Saturday, May 28, 2011

Entitlements As Economic Cancer 

Cancer is an insidious disease. It starts small, perhaps with only one cell, but the tumor grows quickly. As it grows, the cancer draws more and more resources from the body, sapping the body's strength. At some point it becomes so big that it exerts pressure on the other organs, causing them to become less able to perform their functions. It also metastasizes, establishing itself in other parts of the body and starting the process all over in new locations. Because of the cancer's unique makeup, the body's normal defenses against infection have no effect on it. The immune system blithely ignores the growing tumor as it wreaks its damage. Finally, left untreated, the cancer causes the body's organs to shut down because the cancer is sucking up all the available nutrients and has grown so large that it causes necrosis in the surrounding tissues and organs. Treatment for cancer is unpleasant, even painful, whether in the form of surgery, chemotherapy or radiation. In the early stages of the disease, the treatment might seem worse than the disease. Nonetheless, the earlier treatment is given, the less uncomfortable and more effective it is. But if treatment is not given, or is given too late, an early death is both inevitable and painful.

So-called entitlement programs are like a cancer of the economic system. They invariably start small, but grow as their client bases expand and as legislators see them as opportunities to “do something for the folks back home” (i.e., buy votes). As these programs grow they become more and more difficult to control, both because of the dependence that they engender among their constituencies, and because the expanding bureaucracies that administer the programs become constituencies in themselves. The governmental “immune system”the two party system and the checks and balances built into the Constitution—doesn't work because nobody in the government is willing to take the political heat for reining the programs in. They come to be described as “untouchable” or “the third rail” in the media. The programs metastasize by adding new features and benefits and by duplication in other departments, accelerating their growth and demanding an ever-increasing share of government resources. At some point the entitlement programs exhaust the government's capability to raise revenue, and as a result they begin to cause reductions and weakness in the basic essential functions of government such as national defense.

As with cancer in the body, the remedy for uncontrolled entitlement spending is painful for the economy. The recipients of the entitlements will react to being thrown off the gravy train by voting against those politicians who dare to cut their benefits, and may even take to the streets, as recently occurred in Greece. Cutting back the programs would necessarily mean terminating some of the government employees who administer them, adding to the rolls of the unemployed. Also as with cancer, the longer the wait before corrective action is taken, the more painful it will be. But action must be taken or the cancer of entitlement spending will consume the entire government and cause its downfall.

At some point, treatment of a cancer in the body becomes futile—the tumor becomes inoperable, the cancer has metastasized to such an extent that radiation or chemotherapy is more likely to kill the patient than to cure the disease. At some point the economic cancer of uncontrolled entitlement programs in the United States will reach that point of futility, and that point might already have been reached. Only time will tell. But while there is still hope our political class must find the backbone to do what must be done to save the Republic from this economic cancer that threatens to destroy our society—to administer the treatment no matter how painful, and the voters must be realistic enough to throw out the office holders who don't have the necessary political courage and replace them with people who are willing and able to get the job done.

I believe this issue is an existential threat to the United States as we have known it, as large and important as any the country has faced since the Civil War. We've got to fix it. Now.

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