Capitolism

Independent in All Things, Neutral in Nothing

“Medicare as we know it:” A Lesson in Demagoguery and Political Phrasing

with one comment

Our nation faces a crushing burden of debt from an entitlement state that continues to accrete power in ways unknown to most people.  We face the debt burden with a Congress full of unprecedented partisan rancor and a leadership deficit where very few are willing to rise above the fray and propose bold solutions.  Indeed, the Congress offered only one solution to the budget and entitlement crisis, Representative Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget plan.  The US Senate decided it would not attempt to pass a budget this year—for the second straight year—and the President only gave one speech on the budget, which has not assumed legislative form (the Congressional Budget Office, the non-partisan agency charged with formally scoring legislation, cannot score speeches).  To make matters worse, the President invited Representative Paul Ryan to his speech at George Washington University, only to call his plan “unserious” and “uncourageous” after seating Ryan in the first row—just when the GOP expected an olive branch on debt and deficit reduction.

Thus, the Ryan plan is the talk-of-the-town.  The budget passed the House overwhelmingly but failed in the Senate.  GOP Presidential candidates were quick to praise the plan, yet distance themselves from particular policy prescriptions contained therein.  One candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, even called it “radical right wing social engineering” (despite keeping the same Medicare system in place for those 55 and older).  Kathy Hochul, Democratic candidate for the House in New York’s 26th district, even ran a campaign ad featuring a man—who, not so coincidentally, looked strikingly similar to Ryan—pushing a wheelchair-ridden grandmother off a cliff.

Since leadership is a central focus of this blog, I will say a few things about the current entitlement demagoguery and lack of leadership in Congress but in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that in 2009 I worked in Ryan’s Congressional office.  First, demagoguery is a manifestation of a dearth in leadership.  It will be instructive for us to look back upon the concept of demagoguery in its original usage.  One of the first historical uses of the word demagoguery on record is by Thucydides, discussing the leadership of Alcibiades.  During the famous Peloponnesian War, Alcibiades convinced the Athenians to invade Sicily and make him general.  After indubitable military defeats, Alcibiades defected to the Spartans, exposing Athenian military secrets and highlighting Athenian battle weaknesses (after sleeping with the wife of the King of Sparta, Alcibiades came back to the Athenian cause).  Resorting to demagoguery indicates a leadership crisis, then as it does now.  Second, both Republicans and Democrats engaged in demagoguery—recall the “death panels” about which Sarah Palin talked so frequently in 2009.  Lastly, and most importantly, demagoguery only succeeds with ignorant publics and denizens.  Well-informed publics ignore or call out officials casting aspersions on ideas based solely upon prejudices, emotions, fears, vanities, and expectations.

Thus, a well-informed public should know that Medicare “as we know it”—nay, nearly all entitlement programs “as we know them”—are unsustainable and threaten to hasten a debt crisis.  Just Medicare “as we know it” carries a conservatively estimated $24.6 trillion unfunded liability through 2085, not to mention Medicaid, Social Security, and the 2009 healthcare law.  To add to the misery, Richard Foster, Chief Actuary of Medicare, says $24.6 trillion does not represent an actual forecast for program operations.  With the economy growing sluggishly and healthcare costs—and thus government spending—rising so much faster than any reasonably predicted growth, it is impossible to tax our way out of this impasse.  Thus, Medicare “as we know it” must change necessarily, lest we cling perilously to budget-strapping entitlements (paradoxically, intransigently defending the status quo is the most radical option available).  Medicare “as we know it” is an unsustainable status quo, however one tries to slice it. (As a somewhat gentle reminder, Moody’s credit rating agency, following Standard and Poor’s initial analysis, warned the US that its AAA sterling credit rating was in question due to Congressional standoffs and brinksmanship on the country’s debt crisis.) This is what the informed citizenry knows all-too-well, perhaps even ahead of the political class.

If the Ryan plan indeed ends Medicare “as we know it,” then what makes it demagoguery to state this? The veracity of the claim is not in question.  That is what makes the Democrats’ demagoguery so brilliant (and likely so successful).  However, the emotive tone which so often infuses the statement “ending Medicare as we know it,” scaring seniors, and done for purely electoral purposes, categorically make it shameful demagoguery.  Large-scale reforms doubtless benefit from social consensus built slowly over time, but entitlement demagoguery stymies social consensus on reform, and thus prevents policy change in the long-term interest of the nation.  It results in misinformation and destroys citizens’ will to discover political information on their own.  Whoever takes up the mantle of entitlement reform can combine successfully politics with necessary reform, but demagoguery only helps the conventional (and paralyzing) wisdom become a self-fulfilling prophesy: whoever is bravest on entitlements will lose.

Advertisements

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] Interesting Article Our nation faces a crushing burden of debt from an entitlement state that continues to accrete power in ways unknown to most people.  We face the debt burden with a Congress full of unprecedented partisan rancor and a leadership deficit where very few are willing to rise above the fray and propose bold solutions.  Indeed, the Congress offered only one solution to the budget and entitlement crisis, Representative Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget plan.  T … Read More […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: