The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Why Should Politicians Push Hard for Reforms that the Electorate Keeps Rejecting?

President Donald Trump speaks during the signing ceremony for the “VA (Veterans Affairs) Mission Act of 2018” in the Rose Garden of the White House, June 6, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Why promoting entitlement reform is a sucker’s game; an obscured point in the tale of the Brooklyn pizza deliveryman detained by ICE; the real appeal of Sex and the City, and the lessons of Bill Clinton, much clearer after two decades.

Choosing the Path of Least Resistance

Yesterday’s Three Martini Lunch podcast got more animated than usual, as my co-host Greg Corombos lamented that the Medicare Board of Trustees announced that the trust fund that pays for hospital care is expected to run out of money by 2026, three years earlier than projected last year, and that this was considered mid-level news at best.

Of course, neither of us was surprised by the news — we’re both Generation X-ers, who never figured we would see any Social Security benefits — and I found myself feeling that if the country holds the intractable position that it will not seriously address the problem until there are no other options and the trust funds run out of money . . . maybe it’s better to get to the reckoning sooner rather than later.

Sure, Republicans are egregious hypocrites for focusing on the annual deficit and the overall total national debt — driven largely by entitlements such as Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security — during the Tea Party era and then shrugging as the Trump era brings back trillion-dollar deficits.

But I noted to Greg that the argument that the country needs to sit down and have a serious reckoning about the impending problems of its entitlement programs is a bit like the post-shooting argument that “it’s time for a real national conversation on guns.” We actually have had those serious conversations, or at least as serious as we’re likely to have until the programs start running out of money.

The conversation almost always boils down to two sides, with one side saying, “This is a serious problem, and it will only be addressed by some combination of cutting benefits, raising taxes significantly, or allowing young workers to divert their current payments into an individual retirement account and hoping the markets rise steadily over the decades. None of these changes will be easy or popular, but they are necessary to avert even worse problems down the road.”

And there’s another side that says, “this is not a serious problem, the other side is trying to scare you, the system won’t run out of money for years and years, and we can solve it by just raising taxes on ‘the rich’ or by ‘eliminating waste,’ so let’s talk about something else.” And the latter side always wins the argument. The public always prefers “this is not really a problem” to “this is a serious problem that can only be solved by some sort of painful sacrifice.” This argument is often found among Democrats, but that’s more or less President Trump’s position. As he said on March 10, 2016, “it’s my absolute intention to leave Social Security the way it is. Not increase the age and to leave it as is.”

This broad-based bipartisan preference for denying the problem is not the way things ought to be, but this is the way things are. Fiscal hawks, conservatives, Republicans, and even a few Democrats have made these arguments for decades. They’ve brought data, demographic projections, historical performance, information about the good news of Americans living longer and the financial consequences, data about the number of America’s elderly who could live comfortably without Social Security payments, and so on. And despite their mountains of evidence, they lose the argument every single time.

The long-term health of America’s entitlement programs is not a particularly sexy or exciting topic. There are no great visuals for television. There are just a lot of big numbers. If the national debt were a Godzilla-like monster rampaging through the landscape, we would probably unite and mobilize and quickly respond to the threat it presented. But it’s just a line of numbers on a page or screen.

Our national motto should not be “out of many, one.” It should be Chevy Chase’s line as Gerald Ford in a national debate in 1976: “It was my understanding that there would be no math.”

We can blame the politicians — from Richard Nixon and a Democratic Congress expanding Social Security benefits in 1972, to Ronald Reagan being unwilling and unable to tackle this portion of government spending while being courageous on so many other fronts, to Bill Clinton saying “save Social Security first” once there was a surplus and then not making any changes, to Al Gore’s nonsensical claims of a “lockbox,” to congressional Republicans having no appetite for the reforms proposed by George W. Bush and former senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to Bush and congressional majorities adding a prescription-drug benefit to Medicare without knowing how to pay for it, to Obama and congressional Democrats expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

But in the end, the politicians were always responding to the preferences of a clear majority of the public. They wanted the government to give us these benefits, assure us that our payments over our lifetime are enough to cover the costs of our future benefits (they’re not), and figure out how to pay for it later. I can’t get that mad at Republicans or anyone else for no longer trying to drag the American people, kicking and screaming, towards a path of fiscal responsibility that they have actively rejected over and over again.

Now Democrats want “Medicare for All.” Tell them that the program is approaching the point of collapse and their answer is to make even more people dependent upon it.

Entitlement-reform advocates are like the Jeff Goldblum character in a sci-fi movie. We’ve figured out that something’s terribly wrong and a crisis is approaching, but no one wants to listen to us because we’re nerds and what we’re proposing is uncomfortable and there’s some other guy assuring everyone that everything will be alright. The mayor of Amity will always want to believe the guy telling him that the shark is a rumor and that it’s safe for the tourists to swim off the shore.

If only we could get the Jaws theme to play every time the news discusses Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare.

An Easily Obscured Fact about that Brooklyn Pizza Guy Detained by ICE

Have you heard about that pizza guy in Brooklyn who’s been detained by ICE?

Pablo Villavicencio-Calderon, an Ecuadorean citizen, entered the United States in 2008 seeking asylum. He was not granted asylum, and in March 2010, he was granted voluntary departure by an immigration judge. There’s an advantage to voluntary departure for those who are in the country illegally; even though they have to leave, they’re not automatically barred from legally returning later. But they need to qualify and apply for a new visa or green card in order to return. Once granted, the illegal immigrant is given a deadline — in Villavicencio-Calderon’s case, July 2010.

Everyone involved in this process should know that if you tell a judge you are going to voluntarily leave the country, and you don’t keep your promise, there will be serious consequences: “If a non-citizen fails to voluntarily depart, the voluntary departure order automatically becomes an order of removal. This occurs without the immigration judge needing to issue a new order, and without the non-citizen appearing in court. At this point, you are subject to removal from the United States, one consequence of which is that upon any encounter with immigration authorities, you can be removed from the U.S. without first seeing a judge.”

He promised a judge that he would leave the country within two months, and instead he chose to stay for eight years. He might be a swell guy with adorable daughters, but . . . what should be the consequence of not keeping a promise to a judge and defying a legal order for nearly a decade?

What Did Women See When They Watched Sex and the City?

Everyone seems to be writing a Sex and the City retrospective this week, the 20th anniversary of the show’s debut on HBO. I agree in part and disagree in part with the brilliant Kyle Smith’s assessment, and it’s worth noting he lived in New York City when it ran and I didn’t.

I could be wrong, but I suspect that women who loved Sex and the City were drawn less by the show’s portrayal of glamorous cosmopolitan promiscuity than the portrait of female friendship, and how it can serve as a surrogate family that allows a little more openness about embarrassments and relationship problems than traditional family connections. (Some reviewer noted how rarely any of the characters mentioned any family.) Gentlemen, if your girlfriend or wife loved the show, it was probably less that she wanted to live the life of the characters than she recognized some of her own dynamics with her friends with the featured quartet.

In fact, many fans of the show seemed to pick one protagonist as the one that represented their type — “I’m a Charlotte” — and could match their friends to the traits of the other three characters — with one semi-exception.

I’d bet that if you asked female fans of the show which character they related to the most, the answers, in order of descending popularity, would be Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha. Samantha was a funny character, but she was a composite fantasy — the male fantasy of the hot woman who’s a shameless nymphomaniac, and the female fantasy of a completely self-assured woman with no doubts, guilt, or fear — a gender-reversed James Bond with none of the shootouts or car chases but twice the bedroom scenes.

The other odd social dynamic that the show accurately portrayed is how close women friends often have dramatically different romantic preferences. There’s an episode near the end of the series where the quartet brings together their boyfriends for the first time. Carrie’s dating an insufferably pretentious modern artist, Charlotte’s happy with her nebbish lawyer, Miranda’s married and had a child with a low-key bartender, and Samantha’s found lasting satisfaction with an empty-headed model. The four men sit at the table, size each other up, and quickly realize they have absolutely nothing in common. (At least the latter three seem to be, in their own ways, decent, good-hearted guys.)

It resonates for every man who’s been stuck in an awkward conversation with another guy, with nothing in common other than that our wives are connected in some way.

ADDENDA: Over on the NRO home page, an argument worth emphasizing during Bill Clinton’s apology tour over #MeToo: If Democrats had pressured Bill Clinton to resign in early 1998 and he had left office, they would have lost . . . nothing. Nothing in policy, nothing in principle, and Al Gore probably would have won in 2000.

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