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RENEWING THE ENTITLEMENT DEBATE

March 15, 2009

By Dr. Lawrence German

Conservative columnist George Will recently published a column calling for a renewed discussion of the future of entitlement spending as the economic downturn continues unabated. The entitlement issue (with Social Security and Medicare at its center) looms large as the baby boom generation (my generation) enters retirement years. The drain on Social Security and Medicare will accelerate dramatically in the near future. With unemployment compensation reaching record levels and tax revenues dwindling, at the same time that government is borrowing one trillion dollars to jumpstart a floundering financial system, we can clearly see a looming fiscal disaster ahead. The financial crisis was hard to see coming. Entitlement spending is an iceberg that lies dead ahead, and unless we alter our course to avert disaster, we will pay a large price.

Libertarians and some conservatives sometimes decry the need for Social Security, but then they insist that everybody who paid into the system receive benefits to avoid Social Security becoming a redistributive program to benefit the less fortunate. Billionaire Ross Perot, in the 1992 Presidential campaign argued that the exceptionally wealthy do not need a Social Security check, and he would gladly give his back if it would help stabilize a system approaching insolvency. Sadly, Perot, Gates and all the billionaires returning their checks will not avert disaster.

The principle, however, is worthy of consideration. Those who have enjoyed the fruits of substantial economic success might receive the same return from “social insurance” as I receive from my car insurance when I have the good fortune not to have an accident. That would be zero. Yes, auto insurance redistributes from good drivers to bad drivers, but it makes it safer to be on the road knowing that most drivers can pay if an accident occurs. We all benefit, and the system survives.

Though not a libertarian, I strongly endorse libertarian arguments on a second issue that is more serious and involves substantial levels of entitlement spending. This issue is the right of an individual to end their life when they choose to end it. Medicare spending during the final months of life for many elderly constitutes a staggering proportion of entitlement outlays, often to preserve life that has long ago lost any quality of existence, and where the person receiving treatment no longer wishes to continue. Having watched my own parents gradually pass away, while unscrupulous medical professionals sought to enrich themselves by performing unnecessary procedures at the taxpayer’s expense, I feel a strong personal need to address this issue.

I agree that life is precious and none is more precious than the life of my own parents. No one should be expected to die before their time. There are, however, many medical procedures that I believe prolong life well beyond “their time.” We are all paying a huge social and financial cost for this misguided belief that all life must be preserved at all costs. Individuals and families wishing to preserve life to the bitter end should be permitted to do so but pay the cost themselves, not burden overstressed taxpayers. Individuals with terminal conditions should be permitted to end their lives when they choose. This is not playing God. It is permitting what I believe to be the inalienable right of personal choice to be exercised freely.

No small set of suggestions will significantly avoid financial strains in the area of entitlements. We do, as George Will suggests, need a lively but civil debate that will inevitably address sensitive matters at the heart of our social value system. I applaud this publication for contributing to a dialogue that I am hopeful will grow into some meaningful suggestions.

Dr. German is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science.

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