Diagnosis for Democracy
Insights into the State of Our Union
A Blog by Rob Tenery, MD


March 11, 2013: Is Doing the Right Thing Passé?

By Rob Tenery, MD on March 11, 2013

Visiting with associates and even a few of my family members, I wonder why we seem to be divided into two almost opposing positions on the critical issues that affect this country. We come from similar backgrounds or have devoted much of our lives to the medical profession and seem to share the same values.

So what makes us look at the way our Federal government operates from almost opposing points-of-view? The results of past national elections have shown us that this country is and has been almost evenly divided along similar lines.

When broken down into the issues of abortion, illegals, gun control, preservation of U.S. interests abroad and the environment, even though we might not agree on some or all of these, I don’t think these are what divide us. I also feel whether we align as a Republican or a Democrat doesn’t divide us either. Although there is a wide divide between the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and the Tea Party of the Republican Party, most of us are somewhere in the middle.

I think what probably divides us, and the political parties that we alien with, are our positions on the entitlement programs--- how to make them more financially viable and the ramifications if they are not  ‘fixed.’ Our concerns center around how they affect each of us individually, our children, their children and then society as a whole.

We all generally want what’s coming to us, such as Social Security and Medicare benefits. Is any one reading this blog willing to give back their SS check or crazy enough to head into our later years without some type of heath care coverage? I’m not! I earned those benefits and I’m not willing to give them up without a fight.  It is a familiar refrain recited by almost everyone who receives benefits from one of the numerous federal entitlement programs. We see any candidate or political party that might cut or even revise our entitlements as a threat and we vote accordingly. The 47% remark that probably lost Mitt Romney the election is a prime example. But unless we are able to rise above just being concerned about our own needs and come together on solutions, this country is going to ‘ride the fiscal train over the cliff.’

Where we differ are with the ‘entitlements’ that apply to others (the ones that are not affected by our own bias) and how to continue to fund them. The current administration seems to support raising the debt ceiling, printing more money and higher taxes for the ‘wealthy’ as the solutions. The conservative platform concentrates on growing the business community that encourages commerce to bring in more revenue though taxes. The real solution is the ‘elephant in the room’ that neither side is willing to take on--- clean up the entitlement programs by ‘weeding out’ those that don’t belong and build in initiatives that force those that are able to earn their way to do so, regardless as to how they vote in the next election. Once we can clear out the waste, graft and over-utilization, both sides can probably reach a compromise on the funding issues.

It sounds too simple. Unfortunately, Washington and our state capitols exist on a system of pandering to whatever constituency that will keep our elected officials in office. The perks and their loyal constituents that keep them there are their ‘entitlements,’ and, like us, they are not going to give them up without a fight either.

Virtually everyone, who has studied the entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, food stamps and a myriad of other federal subsidies) seem to feel that they are not sustainable in their current format. Several of the European countries, such as Spain and Greece, are examples of what this country will face if we don’t address these issues now or in the near future.

Even Paul Krugman, an economist and strong advocate for the Democratic positions, at a recent question and answer event, admitted that the only way to pay for the current entitlement programs in the future was by increasing taxes, such as a value added tax on all goods and services, establish ‘death panels’ for Medicare and Medicaid patients and raise taxes in the middle-class sector. All of which, will put a strong disincentive to economic growth.  Krugman didn’t say when he thought it would be necessary, but intimated sometime after 2024.

Most of us can agree on providing ‘necessary’ benefits to those who can’t help themselves. The problem arises when defining that population and ‘weeding out’ those who could help themselves and become more self-sufficient. Two examples: It has been estimated that there are 10 million people on the food stamp program who don’t qualify for those benefits (individuals who qualified when they were unemployed, but didn’t drop the program when they became employed again). The second example is a mother of five children, whose low-income level qualifies her for welfare benefits and her five dependent children, who qualify for several federal social programs. She has no incentive to find a job, since she receives more income from the federal programs than she could ever hope to make with her poor education. She might just as well have more babies and receive more federal benefits. Additionally, the environment her children are born into almost traps them into a life of poverty and frustration.

Programs like Head Start are where both sides of the aisle should pull together to get these mothers out of this vicious cycle and give her children a real chance of getting out of the ghetto. We must not ‘balance the budget’ on the backs of these disadvantaged families. At the same time, we need to ‘incentivize’ these mothers to pull their ‘fair share,’ even if brings into question to which political party they cast their vote. Political intransigence has ground Washington to a halt, and we should not tolerate it!

Maybe we’re not so far apart after all. We all want what’s best for our families and our country. Maybe its time, instead of ruminating among ourselves, we tell our Congressional representatives what we think. That we are going to hold ‘their feet to the fire.’ That we still want to help the people in this country who really need help, but insure that the beneficiaries of these benefits are, at least, trying to take themselves off the dole. If we are going to add more oversight committees in Washington, maybe instead of adding them to monitor Obamacare compliance, the Feds should create committees to clean up the abuses in the entitlement programs.

We shouldn’t leave our children to solve ‘our’ problems. They deserve better from us!




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