congress with dollars in background
No Matter What, Politicians Keep On Spending More Than We Have

November 25, 2023

By Dr. Thomas Patterson |

Social Security and Medicare are so popular they are commonly known as the “third rail” of politics. Any politician who touches them gets a nasty shock. The politically smart thing for decades has been to periodically increase benefits and not worry too much about adequately funding these supposedly self-sufficient programs

Congress designates SS/Medicare as non-discretionary spending, which allows even fiscal conservatives to earnestly explain that Congress is unable to touch them, not even to reduce the benefit increases they themselves bestowed in the past. Of course, this is ridiculous since Congress could legally eliminate the programs if it chose to do so (not recommended).

As the population has aged and birth rates have fallen, SS/Medicare have descended into serious financial distress. This year, the programs will spend $69 billion more than they take in. The programs’ trustees recently moved the date for expected insolvency up to 2031 for Medicare, 2034 for Social Security.

Yet there is little acknowledgment from the political class that a problem exists. To acknowledge it creates a mandate for making highly unpopular choices. Even Donald Trump, the would be “conservative” leader, has decreed that no part of making America great again will involve touching our major entitlements. The endless quest for re-election continues to dominate decision making in Washington.

Even beyond entitlements, America has a spending problem. The federal government spends about 25% of GDP but only takes in revenues of 19%. The rest is charged off to future generations. With interest rates returning to normal levels, federal debt service will soon exceed $1 trillion a year, roughly what we spend to defend our country.

Why do we continue to spend so recklessly in times of peace and prosperity? It’s partly our perverse politics, where spenders dare opponents to suggest fiscal reforms and then rip them for bringing it up.

It’s also a mindset. Not long ago, families were considered the primary caregivers for each other. It was contemptible to neglect your own.

Americans today believe they are entitled to have government assume what were formerly family duties. Politicians gain millions of grateful dependents and family structure suffers, but there’s no going back.

Federal decision-makers have adopted an all-purpose solution to the problems that plague us: throw dollars at it. Schools failing? Send money. Semiconductor industry struggling? More money. People still living in poverty? Appropriate even more money. Money papers over our problems but affords no actual solutions.

Nobody even talks about the monetary implications of our ongoing border crisis. Over seven million mostly unskilled illegal immigrants breached our borders. Immediately upon successfully registering their fraudulent asylum claims, they expect food, shelter, medical care, transportation, eventually education, and social services all without a thought of paying for them.

The direct and indirect costs are incalculable, but California already reports annual direct expenses of $21.76 billion while Texas pays $8.8 billion and Arizona $3.2 billion.

Yet Democrats contend only more money can solve the problem. Biden and border czar Kamala Harris claim Republicans are responsible for the border mess because they once blocked further spending increases, even though the money goes to accommodate more illegal immigration. It’s time to end this massive farce and lawfully control the border. Democrats will have to find some less costly way to recruit future voters.

Our response to the COVID epidemic was another giant boondoggle. There wasn’t much to do about the virus. Protect the vulnerable, treat the ill, develop a vaccine, and allow it to run its course.

Instead, we embraced an orgy of spending. Trillions went to infrastructure improvements, solar energy, daycare, schools, businesses, and even individuals, all inexplicably in the name of COVID. It didn’t affect the course of the disease, but our descendants will pay for this spree far into the future.

It gets worse. In 2025, the spending caps on Obamacare and other discretionary items are set to expire as are the low interest bonds the government issued when money was cheap. There will be tremendous pressure to spend yet more just to maintain the spending status quo.

Thomas Jefferson, 250 years ago, extolled the benefits of a “wise and frugal” government. We didn’t listen. We will soon wish we had.

Dr. Thomas Patterson, former Chairman of the Goldwater Institute, is a retired emergency physician. He served as an Arizona State senator for 10 years in the 1990s, and as Majority Leader from 93-96. He is the author of Arizona’s original charter schools bill.

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