Uncle Sam as Santa
America’s entitlements problem



LOPEZ: What is the “disability” boom about?

EBERSTADT: Quite simply, collecting disability pay from the government has become a way of life in America — a new alternative to former, more traditional employment paths.


Disability has “gone viral” in modern America. In 2011, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, over 12 million working-age Americans — men and women between the ages of 18 and 65 — were accepting benefits from at least one government disability program. That is a larger total than the entire paid workforce of the U.S. manufacturing sector that same year!

The disability safety net is there for people who truly need it. Yet over the past two generations, we have seen an exponential increase in claims against this system — and claims are higher today than ever before, even though America’s working-age population, by many objective measures, has never been healthier than it is right now.

The government has yet to do a serious, comprehensive audit of its disability programs. Absent such inspection, we have no hard data on the scale of fraud and abuse in our modern disability programs. But you don’t need the audit to be aware that there is some troubling measure of “gaming” in that system today — and you don’t need to be Alexis de Tocqueville to see that this gaming has a corrosive impact on our civil society, requiring as it does a broader involvement of (say) health-care professionals, judicial officers, and others as accomplices.

LOPEZ: We spend three dollars on entitlements for every one dollar on defense? What’s wrong with that? Most Americans have no ties to the military anyway.

EBERSTADT: Every single American has a tie to the military! We’d have no country without it. I’d call that a pretty direct tie, wouldn’t you?

But the bond to national defense is more than just a pragmatic tie: It is a constitutional charge. The first enumerated responsibility of our president, in fact, is that of commander-in-chief. By contrast, so far as I can tell, there is nothing in the Constitution that instructs our government to pursue entitlement programs.

America’s entitlement spending came to exceed defense spending during the Vietnam War, back in the year 1971. By 2010 we were doling out fully three times as much for entitlements as for national defense. But current trends portend even greater disparities in the future: Entitlements seem to be heading only up, while spending on the Iraq and Afghanistan efforts is winding down. Even before the “sequestration” drama, we were heading for a future with outlays four times greater for entitlements.

The problem with such lopsided disbursements is not aesthetic. The problem, rather, is that the careening growth of entitlements has actually started to “crowd out” defense.

We are hearing a growing chorus of voices claim that our defense posture is “unaffordable.”

Really? As in: “unaffordable” for the richest society in human history?

Please remember: We are allocating barely half as much of our GDP today to defense as we did under President Kennedy.

Our current defense monies may be wisely spent, or not — this is another question altogether. But we can argue that our defense posture today is “unaffordable” only if we hold entitlements sacrosanct. Can you imagine what our Founders would have thought if they had known that future generations would presume to fashion our national defense on the basis of leftovers, after we had sated our entitlements appetite?

LOPEZ: What are the hard facts that Republicans need to face? Do their transgressions put them in a better or worse position to work with Democrats?

EBERSTADT: The ugly little truth is that Republicans are very much a part of America’s entitlement problem. The compromised and corrupted Washington Republicans have been totally complicit in bringing us to the juncture where we find ourselves today.

Want to know a fun fact? Over the half century between 1960 and 2010, entitlement spending tended to go up faster when Republicans were in the White House — substantially faster. Entitlement spending positively soared during the Nixon, Ford, and George W. Bush administrations, lest anyone forget.

Here’s another fun fact: In the 2008 election, about two-thirds of the most entitlement-dependent counties in America went for McCain, not Obama. (That is to say: the 100 counties with the highest share of entitlement income in overall personal income.)

The Democrats have the reputation of being the Party of Entitlements. Fair enough. But the entitlement problem is completely bipartisan. With a few honorable individual exceptions, Republicans in Washington have been hard at work protecting and expanding the entitlement state, too.

In that sense, I would submit that Republicans in Congress are generally all too well-placed to “work with” Democrats on entitlements.

It’s not just that the Republicans haven’t “walked the walk” of the limited-government party they claim to be: They haven’t even talked the talk. If they had done so over the past few decades, the basic facts about the entitlements epidemic would already be common knowledge; quite obviously, this is not the case.

LOPEZ: Do you have hope for reform given the current make-up of Washington?

EBERSTADT: I’d put the chances of meaningful entitlement reform in the upcoming Congress in the slim-to-none range. It belabors the obvious to observe that the White House isn’t interested in it. But there isn’t any evident appetite for it on Capitol Hill, either. In fact, practically everyone in elected office in D.C. appears to be just shy of terrified by the prospect of entitlement reform.

You can see why. At this stage in the disease, the federal government has more or less become an entitlements machine — two out of every three federal dollars spent go to entitlement transfers. So the business of Washington is, mainly, dispensing entitlements. And, as noted already, something on the order of 50 percent of Americans today live in homes that get one or more government entitlements: That’s a pretty formidable-looking potential constituency group, wouldn’t you say?

But the cast of characters in D.C. is not, at the end of the day, the determinative ingredient in entitlement reform. Elected representatives respond to the voters. And voters today are fundamentally uninformed about the threats our entitlement systems pose to our country. Admittedly, we are not getting a whole lot of help from our leaders on this score — that is one reason I thought it might be useful to produce a brief, easily read book on the subject.