Rosamond’s Country
Middlemarch prefigures America’s debt dilemma.

Illustration from a 1910 edition of Middlemarch, Rosamund at left.


Sadly, the lie that Social Security is an insurance program — and not normal spending — has still not died. Ronald Reagan was warning about this as early as 1964:

They have called it insurance to us in a hundred million pieces of literature. But then they appeared before the Supreme Court and they testified that it was a welfare program. They only use the term “insurance” to sell it to the people. And they said Social Security dues are a tax for the general use of the government, and the government has used that tax. There is no fund, because Robert Byers, the actuarial head, appeared before a congressional committee and admitted that Social Security as of this moment is $298 billion in the hole. But he said there should be no cause for worry because as long as they have the power to tax, they could always take away from the people whatever they needed to bail them out of trouble! And they are doing just that.

They still are.

At the root of our trouble is that we have established as normal a perverted understanding of what is moral, with too many people convincing themselves that it is acceptable routinely to spend money we don’t have if only we like the outcome enough. We have allowed ourselves to believe, too, that mathematics will — nay, must — bend to meet our indulgences, and that tomorrow will never come. What one wants is more important than what one can have, and those who object to the deception are “mean” — or, worse, “evil.”

Once upon a time, Americans broadly agreed that entitlement reform was necessary, and that without it disaster would strike. Now? Not so much. There is no more amusing illustration of the transition than the one provided by Paul Krugman, who in 2004 was struck by sheer terror at the “future liabilities of Social Security and Medicare” and by the coming “fiscal train wreck” that “the leaders of the United States,” “acting like the rulers of a banana republic,” were ushering in, but who this week wrote: “The next time you see some serious-looking man in a suit declaring that we’re teetering on the precipice of fiscal doom, don’t be afraid.”

Krugman’s change of heart is almost certainly explained by his partisanship. But not everybody’s is. Indeed, rather than making it even more obvious that Americans are living beyond their means, the vast sums spent on the Wall Street bailout seem to have harmed the old reform consensus, pushing some citizens to feel that if the banks can be saved at great expense, then so should the elderly and the poor.

This understandable sentiment is best summed up in the suggestion that so-called “deficit hawks” intend to “balance the budget on the backs of the poor and the elderly” as a way to avoid “taxing the rich.” Nevertheless, while such a line makes good political hay, it is deeply misleading. The truth is that “the poor and the elderly” are the people on whom the majority of federal money is being spent, and “the rich” are the people who pay the vast majority of the taxes. Deep down, everybody knows that the tax rates that would be necessary to balance the books are politically and economically impossible within the American system. But they can’t quite bring themselves to say it, much less do anything concrete about it. So they pretend that disaster is a choice.

As I reread Rosamond’s inflated whining this week, my main instinct was that Tertius really should have forgone his Hippocratic oath early on and thrown his turbulent wife screaming from a second-floor window. Alas, America’s politicians almost certainly do not have this option at their disposal — nor would indulging it be good for their electoral chances — but they do have the power to stand and tell the people the truth. “It’s not a question of liking it,” they might say. “Of course, I don’t like it. But facing up to the future is the only thing I can do.”

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.


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