One of my earliest memories of revulsion against war came from seeing a photograph from the First World War when I was a teenager. It was nothing gory. Just a picture of a military officer, in an impressive uniform, talking to a puzzled and forlorn-looking old peasant woman with a cloth wrapped around her head.
He said simply: “Don’t you understand, madam? The village is not there any more.”
To many such people of that era, the village was the only world they knew. And to say that it had been destroyed in the carnage of war was to say that there was no way for them to go back home, that their whole world was gone.
Recently that image came back, in a wholly different context, while seeing pictures of American seniors carrying signs that read “Hands off my Social Security” and “Hands off my Medicare.”
They want their Social Security and their Medicare to stay the way they are — and their anger is directed against those who want to change the financial arrangements that pay for these benefits.
Their anger should be directed instead against those politicians who were irresponsible enough to set up these costly programs without putting aside enough money to pay for the promises that were made — promises that now cannot be kept, regardless of which political party controls the government.
Someone needs to say to those who want Social Security and Medicare to continue on unchanged: “Don’t you understand? The money is not there any more.”
Many retired people remember the money that was taken out of their paychecks for years and feel that they are now entitled to receive Social Security benefits as a right. But the way Social Security was set up was so financially shaky that anyone who set up a similar retirement scheme in the private sector could be sent to federal prison for fraud.
But you can’t send a whole Congress to prison, however much they may deserve it.
This is not some newly discovered problem. Innumerable economists and others pointed out decades ago that Social Security was unsustainable in the long run, including yours truly on “Meet the Press” in 1981.
But the long run doesn’t count for most politicians, since elections are held in the short run.
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