Insight. Antics.

A Cents Of Entitlement.

In Economy, Government, Television on January 25, 2011 at 8:04 pm

The State of the Union address is less than an hour away and there have been hints and suggestions from the president as to what major themes and issues he will highlight. Republicans have been laying down the sand and salt to contain any new spending proposals slipped in by Obama tonight.

I’m taking a year off from live-blogging the event, because I haven’t yet mastered how to juggle that task while engaging in a rigorous drinking game, rife with sips and gulps on buzzwords like “bipartisan” and “competitiveness,” and selected prepositions like “by” and “on.”

Undoubtedly, the horrific shootings in Tucson will be referenced in the speech. Job growth and American perseverance will be a key component, with the unemployment rate stubbornly in the 9%-range, and China, brimming with production, on the brink of becoming a full-fledged global rival.

Other topics that will likely be broached are Social Security, Medicare, the national deficit, and tax policy. The debate around these subjects has increased in the last few months, not only with the November elections, but with the plan unveiled by a bipartisan panel on addressing the debt, commissioned by the White House.

The panel released an extensive set of recommendations to bring our maxed out credit card into balance. I wonder if anyone on it considered redeeming our Membership Rewards points to do this. We must have enough now to at least pay for the flight to China, so that we can then bust open the main cabin door and hose them down with all their gobs of money. If they did mull this one over, they didn’t opt for it.

The suggestions of the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson deficit plan, named after the requisite old white men, is anathema to both parties for their ideological reasons. Dems don’t want to give in on cuts to social welfare and GOPers don’t want to concede to spending hikes.

If we come out of this period of post-recession economic purgatory we seem to be floating in, I think the narrative makers will say that the moment it began was right at the end of last year, with the productive lame-duck session, the record holiday sales, and The New York Times story from December 23 in which leading economists from Northwestern to Nassau Street (right next to the NYSE) predicted that the “recovery will gain substantial momentum in 2011.”

With all that as a backdrop, in addition to the new Congress, The Times and CBS News joined together in poll-ey matrimony to measure the public’s attitudes towards these things.

The results: hilarious.

“Americans overwhelming say that in general they prefer cutting government spending to paying higher taxes,” but “their preference for spending cuts… dissolves when they are presented with specific options related to Medicare and Social Security.” When “asked to choose among cuts to Medicare, Social Security or …the military — a majority by a large margin said cut the Pentagon.”

Translation: “We want Whole Foods at Walmart prices, but I guess we can suffice on bringing five or six guns to the next knife fight. Oh, and closing the Whitney is probably okay with us.”

Close to two-thirds of us are down with paying higher taxes for Medicare and Social Security as opposed to reducing benefits. So, pretty much, we want what’s coming to us, and it’s better to know we’re getting it (even if it costs us a few extra bucks) than to not know what we would get in its stead. But hey, if this can be done by charging the wealthy more, we are cool with that. Indeed, the poll not only showed that, but the wealthy agree!

Debt-wise, the dilemma with these two hallmark entitlement programs today is that they affect the most people and account for the biggest part of the deficit.

And, while 95% of us call the country’s budget deficit a problem, including 70% who called it a “very serious” one, 56% says it is not “necessary for them to pay higher taxes.”

As you may sense, there’s a tiny financial paradox here: we want to get rid of the debt, but we don’t want to reduce it by giving much up, and definitely nothing in its two biggest components. And, if the cost of health care does not go down (fingers crossed, Obamacare) , our collective concession to pay a little more may not even dent the debt. I mean, I like keeping my cash, too, but if we all give a little more, hopefully prices will fall in line with that.

Now, let me say, I don’t follow the logic when people compare the government to the average person’s wallet, in which that person isn’t rolling in dough and doesn’t spend what he/she doesn’t have. The analogy doesn’t hold. First, there is no average person anymore. Second, the government feels more like your rich friend and benefactor who always has and is earning cash, and thus can afford to help you out. Just don’t snub him, or he won’t be so generous next time.

As for the armed forces and the arms manufacturers, chopping them down is something people (and probably animals native to Afghanistan), including many liberals, have been urging for years. They have argued that these are essentially jobs programs that conservatives should see as such. In the poll, 55% said they would be willing to cut military spending. (Sorry, Tony Stark.)  The next highest on that list was Medicare, at a stumpy 21%. This may be the first time a cooing dove beat a cawing hawk.

A telling aside of the poll may be that 77% think Obama will make an effort to work with the GOP to get things done, but only 46% thought Republicans will try to work with Obama.

A funny aside is that “Roads, bridges and other infrastructure” was the most popular domestic program people were willing to cut, despite our being pitched that fixing them was the elixir to our economic woes in the Stimulus.

A heartening aside is that “preserving money for education ranks at the top for most Americans.”

These polls are pretty scientific. This one took place by phone (land-line and mobile) this month, from the 15th to the 19th. It has 1,036 respondents.

Broadly, Americans are anti-tax and pro-services. We want a lot for a little.

So then, how are we going to handle this unwieldy deficit and contradictory desires? Do we cut or spend? It seems clear that it’s got to be a little of each.

As I feel like I frequently say, in government, as in life, the answer often lies somewhere in the middle. It’s a little uncomfortable for everyone, but better overall.

So, riff off this: raise the ages gradually for people born this century, charge us each a little more, take out a couple borderline items, and say, if you’re lucky enough to be wealthy and not need the maximum benefit, then you’re not going to get it. Got that? Okay, run with it.

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