Thursday, August 4

The Battle Elephant In The Room

WAS it depressing, or just depressingly familiar, when David Leonhardt told Stephen Colbert Tuesday night that "Medicare is by far the dominant source of our deficit"? Leonhardt has a Pulitzer for his work explaining the intricacies of the economic system, yet he can't be bothered to look.

And sure, sure, he meant well. He meant we have to get health care costs under control. He meant we have to raise taxes to pay for the shit we buy. He wasn't calculating how many poor people can die in the streets before the stench starts wafting over to some of our tonier gated communities.

But he's fucking dead wrong, and wrong seven ways from Sunday.

Medicare--it provides less than half the medical expenses of its beneficiaries, the elderly and the disabled--is 13% of the Federal budget. Total Medicare spending in 2009 was $484 billion. In 2009 the total interest on the National Debt attributable to military spending was $390 billion. That's the interest we pay on all things military (including VA costs and military pensions) for having acted, since 1946, as though it were perpetually 1944.

Our ten Nimitz-class supercarriers represent a $450 billion collection of holes in the ocean in construction costs alone; they're scheduled to be replaced by 2040 by an equal number of Gerald Ford-class hulks at twice the cost, assuming you believe 2005 estimates, which you shouldn't. That's construction costs. Not development, nor maintenance, nor upgrades, attendant fleet, staffing, planes, aviation fuel, or the cost someone will eventually bear to do something with the twin reactors when we don't need 'em anymore. That's our supercarrier Navy. No one else in the world has any. Their role is to intimidate tenth-rate military powers, since we haven't figured out how to invade any on the ground.

Which is distinct from figuring out why we need to invade any, since that answer is either too amorphous to pin down, or too brutally self-reflective to ever see the light of newsprint.

Why in the world would someone like David Leonhardt make this mistake? Is it because, as a Reagantot (born 1973) he's spent his entire life being lied to about it? Medicare, like Social Security, is a trust. You pay a separate tax bill into the fund. Eliminate it altogether and you get that portion of your taxes back, and good luck saving it for when you can't work. This has been lumped into the "social spending" category--public health, hospitals, schools--by the American Right and Democratic centrists since the Vietnam war, in order to insist it was The Great Society, and not a wasteful and useless jungle conflict, which was destroying the US economy. It's an argument disguised as a fact, and apparently no one born after the Nixon administration can be bothered to notice. Fer chrissakes, we spent nearly $700 billion on "Defense" in 2010 not including the costs of however many wars we're in now, and that's if you believe it's the one thing the government doesn't lie about. Subsuming this as "national security" is like imagining Wal*Mart is the most successful Mom & Pop hardware store in the country.

Look, children: you've been sold a bill of goods, including the confusion of the honor of military service with the less-that-honorable uses to which it's been put over the last sixty years. You got sold the idea that the war in Vietnam was divisive because dirty hippies spit on returning veterans, and not because the goddam thing was a lie from beginning to end which a large portion of the citizenry slowly came to realize, and object to. There's nothing in this country so bloated and wasteful as our military budget; there's no government expenditure anywhere else in the world that begins to match it. Caring for our elderly and disabled citizens is not a discretionary item; it's a measure of our humanity. I don't know how the argument got so twisted, but I do know that a moment's thought should be enough to untangle it.

And so long as we're here, could we just mention something else? Namely, that even if you buy the "conservative" "argument" this shit doesn't work, or even make sense. If "social spending" was the sole, or even the largest portion, of our budgetary woes, then it ought to be reformed. If doing so is too much for our career legislators, we ought to encourage them in the most direct fashion to find new careers. Anyone who believes the same party which hit the fucking roof because its own man--Bob Gates--proposed scrapping so worthless a piece of military marital aid as the F-22 is not going to address the real problem. We're fucked. We've been fucked since Ronald Reagan tore down the solar panels on the White House. At least we could get the history right while we swirl down the drain.


the yellow fringe said...

In the event you don't know how the F22, or most any major military asset is purchased, it's like this. The bid winner, waits a few months for the purchase order ink to dry, then he begins the whining about cost overruns. Congress says shame on you, Pentagon brass say tisk tisk but we have to have this valuable thing you make, so they amend the PO (purchase order). Now we get into early production and material buying, and again we learn of escalating prices, engineering changes, delays. But, the PO is amended still, but to save their asses the Pentagon sends in auditors saying, OK we will pay legitimate costs, but we are going to continue oversight, looking at your books to protect the taxpayer, and not allow you to make over 10% profit, or what ever they settle on. Now the CEO's look at this and sigh, finally after all these months or years we finally got a PO we can love, and what do they see, but infinity. What is 10% of infinity? Now the doors are open, the more she costs the more they take home, cost savings programs are instituted for publicity but have no real purpose, the last thing they want is to improve the process and lower cost. So it goes. Actually, there are more wrinkles than that, it looks like a bruised scrotum, but I opted for the short version.

Anonymous said...

I don't mind Leonhardt or anyone else for that matter stating that Medicare or other health costs need to be cut back. HOWEVER, don't be whining nanny state, socialists, etc. when people like the president actually try to bring these costs down through promotion of a healthy lifestyle. Also, don't whine about the requirement to purchase health insurance if you intend to use the system. You don't get to have it both ways. Well, unfortunately, so far you have.

Anonymous said...

Actually it was three things that strained LBJ's economy: war, social spending, and space. The race to the moon wasn't cheap. But wingers like to lay it all on the Great Society.


Turnipsmith said...

I'm pretty sure that what strained LBJ's economy, if you buy he idea that something strained it, was the student loans. NDEA loans at something like two percent, zero percent if you took a teaching job after school.

But the odd thing is that seemingly intelligent people talk about LBJ's economy being strained, in some fashion comparable to today's economy. WTF? It's like when you read these blogs talking about how I wouldn't have wanted to live in the '60's, even though they had Carnaby Street, because you always had to be carrying buckets of water to the cistern.

I always thought that the elephant in the room was the AMA and American doctors'salaries. Strikes me every time I am in a different country from this one, stub my toe, go to the doctor, and have a hard time trying to find somebody to give money to, or who at least will promise to send me a bill. We just pay too much to fucking doctors, is what a lot of it is about.

prairie curmudgeon said...

Don't lose sight that none of this is in the least bit sustainable to begin with. When we have to pour so much into just keeping the old shit up on blocks at the edge of the gutter there just ain't even any room for imagining what new shit might be contrived let alone paid for to replace it. Of course, there is a great deal of wealth still out there, but good luck getting our hands on it while we erect more palisades to defend the indefensible. Besides that, as much as 25% of our economy is some form of protection racket. And our health care system is much vested in keeping people in a chronic state of poor health.
Yeah we are fucked alright, exceptionally fucked.

R. Porrofatto said...

He wasn't calculating how many poor people can die in the streets before the stench starts wafting over to some of our tonier gated communities.
Look, children: you've been sold a bill of goods, including the confusion of the honor of military service with the less-that-honorable uses to which it's been put over the last sixty years.
Caring for our elderly and disabled citizens is not a discretionary item; it's a measure of our humanity.

I could quote the entire post but that would look ridiculous, so I just picked three lines. But the rest is equally well-said. Funny thing, I don't see anyone saying such things -- even putative liberal columnists -- in our national media, despite their being unquestionably true. How odd.

StringonaStick said...

Bumper sticker I saw last week:

Honor the warrior, not the war

matched with this on the other side of the bumper:

Iraq War Vets Against the War

Since the powers that be have managed to so fetishize the military, and by proximity the wars themselves, this guy is one of the few who can have an anti-war bumper sticker and not expect to have his car keyed or be beaten up, but only because the local rah-rah war floggers can't be sure the vehicle's owner won't Seal Team 6 them if they try.

Did I not read that the whole "DFH's spitting on returning Vietnam vets" is an urban myth, with no first hand account of it ever happening? At this point it doesn't matter since the truthiness of it is set in stone.

satch said...

The saddest thing about military spending is that it is as close to a jobs program as we are likely to get in today's US of A. It won't be enough to cut wasteful military spending... we'll need to take that money and spend it on infrastructure projects (see: "Peace Dividend"), and unless the Teabaggers lose huge in 2012, good luck with that happening.