I’m writing this in a white-hot rage just a few hours after the twenty-second fatal school shooting so far this year, this time outside Houston at Santa Fe High School. We have now had more high school students killed with assault rifles in 2018 than we have had soldiers in Afghanistan killed with assault rifles in 2018. My opinion on gun reform is already out there, so what I first want to talk about is the bigger issue of how we keep failing—over and over and over—to solve big problems that have solutions that most of us can actually agree on.
The Big Issue is that our government—or at least two branches of it—is giving up on data-based, testable, provable policymaking and legislating. It’s all about feelings and fears and if it’s Their Idea it must be bad because it’s not Our Idea. Let me offer an example.
Social Security. This is one of the most universally popular—perhaps because it’s so universally necessary—government programs we have in the United States. It’s supported by 88% of Dems, 81% of Independents, and 72% of Republicans. It’s about as popular as the homecoming queen at the dance. And let’s be honest, most days you can’t get 8 of 10 Americans to agree the sun’s shining. So if we start from the proposition that we should have a self-funding program that ensures nobody starves when they’re too old to work, Social Security seems a rather popular way to do it.
Now Social Security is facing a funding shortfall maybe as early as 2037 because of the bazillions of retiring Baby Boomers, of which Kay-Kay and I are the demographic tail end, having been born sometime between the end of WWII and Watergate. More or less. And 2037 isn’t that far off. However, the possible solution set to this problem is short and easy to understand. It looks something like this:
— Raise the contribution rate for workers and/or employers (currently 6.2% for each)
— Raise or eliminate the maximum taxable income level (currently $128,400)
— Raise the age when you can start collecting the regular benefit (currently 66 years and 2 months, headed for 67), the early benefit (currently 62) and/or the max benefit (currently 70).
— Lower the benefits
— Tinker with the cost-of-living adjustment
I can’t think of much else. That’s about it. This is all just a Really Big Math Problem. We know exactly how many people there are and how much they’ll pay in. We have actuarial tables that at this level of aggregation can tell us with remarkable accuracy how many people will live to which ages. We know what the benefits paid out will be under current rules. And we can figure out what various changes will do—we only have to do the math. It’s truly not rocket science and we’re dealing with arithmetic, as in numbers, here. The most reliable kind of provable, quantifiable data. Of the kind we can safely call Facts. And in the words of the distinguished former Senator from New York and notorious Washington lush-about-town, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
The problem comes in making choices and trade-offs. Somebody has to have the cojones to stand up and propose something like, “Hey, Rich Guys. You need to pony up a little by raising the maximum taxable income level. In exchange for that, Average Working Stiffs and Employers, you need to accept a modest increase in the contribution rate. And maybe we all agree to raise the top benefit age from 70 to 72. We good?”
This is what used to be called Compromising Based Upon Facts. Sadly, this is an animal nearly extinct in the wild as a result of our Current Unpleasant Political Climate. And what really gums up the works is that many-headed beast, Ideology.
There’s the crowd that thinks the social safety net has become a hammock. (The average Social Security benefit today is less than $1,400/month. Mighty lumpy hammock.) There’s the no-tax-is-ever-good crowd. (This is less a tax, more a mandatory savings account.) And of course there’s those who say, “I want the benefit for myself, but everybody else is an undeserving taker and I don’t want to pay for them.” (I shall not glorify them by even stooping to heckle their selfish stupidity.)
The teaching point is that we know how to fix Social Security. We really do. And we can do so with a high degree of accuracy and certainty. There are other problems that are harder. Medicare is a good example. There are a LOT more variables. With Social Security, it’s really a matter of how do we collect enough money to cut checks worth $X every month. On the other hand, Medicare involves rationing—OK, I said it—medical resources that are unevenly distributed across the country, vary wildly in price, and involve thousands of treatment (or not to treat) choices that often literally mean life or death. Yeah, a little harder than straight math.
But again, we can measure costs and judge outcomes, which is what we need to do. We may even need to make hard public policy choices like, “Where do we spend our limited cancer treatment resources? On an 88-year-old man who also has a bad heart? Or on a 42-year-old mother of three school-age children?”
Especially with medical care, we’ve used the free market as a fig leaf to give us cover from these tough decisions because they would make us feel uncomfortable. But the free market is rationing our limited chemotherapy and surgical and dialysis resources just as harshly—and the result is often that the old guy with money/insurance gets the treatment rather than the working mother who can’t pay her insurance premiums if she wants to feed her kids. It’s just so much easier to shrug and blame the Invisible Hand of the Free Market. If we let identifiable people make these decisions, well that’s a Death Panel, as we know from that eminent economist, Sarah Palin.
Of course, everything in America since Ronald Reagan has been tainted by the fallout of the so-called Culture Wars. Everything anyone from the Other Side proposes is immediately and inherently suspect. One need look no further than the endless hand-wringing over whether Obamacare-qualified insurance policies had to provide contraceptive coverage. Although I heard no concomitant furor over such policies paying for Viagra but not IUDs. Huh.
Finally, there’s the age-old problem of particularized benefit versus diffuse cost. If we give agricultural subsidies to llama farmers, that subsidy is really, really important to the llama farmers. The cost, however, is basically invisible to the rest of us. So the llama farmers, in our wide-open pay-to-play system of government, are highly incentivized to toss Big Bags of Money at Congresspersons and their Political Action Committees to ensure llama subsidies are sacrosanct. Now multiply this times hundreds of government programs benefiting thousands of specific stakeholders. Truly a mess.
And so while we verbally snipe and hurl social media Molotovs at each other, ten more people are shot dead in a Texas high school with a weapon that not too long ago was unlawful to purchase in the United States. This even though 92% of Americans support universal background checks, 83% support mandatory waiting periods after purchase of a gun, and almost 70% support an assault weapon ban.
There are lots of gun compromises possible, even more than there are for Social Security or Medicare. For the last couple of decades, there haven’t been enough people in Washington with the will to make those compromises.
It’s hard to fathom that after all the years I have contributed to social security that there won’t be enough, but we know that it hasn’t been saved and invested as they said it would. I don’t have an answer but am happy to listen to suggestions.