, Social Security is going broke. If “no changes” are made, then by 2033 the program will not be able to pay benefits as promised.

The Post pressed the White House on whether Biden’s comments reflected official policy, and were given the brush-off:

In response to our inquiry, White House officials said that Mr. Biden’s “flat guarantee” was not meant to convey a change in administration position, which they said is best understood from Mr. Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address, which called for “a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations.”

That speech was hardly a profile in courage: Mr. Obama opposed “slashing” benefits for future retirees. But that presumably (if tacitly) left room for trimming benefits. The president went further in failed negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner last summer, putting on the table changes in the way Social Security cost-of-living adjustments are calculated.

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The Washington Post editorial board argues that Joe Biden’s comments on Social Security the other day were far more disturbing than his “chains” gaffe:

On the same trip to southern Virginia, Mr. Biden wandered into the Coffee Break Cafe in Stuart. According to the White House pool report, when a diner there said, “I’m glad you all are not talking about doing anything with Social Security,” Mr. Biden responded: “Hey, by the way, let’s talk about Social Security. Number one, I guarantee you, flat guarantee you, there will be no changes in Social Security. I flat guarantee you.”

Why is this so depressing? Because, as Mr. Biden knows, Social Security is going broke. If “no changes” are made, then by 2033 the program will not be able to pay benefits as promised.

The Post pressed the White House on whether Biden’s comments reflected official policy, and were given the brush-off:

In response to our inquiry, White House officials said that Mr. Biden’s “flat guarantee” was not meant to convey a change in administration position, which they said is best understood from Mr. Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address, which called for “a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations.”

That speech was hardly a profile in courage: Mr. Obama opposed “slashing” benefits for future retirees. But that presumably (if tacitly) left room for trimming benefits. The president went further in failed negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner last summer, putting on the table changes in the way Social Security cost-of-living adjustments are calculated.

Why won’t the White House get into specifics? For the same reason Senate Democrats have declined to take up a budget plan, and President Obama has declined to offer a proposal to keep Medicare solvent and reduce the deficit. Because of the political risk involved. It’s much easier to attack the Republican plans than to offer new solutions. The Obama campaign prefers to propagate the myth that Republicans are callously trying to target the poor and the elderly with their plans, rather than acknowledge that reform is hard — and that any solution will require tradeoffs.

The Obama campaign also wants to have it both ways; attacking Romney and Ryan for their “radical” proposals, while simultaneously mocking the idea that Ryan’s reforms are bold or courageous.

Of course the Ryan plan took courage. If it didn’t, Obama would have proposed his own detailed response a long time ago. Instead, during the White House press briefing today, Jay Carney refused to specify when, if ever, the president would give more details on his plan to keep Medicare afloat.

When the media wonders why Romney’s VP choice hasn’t resulted in an elevated debate, the answer is clear. The country can’t begin the serious conversation that Obama claims he wants until he puts more details on the table.

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John Kerry’s Debating Lessons

The wisdom of the Obama campaign’s decision to use John Kerry as Mitt Romney’s stand-in during debate preparation will depend on how closely they have paid attention to Kerry’s past debates. The New York Times report offers all of the very worst reasons to pick Kerry. If they speak for the Obama campaign, this is a massive wasted opportunity:

Superwealthy? Check. Owns multiple homes? Check. Often labeled by his political adversaries as out of touch, aloof and a flip-flopper? Check, check and check. He even has really good hair and, as a bonus, is from Massachusetts.

Aside from the “good hair” joke, this makes it sound as if the Obama campaign chose Kerry in order to attack him. This will help to a certain extent, but there is more to learn from Kerry than hair and houses.

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The wisdom of the Obama campaign’s decision to use John Kerry as Mitt Romney’s stand-in during debate preparation will depend on how closely they have paid attention to Kerry’s past debates. The New York Times report offers all of the very worst reasons to pick Kerry. If they speak for the Obama campaign, this is a massive wasted opportunity:

Superwealthy? Check. Owns multiple homes? Check. Often labeled by his political adversaries as out of touch, aloof and a flip-flopper? Check, check and check. He even has really good hair and, as a bonus, is from Massachusetts.

Aside from the “good hair” joke, this makes it sound as if the Obama campaign chose Kerry in order to attack him. This will help to a certain extent, but there is more to learn from Kerry than hair and houses.

First of all, Kerry was not a poor debater–unlike Al Gore four years before him. Kerry, in fact, was a fairly decent matchup for George W. Bush in 2004. But one key to that was realizing what Gore had not–that Bush was a much better debater than he often got credit for. Kerry learned not to underestimate his opponent, and it served him well. Obama has thus far indicated that he plans to underestimate Romney. But Romney is a fine debater, and Obama isn’t. (Though Obama surely will be better this time around, Hillary Clinton ran circles around him in 2008.)

Both Obama and Romney, in fact, have something to learn from Kerry’s 2004 debate performances. In the second debate, for example, Kerry was asked about his reputation as a flip-flopper (“wishy-washy” was actually the way it was phrased in the debate question). Kerry responded first by naming the things he had been accused of changing his mind on–mistake No. 1–and then refuting the argument that he had changed his mind at all. His explanations were sound, but he was playing on Bush’s terms. He then, inexplicably, repeated the phrase “wishy-washy” twice while wrapping up his response. Romney must avoid this trap when he is inevitably accused of the same.

Bush then made a very clever move by using the phrase “I can see why people think that he changes position quite often, because he does.” Bush had been accused of accusing Kerry of being wishy-washy; Bush instead argued off the premise that the American people had already come to the conclusion Kerry was wishy-washy, and he could easily explain why. Yet Bush’s response was even more effective because he was not wishy-washy and made a point of saying the presidency requires consistency. Obama, as a fellow flip-flopper, may not be in quite as strong a position as Bush was to deliver that line of attack.

In the third debate, Kerry turned a question about flu shots into an answer about health care coverage. He said:

Five million Americans have lost their health insurance in this country. You’ve got about a million right here in Arizona, just shy, 950,000, who have no health insurance at all. 82,000 Arizonians lost their health insurance under President Bush’s watch. 223,000 kids in Arizona have no health insurance at all.

All across our country — go to Ohio, 1. 4 million Ohioans have no health insurance, 114,000 of them lost it under President Bush; Wisconsin, 82,000 Wisconsinites lost it under President Bush.

This president has turned his back on the wellness of America.

How this type of question plays out in the fall will obviously depend on the Supreme Court’s ruling on ObamaCare. But on this question, both Kerry’s attack and Bush’s response to it may be used against Romney. Kerry’s tactic of naming all the uninsured in swing states was a smart move, and if Romney advocates against universal coverage he better have an answer to this. Bush’s response began with this line: “I want to remind people listening tonight that a plan is not a litany of complaints.” Some version of this may also be employed against Romney’s critique of ObamaCare. In Romney’s case, he will be ready with a plan, and he’ll have to lay it out convincingly (and he won’t have a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation with which to do so).

One other element of the Bush-Kerry debates is instructive: the argument about Social Security reform. Bush proposed the option of partial privatization, which was not particularly popular and is not being proposed by this year’s candidates. But Romney does have something of a plan: slowly increasing the retirement age and slowing benefit growth for high earners. Romney’s embrace of the premium support model for Medicare will also be fair game in the fall.

Despite the fact that Kerry should have had public opinion on his side, his handling of the Social Security question was disastrous. When Bush was asked about the costs of his plan, he said: “The cost of doing nothing, the cost of saying the current system is OK, far exceeds the costs of trying to make sure we save the system for our children.” That’s a line we can expect Romney to drive home if he’s attacked on entitlement reform. But Kerry, if he’s honest, will urge Obama to study his own response to the question and avoid it at all costs.

First, Kerry began by noting that Bush suggested allowing Americans to invest some of their entitlement payments into their own accounts. “Now, my fellow Americans, that’s an invitation to disaster,” he said. Any politician with this low an opinion of the American people should at the very least hide it. This disdain dripped from Kerry like beads of sweat. Then he said all we had to do was put more Americans back to work, adding: “Now, if later on after a period of time we find that Social Security is in trouble, we’ll pull together the top experts of the country.”

Outright promises to kick the can down the road sound appropriately absurd to the American people. If this is why the Obama campaign brought John Kerry on board, they may reap dividends. If it was because he’s a rich guy from Massachusetts, Kerry may yet again be part of a losing effort.

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Dems Still in Denial on Entitlements Doom

The political class may lack the will to deal with impending doom of the two largest entitlements in the federal budget, but that doesn’t mean that the clock isn’t ticking until the moment when both Medicare and Social Security will run out of money. The annual reports of the trustees of these two federal programs were released this afternoon, and the verdict is just a bit darker than last year’s report. According to the figures, the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted in 2033, three full years earlier than last year’s estimate. The news about Medicare was no worse than 12 months ago but was already bad enough. It will collapse in 2024.

These alarming pieces of news ought to be greeted with dismay and resolve to deal with the entitlements problem that is leading the country to insolvency. But one end of the political spectrum believes things are just fine:

Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, said that “Despite the repeated efforts of Republicans to privatize Social Security and end the Medicare guarantee, these vital initiatives remain strong.” She argued that the trustees’ report “demonstrates that health care reform has strengthened Medicare by extending its solvency.”

This complacence would be shocking if it were not rooted in a basic tenet of liberal ideology. Despite the nonsense she uttered about the strength of the programs, Pelosi and other liberals understand that no government program no matter how financially ruinous will ever truly run out of money so long as the government retains the power to confiscate as much of the income of the public as the federal leviathan needs. The essential difference between the parties about how to deal with this problem is not so much about the existence of the problem but whether the solution should be found in the pockets of the taxpayers.

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The political class may lack the will to deal with impending doom of the two largest entitlements in the federal budget, but that doesn’t mean that the clock isn’t ticking until the moment when both Medicare and Social Security will run out of money. The annual reports of the trustees of these two federal programs were released this afternoon, and the verdict is just a bit darker than last year’s report. According to the figures, the Social Security trust fund will be exhausted in 2033, three full years earlier than last year’s estimate. The news about Medicare was no worse than 12 months ago but was already bad enough. It will collapse in 2024.

These alarming pieces of news ought to be greeted with dismay and resolve to deal with the entitlements problem that is leading the country to insolvency. But one end of the political spectrum believes things are just fine:

Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader, said that “Despite the repeated efforts of Republicans to privatize Social Security and end the Medicare guarantee, these vital initiatives remain strong.” She argued that the trustees’ report “demonstrates that health care reform has strengthened Medicare by extending its solvency.”

This complacence would be shocking if it were not rooted in a basic tenet of liberal ideology. Despite the nonsense she uttered about the strength of the programs, Pelosi and other liberals understand that no government program no matter how financially ruinous will ever truly run out of money so long as the government retains the power to confiscate as much of the income of the public as the federal leviathan needs. The essential difference between the parties about how to deal with this problem is not so much about the existence of the problem but whether the solution should be found in the pockets of the taxpayers.

Less extreme was the response of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who acknowledged the danger but reassured himself — and the Democratic base — that the funds are adequate “for years to come.” But that’s just a polite way of saying that the government won’t go bust on his watch, even if it is inevitable that it will implode on someone else’s.

But the more pessimistic assessment of Social Security’s prospects is directly related to the poor record of the administration on the economy because:

The trustees cited slower growth in average earnings of workers, lower earnings from interest on the trust fund’s holdings of federal debt, and the persistence of unemployment during the slow recovery from the recent recession.

Nevertheless, Geithner threw down a challenge to Republicans intent on fundamental reform of the system by saying the administration would oppose any effort to institute changes that would “destroy” the system or save “tax cuts for the wealthy.” But this sort of class warfare sloganeering is a thin façade for a policy of doing nothing to stop the exponential growth of expenditures in order to stir fear among the elderly and play to the liberal base.

Contrary to Pelosi’s policy of denial and Geithner’s determination to kick the can down the road, the trustees’ reports make reform plans like those of Rep. Paul Ryan even more important. Rather than being an issue with which the Democrats can demagogue the GOP, the latest reports about Social Security and Medicare can serve to build a broader constituency for a common sense approach that will discard liberal cant and address the fundamental problem. Though the Democrats believe the voters are too fearful or too stupid to understand the facts, their attempts to obfuscate the clear responsibility of Washington to deal with this crisis may run aground on the sea of red ink that is too large for even the trustees of these funds to ignore.

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Obama’s Triumphal Statist Presidency

In the March/April issue of the Washington Monthly, Paul Glastris offers a long essay in defense of Barack Obama. Titled, “The Incomplete Greatness of Barack Obama,” it is, in its own way, the clearest and most helpful analysis of the Obama presidency that’s been written so far. Glastris’s main contention is that Obama has “gotten more done in three years than any president in decades.” Yet, “the American public still thinks he hasn’t accomplished anything.” He’s right:

Measured in sheer legislative tonnage, what Obama got done in his first two years is stunning. Health care reform. The takeover and turnaround of the auto industry. The biggest economic stimulus in history. Sweeping new regulations of Wall Street. A tough new set of consumer protections on the credit card industry. A vast expansion of national service. Net neutrality. The greatest increase in wilderness protection in fifteen years. A revolutionary reform to student aid. Signing the New START treaty with Russia. The ending of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Glastris has unwittingly created a glossary of radical statism as a defense of Obama. His own words: “legislative tonnage,” “reform,” “takeover,” “biggest stimulus in history,” “sweeping regulations,” “protection,” “vast expansion,” “Net neutrality,” “greatest increase” in still more “protection,” and “revolutionary reform.” To liberals, this is the poetry of paternalism but to the rest of America it’s a nightmare lexicon.

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In the March/April issue of the Washington Monthly, Paul Glastris offers a long essay in defense of Barack Obama. Titled, “The Incomplete Greatness of Barack Obama,” it is, in its own way, the clearest and most helpful analysis of the Obama presidency that’s been written so far. Glastris’s main contention is that Obama has “gotten more done in three years than any president in decades.” Yet, “the American public still thinks he hasn’t accomplished anything.” He’s right:

Measured in sheer legislative tonnage, what Obama got done in his first two years is stunning. Health care reform. The takeover and turnaround of the auto industry. The biggest economic stimulus in history. Sweeping new regulations of Wall Street. A tough new set of consumer protections on the credit card industry. A vast expansion of national service. Net neutrality. The greatest increase in wilderness protection in fifteen years. A revolutionary reform to student aid. Signing the New START treaty with Russia. The ending of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Glastris has unwittingly created a glossary of radical statism as a defense of Obama. His own words: “legislative tonnage,” “reform,” “takeover,” “biggest stimulus in history,” “sweeping regulations,” “protection,” “vast expansion,” “Net neutrality,” “greatest increase” in still more “protection,” and “revolutionary reform.” To liberals, this is the poetry of paternalism but to the rest of America it’s a nightmare lexicon.

Glastris is equally candid about the long-term impact of these policies. “Some are structured to have modest effects now but major ones later,” he writes. “Others emerged in a crimped and compromised form that, if history is a guide, may well be filled out and strengthened down the road.” In other words, Obama initiatives that look measured or restrained today will only expand and calcify in time. He makes the comparison to FDR’s creation of Social Security. “Only in subsequent decades, as benefits were raised and expanded, did Social Security become the country’s most beloved government program.” Right, and only in decades subsequent to that did it become an unsustainable addiction that we can neither stop nor afford in its present form.

So, the case for Obama’s greatness goes as follows: He came to office with an array of statist notions. He forced “the sheer tonnage” of them upon the country. And he will leave the rest of the leftist dream’s fleshing out to that inexorable statist force-multiplier: time.

You start to see why Obama is okay being thought of as merely ineffective.

As for the foreign policy mentions, it’s a different matter altogether and one that Glastris never really unpacks after that paragraph. But even the administration now understands that its Russia policy is a disaster. And even if you approve the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” you must acknowledge that it’s been replaced with the catastrophic Obama-instituted military doctrine of “don’t win, don’t lose.”

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