The Politics of Entitlement: David Brooks Will Decide When It’s Time for You to Die

“We’re going to be doing a lot of deficit cutting over the next several years,” David Brooks announced, plurally, in their column in today’s New York Times. Little-known fact: the byline “David Brooks” is produced by five guys named “David Brook.” They all get together and agree on stuff!

David Brooks are very concerned about the budget lately. It is an ongoing theme. Last week, they wrote about why Indiana’s governor, Mitch Daniels , should run for president—meaning just go ahead and be president, since Brooks don’t care for the whole untidy business of winning votes in elections. As they wrote today:

Seniors vote. Taxpayers revolt. Public employees occupy capitol buildings to protect their bargaining power for future benefits negotiations. As a result, seniors are being protected while children are getting pummeled. If you look across the country, you see education financing getting sliced — often in the most thoughtless and destructive ways. The future has no union.

David Brooks support thoughtful, constructive public policy. “The country could use a serious, competent manager,” they wrote, in praise of Daniels. (Ergo, people who disagree with Brooks are in favor of unserious and incompetent country-management.) When Daniels spoke to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Brooks wrote:

He spoke for those who believe the country’s runaway debt is the central moral challenge of our time.

Not merely a central moral challenge of our time, but


central moral challenge of our time. Maybe I was distracted and missed the day we let all the young black men back out of


. (How are they doing? They must feel great now.) And I guess one David Brook showed all the others a satellite photo of how the


are growing back.

The debt—the


debt—has nothing to do with morality. Casting the debt as an object of moral concern is the work of minds that have come detached from human experience. The debt is an epiphenomenon. It is the side effect created by the specific moral decisions about what the country wishes to see funded, and how it is willing to fund those things.

Talking about the deficit is a way of cutting morality out of the discussion. Waste! Mismanagement! Incompetence! Unaccountable earmarks! These things are noise. The actual questions are: is money to be spent on people who do not have money? And where is that money going to come from?

There are people who do not have money. Some of them do not have money because they are children. Some of them do not have money because they are old or sick or otherwise unsuited for the labor market. Some of them do not have money because the labor market has stopped paying for the work that they know how to do in the places where they live. Robots and other machines can approximate the things these people used to do.

There are other reasons, too, which can seem less sympathetic. Some people prefer to spend their time obtaining and using mind-altering substances. (Other people may or may not classify that as being “sick.”) Some people—


people—lack the personal initiative to get work. And so on. These people, nevertheless, also do not have money.

The awkward, mainly unspoken fact of our time is that America is a socialist country, or that Americans operate under the assumption that it is a socialist country. American socialism works the same way that our system of universal health care does—and we do have universal health care.

Here is how universal health care operates, as we currently practice it: if you are sick and dying in the street, and someone sees you and calls an ambulance, the ambulance is required by law to pick you up. The ambulance will take you to the hospital, which is required by law to treat you. (These procedures are not always followed, but—at present—the failure to follow them is still mostly seen as an outrage.)

The treatment may use up all the money you have, but even when the money is gone, treatment will continue. This approach to handling the illness of poor people is incoherent and irrationally expensive—the amount spent on


alone is staggering—but it comes from a series of moral decisions. We do not believe people should be left to die without medical care.

So, too, Americans assume—under the existing social contract, as they understand it—that they will not be left to die because they are too old to work and have no money for food or housing. This belief is not, however, based on anything as specific and reliable as ambulance service.

Originally, it was based on an agreement between workers and their employers: in exchange for a worker’s time and effort during the economically productive part of his or her life, an employer would help fund and administer a pension, to supply money in the future, in the worker’s later years, when he or she had become an ex-worker. In addition, the government would provide a share of income and medical benefits.

But now employers have largely gotten out of the pension business, because paying funds to ex-workers does not appear to be a particularly productive or efficient use of corporate money—especially since long-term, stable employment is also being abandoned in the name of efficiency. Nobody even pretends to owe anybody anything, on the business side, anymore.

So the pension money has been extracted from the system and spent on other things. For a while, the housing bubble was going to be another supply of money for old people, so they could cash out the “investment” they’d made in their homes and move into assisted-living condos or something of the kind. That’s not going so well.

That leaves whatever individual investments and savings people are able to make, while they’re still working, from their ever-more-contingent and cost-optimized wages. And it leaves government programs. These government programs cost a lot of money, and the long-term prospect is that they will cost even more.

To the people who say things like, “the country’s runaway debt is the central moral challenge of our time,” the rising costs are the problem, and the name of the solution to the problem is “entitlement reform.” The word “entitlement” means something granted, not specifically earned, which can be taken to mean or imply that it is something optional. Some teenagers feel entitled to their own cars when they turn 16; cars are expensive these days; the kids had better get a job at McDonald’s and start saving.

The experts—serious, competent, thoughtful, constructive experts—have studied the problem. The solutions are going to be unpleasant. “The sacrifice should be spread widely and fairly,” David Brooks wrote.

Is wide fair? This is the spirit of fairness identified by Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” Everyone, simply everyone—whether they have money or not—will have to make do with less. Peter G. Peterson, the self-appointed chief of the debt fighters and entitlement reformers, includes a ”

Personal Responsibility Primer

” on his foundation’s website (“Teach children the importance of planning, saving, budgeting, investing, and using credit responsibly”).

Peter G. Peterson is a billionaire twice over, so rich he can pledge a

billion dollars

to charity. All he really understands about Social Security and Medicare is that it is impossible that he, himself, will ever die broke and alone. When his time comes, he can die on a mattress stuffed with gold-plated rose petals, if the whim strikes him. If Peter G. Peterson comes up to you and starts talking about reforming your entitlements, you should punch him in the nose and take his wallet. (Actually, you should not do this; you would almost certainly go to prison, and incarceration is extremely bad for a person’s long-term economic prospects.)

What happens when there is no money to give to the people who have no money? That is the moral question. It’s fine to say that the old people should have saved more, they should have worked an extra job, they should have done without cable TV, they should have invested more wisely. Saying that doesn’t change the fact that there will be old people who do not have money. These old people will believe that they need food and shelter and medical care.

Will they get it? At the arch-plutocrats’ end of things, the Koch brothers’ end, the end occupied by the most devout worshippers of Ayn Rand, the answer is: no. That’s the goal. It’s long since time for the sloppy, implicit, badly supported social contract to go away. Rich people have been trimming their contribution to the general revenue for decades now. They are not interested in paying the premium that keeps old people and ailing people or just backward people out of the streets. If the day comes that they have to travel to and from their various compounds in armored helicopters, they can afford the


. It’s not their problem.

David Brooks do not believe they are that kind of person. David Brooks are responsible. David Brooks care about the need to “invest” in “effectiveness” for all.

Alas, living is not effective. Employers have stopped paying people for their post-productive years. They have done this, welfare-capitalistically, with the sense that the cost and responsibility they are shedding will be picked up by…someone, somewhere.

But the cost—it is so very, very high. Taxes would have to go up a great deal to pay for it. Or many new young people (immigrants?) would need to come into the system, which would only heighten the sense that the whole project is a Ponzi scheme.

So what happens? Death panels might help, according to David Brooks:

We should adjust pension promises and reduce the amount of money spent on health care during the last months of life so we can preserve programs for those who are growing and learning the most.

Indeed, in fact, end-of-life care is an awful problem. Huge amounts of money do get consumed, under our current system, for the sake not even of prolonging life, but mindlessly stretching out the ongoing, painful process of death. This is a sensitive subject for medical and social reform.

That’s why it’s probably a bad idea to entrust solving the end-of-life problem to the sort of people who say “adjust pension promises” when they mean “cut pensions.” But it’s not surprising that the blithely plural David Brooks worked their way around to the doorstep of euthanasia. The fiscal disciplinarians are, in their own way, spiritual heirs to the eugenicists of a century ago, with their eye on the greater, collective good. The deficit and the debt bother them not so much morally as aesthetically: they are the budgetary result of the distasteful, ongoing presence of unnecessary and unproductive people.