Thomas Sowell

For those of us who like to believe that human beings are rational, trying to explain what happens in politics can be a real challenge.

For example, that segment of the population that has the least to fear from a reform of Medicare or Social Security is the most fearful -- namely, those already receiving Medicare or Social Security benefits.

It is understandable that people heavily dependent on these programs would fear losing their benefits, especially after a lifetime of paying into these programs. But nobody in his right mind has even proposed taking away the benefits of those who are already receiving them.

Yet opponents of reforming these programs have managed repeatedly to scare the daylights out of seniors with wild claims and television ads such as one showing someone -- who looks somewhat like Paul Ryan -- pushing an elderly lady in a wheelchair toward a cliff and then dumping her over.

There are people who take seriously such statements as those by President Barack Obama that Republicans want to "end Medicare as we know it."

Let's stop and think, if only for the novelty of it. If you make any change in anything, you are ending it "as we know it." Does that mean that everything in the status quo should be considered to be set in concrete forever?

If there were not a single Republican, or none who got elected to any office, arithmetic would still end "Medicare as we know it," for the simple reason that the money in the till is not enough to keep paying for it. The same is true of Social Security.

The same has been true of welfare state programs in European countries that are currently struggling with both financial crises and riots in the streets from people who feel betrayed by their governments. They have in fact been betrayed by their politicians, who have promised them things that there was not enough money to pay for. That is the basic problem in the United States as well.

We are not yet Greece, but we are not exempt from the same rules of arithmetic that eventually caught up with Greece. We just have a little more time. The only question is whether we will use that time to make politically difficult changes or whether we will just kick the can down the road, and keep pretending that "Medicare as we know it" would continue on indefinitely, if it were not for people who just want to be mean to the elderly.


Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate