Sick Old People Causing Decline and Fall of Nation — David Brooks

January 8, 2013   ·   3 Comments

Source: NYTX


By Marie Burns:

In Tuesday’s New York Times, columnist David Brooks argues that providing health insurance to older Americans is precipitating the decline and fall of the Greatest Nation on Earth. To that end, Brooks asserts, the President nominated former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense. According to Brooks, President Obama sees Hagel as just the right guy to help oversee the nation’s decline.

You have to give Brooks points for originality. A standard-issue columnist list Fred Kaplan of Slate can and does think up all kinds of (specious) reasons conservatives oppose Chuck Hagel’s nomination. But Kaplan and others totally missed Hagel’s part in the Obama plot to allow sickly old codgers to bring the nation crashing down into the abyss.

Brooks devotes the first part of his column to alarmist pronouncements that “Medicare spending is set to nearly double over the next decade,” and “health care spending … is squeezing out all other spending.” Greedy geezers have stacked the deck against hungry children, eager college-bound youngsters, scientists and other worthy beneficiaries: “Advocates for children, education and the poor don’t even try to defend their programs by lobbying for cutbacks in Medicare. They know that given the choice, voters and politicians care more about middle-class seniors than about poor children,” Brooks writes. Brooks cites German philosopher Oswald Spengler – a favorite of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels – for being “certainly correct when he told European leaders that they could either be global military powers or pay for their welfare states, but they couldn’t do both.”

Already you begin to see how Brooks will connect the dots from parasitic seniors to the hapless Hagel. Sure enough, here’s the final arc of Brooks’ windup: “Europeans … already … have chosen welfare over global power…. The United States will undergo a similar process…. As the federal government becomes a health care state, there will have to be a generation of defense cuts that overwhelm anything in recent history.”

And the pitch! “Chuck Hagel has been nominated to supervise the beginning of this generation-long process of defense cutbacks. If a Democratic president is going to slash defense, he probably wants a Republican at the Pentagon to give him political cover, and he probably wants a decorated war hero to boot.” Poor Chuck! He’s just an unwitting pawn in a socialist plot.

Brooks concludes with an “I told you so.” Fred Kaplan, et al, totally missed the boat, sez Brooks: “All the charges about Hagel’s views on Israel or Iran are secondary…. How … will Hagel supervise the beginning of America’s military decline? If members of Congress don’t want America to decline militarily, well, they have no one to blame but the voters and themselves.”

Brooks is making me – a Medicare-card-carrying cipher – feel pretty special. I am quite sure it is the first time I have ever participated in a plot to end civilization as we know it. And what illustrious colleagues I have: the President, the Congress, millions of voter-moochers! When I am dead and gone, those of you who are left in the rubble of the nation I helped destroy will likely want to scrape together your last measly coins to purchase a block of marble or granite destined to become a statue (or idol) of David Brooks, the Oracle of the End Times.

Before that time comes, however, you might want to ask yourself how the Oracle knows so much about the future. It is true that the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that Medicare costs will double over the next decade – all things being equal. This is largely because the U.S. has more seniors every year in the near future, and those seniors will be living longer – thanks to, um, government-mandated healthcare insurance. But not so fast, Brooks. As E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post wrote this week,

 … when it comes to health-care cost projections, there is so much we don’t know that it is truly foolish to make decisions now for, say, 2040. Health-care cost inflation has been dropping. We can’t be sure how sustainable this trend is, but economists who study the matter think the cost curve may be bending downward for the longer run. The Affordable Care Act contains measures that could further restrain health expenditures. Is it either sensible or humane to decide in 2013 on the basis of such limited knowledge to toss future seniors and low-income Medicaid recipients under the bus? Health-care costs are something we must keep working on.

There are all sorts of cost-savings factors that could mitigate against a growing healthcare tab, either by government fiat or patient and healthcare provider initiatives. At a more fundamental level, as economist Dean Baker noted recently, “Better health might also mean slower growth in health care costs.”

Notice here how Brooks asserts that the CBO estimates for future Medicare spending are facts: “Medicare spending is set to nearly double over the next decade,” he writes. Period. Yet – in the same column – when it comes to other projections, he readily reports they are “notoriously” unreliable: “But defense planners are notoriously bad at estimating how fast postwar military cuts actually come. After Vietnam, the cold war and the 1991 gulf war, they vastly underestimated the size of the cuts that eventually materialized.” So no matter what the spending estimate is, it is always scary. If the projection is that spending will go up, it is accurate; if the projection is that spending will go down, it is “notoriously” inaccurate. If your ultimate argument is that only spending cuts can save the nation, this is the kind of “analysis” you must do. Remember Brooks’ Rules of Research: “If the researcher you’re citing is associated with a discredited organization, don’t mention his affiliation. If some of the research results refute your point, don’t mention them. If all of the results refute your point, misinterpret them.”

Brooks’ European meanderings fit this model. After Herr Spengler predicted that Europeans couldn’t afford both a military and a welfare state, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party launched a little exercise known as World War II. To make his point, Brooks has to glide seamlessly from the 1930s, skipping World War II, and moving right to today’s Europe: Nowadays, “European nations can no longer perform many elemental tasks of moving troops and fighting.” This, according to Brooks, is because European countries have teensy defense budgets. Brooks implies that Europeans spend little on defense because all of their resources must go down the welfare rabbit hole. I don’t suppose for a moment that Europeans maintain a relatively small military because, um, World War II.

But let’s play Brooks’ game for a moment. Let’s pretend World War II didn’t happen. Brooks is claiming that Obama chose Hagel to dismantle our own military because “the federal government [is becoming] a health care state.” Whatever reasons Europeans have for spending less on defense, healthcare costs is not one of them. Europeans spend a lot less on health care than Americans do, yet European healthcare outcomes are better than U.S. outcomes. A recent study which compared the U.S. with Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, found that “health care spending in the U.S. dwarfs that found in any other industrialized country.” This is not because Americans see their doctors more often – they don’t – or have longer hospital stays than other industrialized countries – Americans have fewer hospital stays for shorter durations. “So what’s causing the U.S.’s cost problem? The [study] points to high prices for medication and medical services, as well as a good deal of use of expensive technology, such as MRIs and CT scans. And at least a third of the American population is obese, a condition that drives up health spending.” Further, “despite high costs, quality in the U.S. health care system is variable and not notably superior to the far less expensive systems in the other study countries.” Given this well-known and uncontroversial diagnosis, Brooks’ claim that Medicare and other healthcare costs are causing the U.S. to self-destruct is patently ridiculous. The only thing that is self-destructing here is Brooks’ tall tale.

I should point out one more cheap shot Brooks takes at Obama and his Democratic allies. “Cakers,” a contributor to Reality Chex, noted that Brooks slips in an attempt to finger Democrats for the impending fiscal disaster: “The Democrats had their best chance in a generation to raise revenue just now,” Brooks sniffs, “and all they got was a measly $600 billion over 10 years.” Whose fault is that? President Obama asked Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts only to American families with annual incomes of less than $250,000. Estimates are that would have raised $850 billion over ten years. House Speaker John Boehner originally insisted that the tax cuts be extended to every family except the few who earn more than $1 million a year. Senate Republicans eventually agreed to a $450,000 annual income cutoff. It was Republicans, not Democrats, who demanded lower revenues. Both Speaker Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are now insisting that going forward “all revenues are off the table.” Both have expressed a willingness to jeopardize the faith and credit of the United States if Democrats attempt to raise taxes. (In any event, whether the revenue comes to $600 billion or $850 billion or some other figure, Medicare is funded through the Medicare Trust Fund, and most Medicare revenues come from payroll tax deductions, not from income taxes.)

I have liberal friends who think of David Brooks as “the reasonable conservative.” Brooks calls himself a “moderate conservative.” I think he is the sneakiest snake oil salesman of them all. Rush Limbaugh can rant and rave, and only the already-converted will listen. But David Brooks “sounds reasonable.” That is the way of a talented saboteur. Nice people will read his column (Brooks is syndicated) and think what Brooks has written “sounds about right.” This column by David Brooks, this column packed with falsehoods and feints, will cause nice people to think, “Yeah, I guess we should throw Grandma under the bus. Otherwise, she will be the wrack and ruin of the country we love. Cutting Medicare is the patriotic thing to do.” Mocking Brooks may be some kind of fun, but there is a serious reason to dismantle the phony logic Brooks employs in his quest to dismantle the better angels of our nature.

Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com


Readers Comments (3)

  1. commchf says:

    Years ago as the newest engineer in the office I taught to avoid a common problem/answer scenario that went like this, “If you’re only tool is a hammer every problem looks like a nail.”

    Spending cuts are their only tool and Medicare looks like a nail.

  2. fred sahpiro says:

    This column and Brooks’ column, in my view, share two important elements: both are opinions and both miss the larger point. The first shared element is somewhat obvious, yet you appear to miss it. The fact is Brooks is stating his opinions. There do not seem to be any factual errors; for example, health care costs sre projected to go up tha tmuch. Might be wrong-but that is a projection. As for the reasons for Hagel’s nomination-pure opinion. So, unless you are trying to say that Brooks does not actually have the opinions he is espousing, I do not see why you see fit to call these lies. One can be totally wrong and honest at the same time.
    But there is a larger point: does it make more sense to spend taxpayter dollars on healthcare, education, housing, etc. or on a military whch can dominate the world. I do not see how you can have such a limited view of “greatness”. Having a bloated military did allow the US to invade Iraq-do you seriously believe that this was the act of a great (or even sane) nation? Nations do need to defend themselves-but Brooks is only suggesting tha twe may lose tyhe ability to push other countries around (or improve them depending on your point of view). I perceive that as a good thing. In my opinion, most defense spending is necessitated by paranoia morew tha nany real threat. It cost the US about $1T to conquer Iraq and hold it for a couple of years. Wh odo you see trying to invade this country-and at wha tcost? EWe are no longer trying to plunder the world and more and more, trade agreements are based more on economic realities than military ones.

  3. marieburns says:

    @fred saphiro: Thanks for writing. I don’t think you read either my “opinion” or Brooks’ very closely. Brooks bases his opinion on projected spending, which as Dionne points out, is nebulous, given other factors that are about to have varying unknown effects on the CBO (& other) projections. I base my opinion on an essential fact: we spend a lot more in the U.S. for healthcare than do Europeans, & we get worse results than do they. That is an objective assessment of what is, not what might be. Brooks’ “solution” — cutting Medicare — is not going to improve on that one iota. He is simply shifting (and, in fact increasing) medical costs from the federal government to individuals, state, communities or charitable institutions. Worse, some of those costs won’t get shifted, as no other entity will take up the slack, and people will die.

    At no point, BTW, do I “call these lies,” as you charge. I’m simply pointing out that Brooks ignore facts — like WWII — that contradict his point & relies on “data” that aren’t data; they’re reasoned predictions.

    As for your larger point, or “opinion,” no, I don’t think our Iraqi adventure was wise, nor do I think it’s a good idea to spend all our treasure on trying to dominate the world. I don’t think Brooks thinks so, either, even though one could reasonably deduce that from reading his column.

    Rather, Brooks is simply using the old folks v. strong military argument as one more excuse for snipping holes in the social safety net. If we had a better economic model than the one we have now — the one in which the rich get richer & the poor get poorer — we could easily afford to have both an effective military (we don’t have that now, either) and a robust social safety net. We have the resources; we just don’t have the Congressional intelligence & will to do what is necessary to optimize those resources.

    Hope that helps.




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