Calcutta, USA

Paul Jacob

4/11/2010 12:00:39 AM - Paul Jacob

For all the zany goings-on up and down his pant leg during orations by President Obama, Chris Matthews’s political vision can still sometimes be acute.

Matthews is the liberal host of MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews.” A partisan Democrat, he has run for political office, worked for four different Democratic congressmen and written speeches for President Jimmy Carter. After his political stint, Matthews spent more than a decade as a reporter and liberal columnist before becoming a TV talking head.

Game Change FREE

Last week, talking to David Corn of Mother Jones (and no doubt several viewers from across the country), Matthews crystallized the political debate raging in America today:

The problem is that we don’t think in terms of what would the country be like if we didn’t have Medicare for our parents as they get very old — in their eighties, for example, when they’re still alive, and they need health care, a lot of it. And they don’t have any source of income. They’re not working every morning. They’re not making a paycheck. What would it be like in this country? Calcutta? Poor people all over the place? Old people lying in the streets? I mean, we don’t think about what it would be if we didn’t have health care, if we didn’t have Social Security for people at the age of 65, if we didn’t have unemployment compensation, if we didn’t have a progressive income tax. There’s a lot of things we don’t think about. And the right-wing just pounds and pounds away at this idealistic notion of a cowboy country, everybody self-reliant. I think the progressives, for all their power on the blogosphere, have not done a positive case for the advantages of some kind of a social state.

So let’s think in precisely the terms Matthews suggests. Before Medicare was instituted, were elderly folks “lying in the streets?” Were there “poor people all over the place?”

Simple answer? “No.”

Families, friends and neighbors took care of each other. Like today, the system wasn’t perfect; no one actually lived forever. But even today, with or without government programs, my and my wife’s parents will never be living on the street, unless that’s the best my wife and I can manage for ourselves.

Matthews fear-mongering works only as a smokescreen to opaquely touch up history, which in turn dissuades people from considering the fact that before Medicare and Social Security people did regularly live rich, full, long lives. Sure, before federal government programs folks had to be more self-reliant, or rely more on family, neighbors, churches and local communities — and no doubt needed and received more voluntary charity from medical caregivers.

But as Ed Morrissey put it plainly: “America existed before Medicare, and it wasn’t Calcutta West.”

Perhaps all this says more about Chris Matthews’ grasp on reality than it does about Social Security or Medicare. He leaves a lot from his picture. He leaves out fraternal organizations that proliferated before the disaster of the Great Depression — and the disaster of AMA influence on American policy. He leaves out the actual mechanisms people used to prepare for their illnesses, retirements, and (yes) deaths. (And no, they weren’t cowboy institutions.)

Bigger yet is the monster in the room, the elephantine monster he won’t recognize. Matthews waxes eloquent on Social Security and Medicare without any recognition of the dark cloud of bankruptcy for both programs. Just last week, this column addressed the stark fact that this year — not seven years down the road where our Social State politicians have kicked the can — Social Security hits the wall, with more benefits being paid out than taxes being paid in.

Social Security, up until the '80s reform, and then since, has had more money coming in than going out. This allowed Congress a source of revenue from which our so-called representatives could “borrow.” And spend. Since the '80s, to the tune of $2.5 trillion. But that’s just the tip of the insolvency. There is $15.8 trillion in unfunded liabilities, looming on the rapidly approching horizon.

Worse yet, Medicare is bankrupt, too. Michael Tanner, an analyst at the Cato Institute, says that Social Security’s insolvency “is dwarfed by Medicare’s looming budget shortfall of between $50 and $100 trillion, depending on which accounting measure is used.”

Matthews, like so many progressives, doesn’t seem to actually understand that we can’t tax ourselves to prosperity. Wealth can be forcibly redistributed, certainly, but such policies have an almost magical ability to decrease the amount of wealth in the overall economy, not increase it.

A corollary is that we cannot provide ourselves benefits that we cannot afford to pay for. And, no, sending the bills, plus interest, to future generations isn’t morally defensible. (Isn’t it odd how progressives talk about what we owe future generations only in terms of saving the environment, never in terms of saving them from our wanton government spending?)

Nor is this reasonably even possible any longer. We are the future generation! The bill collector is coming to the door for Social Security, and Medicare won’t be sustainable for much longer, either.

The wonders of a Ponzi scheme like Social Security are many-fold as long as more money rolls in the door than has to be paid out in benefits. But when the income isn’t there to pay for decades-old promises to the elderly, the program won’t look nearly as stellar.

Then we’ll remind Matthews and other Social State supporters that older folks, in their eighties, won’t be as able to go back to work to boost their income. Self-congratulations won’t cut much, then. Neither will dark fantasies about massive pain and suffering.

For the dark fantasies will have become reality, courtesy of our politicians’ own obstinate and unthinking support for a “social state” rather than a free republic.