What Governmental Services and Benefits Are You Personally Willing to Give Up? A Symposium


Mitch Pearlstein
Founder & President

A reasonable reading of the following 34 brief essays in American Experiment’s newest symposium—What Governmental Services and Benefits Are You Personally Willing to Give Up?—suggests that more Americans than generally assumed may be seriously willing to sacrifice when it comes to major entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.  In the interest of balancing the nation’s skewed books, the columns similarly suggest that more people than routinely thought may be willing to forgo various exemptions and other tax breaks, including near-sacred deductions on home mortgage payments.

Not just important, this is potentially tectonic-shifting news—the stuff of a benign earthquake.

Needless to say, not every writer is so inclined, or that all offers to give something up aren’t tied to getting something in return.  Likewise it’s not to claim that the near-three-dozen contributors are perfectly representative of the nation as a whole, as the men and women here, on balance, are more financially secure and older than the norm.  But perhaps it is precisely such demographic facts that make participants’ interest in means-testing Social Security and more rigorously means-testing Medicare all the more impressive.

Which is another way of saying that this anthology, arriving when it does in our nation’s perilous budgetary life, may be the most important and tangibly useful collection of eclectic voices the Center has ever published in this format.

In asking contributors what they might sacrifice, I noted that we have reached a stage in which just about everyone finally recognizes that we have no choice but to cut significantly on how much government spends.  Or, at the very least, we’ve reached a point where just about everyone finally understands how government’s appetite must be slowed.  This is the case for a variety of reasons, starting with massive population shifts in which proportionately fewer American workers are increasingly picking up tabs for proportionately greater numbers of older Social Security-receiving, Medicare-eligible, and nursing-home-residing non-workers.

Still, in no way is this to say that recognizing what needs to be done is necessarily synonymous with actually doing it, as witness ongoing and severe budget battles in Washington, St.  Paul, and elsewhere across the country—skirmishes and longer-lasting conflicts which may well grow even more contentious in coming years.  George Will, for one, has argued that Americans in large measure are ideological conservatives but operational liberals.  As is consistently the case, he’s on target, though it would be a mistake to presume that only ideas and programs with left-leaning roots and champions have led to bigger government, as all kinds of people—left, right, and down the middle—have favorite government activities of their own.  Various business and agricultural subsidies for some reason come to mind here, as do defense and national security spending, of course.

I asked writers to consider questions like these:

• What governmental services and benefits are you personally willing to give up or have measurably reduced—with an emphasis on personal?

• Refining matters, what governmental services and benefits are you personally willing to give up or have measurably reduced which truly will make a fiscal difference?

• Some governmental functions and responsibilities don’t lend themselves to the kind of personalization explicit in the two questions right above, with national defense probably the closest example.  In such instances, please think about those governmental activities which may not affect you directly, but which you view as most keenly important to the commonweal and to which you attribute highest priority.  What are they?  And should funding for them also be cut or constrained in consequential ways?   (As you might imagine, several folks were quick to stress that there’s nothing more personal than keeping Americans militarily secure.)

• If you choose, feel free to argue that tax increases are unavoidable, either short-term or long-term, if we are to get our economic houses in order over the next generation of 25 to 30 years.

Finally, I urged participants to focus on whatever level or levels of government they preferred—national, state and/or local—while keeping in mind that the biggest threats to our nation’s economic and financial well-being are embedded in what the federal government does or doesn’t do going forward.

As advertised at the top, this is a remarkably rich collection of specific ideas.  By definition, some are more compelling or politically feasible than others.  Some are also a lot funnier than others, but that’s a different matter.  Yet given how I want to focus here most fully on proposals regarding means-testing entitlements, trust me when I say the following pages do not lack recommendations for eliminating departments, programs and subsidies, along with popular, even iconic tax perks.

In this spirit, President Obama’s health care plan meets its maker on several occasions with two symposiasts making the case for allowing terminally ill patients to use experimental drugs regardless of what the Food and Drug Administration says and prohibits.  Doing so, one writer concedes, wouldn’t save much taxpayer money directly, but it would “increase economic growth and harness the cost-reducing impact of technological innovation.”

Especially in areas like the environment, some contributors want to downsize federal oversight while others are no less eager to maintain and perhaps reinforce it.  One writer frames matters as   government spending too much time protecting people from the marketplace.  Some energetically emphasize that if an activity is not cited in the Constitution, the federal government just shouldn’t be doing it, period.  And still others argue that prime questions deal less with slicing and more with innovating.

While several writers accentuate the importance of not cutting military spending in any major way, other writers (probably more, frankly) stress the need for deep cuts.   While the great bulk of essays dwell on federal spending, one in particular focuses copiously on Minnesota state spending.  And while scaling government back is overwhelmingly seen as essential, that doesn’t mean everyone is of exactly like mind.

With that as prologue, what do a small sampling of writers say specifically about Social Security, Medicare, and mean-testing?

“The first thing I’d personally give up,” Laurence Cooper, a political scientist at Carleton College writes, “would be eligibility for Social Security and Medicare at age 65.  This is an easy call.  Sixty-five is a lot younger than it used to be.  Precisely where to set the eligibility age is not clear to me.  But I can certainly embrace 70 as a good number to consider.”  In fact, “given how much we’ve extended life expectancy and vigor.  .  .  I’d be willing to consider a number higher than 70.”

Former Minnesota Congressman Bill Frenzel is willing to forgo “all or part” of his Social Security annuity, or pay taxes on income above the cap, if changes are made such as raising minimum wages for benefits and removing wage-escalation provisions.  “I would take Congressman Paul Ryan’s plan for vouchers for Medicare, or pay substantially higher Part-B premiums, or accept a co-payment program for all services.”  The understanding, though, is he would do so “only if the program were modified to reduce the growth of federal health care spending to GDP growth plus one-half to one percent.”

Another former Minnesota congressman, Tim Penny, also supports Medicare reforms similar to those proposed by Congressman Ryan and “would be happy to accept a government subsidy for my Medicare that covers only 50 percent of the expected premium.  I have also purchased long-term care insurance and disability insurance and have prepared a living will so as not to burden taxpayers (or my family) with astronomical end-of-life health bills.”

Bryan Dowd, a health policy economist at the University of Minnesota, calls Medicare the “Leviathan on the ledger,” and he’s willing to give up his entitlement to it “in its current form,” as doing so is “really not a choice” but a necessity.  To date, Dowd writes, Paul Ryan’s proposal is the “only serious attempt to address the Medicare problem, and his proposal has much to recommend it, but it contains one fatal flaw:  It lets my generation off the hook.  Ryan’s Medicare reforms apply only to people now 55 and under.  Fairness requires sacrifice on everyone’s part.”

Speaking of the 55 and under crowd, Devin Foley of Intellectual Takeout notes that he will be working till he “drops,” as that is his “generation’s reality.”  Rather than keep “paying into an immoral system that takes from the young with little expectation of repaying them, I’m more than willing to give up Social Security if I can have control over my money.  There must be a way to wind it down justly for people dependent on the system, but it should be wound down nonetheless.”  The same, he adds, for Medicare.

“The real issue,” John Gunyou contends, is means testing.  “By means testing Social Security and Medicare, the richest among us with more than enough means to pay for our own retirement and health services would be asked to do so.”  In addition to the likes of Bill Gates, Gunyou writes that he himself could probably give up Social Security and maybe even Medicare—“but only if those other guys do, too.  You know who I’m talking about.  All those guys who think they’re entitled to have someone else’s grandchildren pay for their boats and second homes.”

“I would be willing,” promises Wilfred McClay of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, “to accept means-testing for most of the benefits I receive or will receive from government, including Medicare and Social Security, as long as the standards are set in a reasonable way, administered with a high degree of simplicity and transparency, and would not involve any more investigative intrusion by the government into my affairs than is already the case.”

And with a concluding thunderclap, Robert Osburn of the Wilberforce Academy writes that as a 60-year-old who is “between two and eight years away from claiming Social Security benefits, I am prepared to reduce those benefits by up to 25 percent.”  While he is not one to “reject the promise of sunny beaches,” he nonetheless recognizes that, “I won’t be able to laze away my days on those beaches in the so-called golden years if I know that my so-called entitlement is economically strangling my children and grandchildren.  With every sunny ray, I’ll feel (excuse the inner theologian) the just wrath of a God who will rightly accuse me and the members of my Baby Boomer generation: ‘You lived recklessly and borrowed with abandon!’”

My great thanks to all 34 writers for their brave and varied but also in-concert contributions.  The same for Kent Kaiser for another first-rate copy-editing job, Peter Zeller for getting us logistically started, and Britt Drake and Peter Murray for pulling everything together, pleasurably to the eye.  And as with the gamut of what American Experiment does, my colleagues and I very much appreciate your support and welcome your comments.

July 2011