A few more random inauguration thoughts, starting with: This billion-pixel photo is strangely transfixing, and I spent half an hour looking for people I know. I found myself, looking down (tweeting??) in such a way that all you see is the top of my hat — and I’d point it out except I’m so far in the back I’m practically in Virginia and I need to maintain my Big Wheel reputation. The other take-home from the photo is that the world is full of people I don’t know. I think I need to get out more. Go to some parties. It’s disturbing, the sight of all these strangers.
Back to the inaugural address: Obama said, “We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future.” These lines caught my ear because I’ve been saying in this blog recently that we DO have to choose, to some degree, between entitlement spending and non-military discretionary spending. He says no. He implies that there’s no tradeoff whatsoever. (David Brooks, for one, disagrees: “we do have to choose between the current benefits to seniors and investments in our future, and that to pretend we don’t face that choice, as Obama did, is effectively to sacrifice the future to the past.”) I guess it depends on what the meaning of “choose” is. No one is arguing (except some GOPers and libertarians) that we need to gut the entitlement programs or drastically reduce investment spending. I think the argument is that, when push comes to shove, and we’re staring at some limits on revenue and rising debt and potentially a down-the-road surge in interest on that debt, we shouldn’t draw a circle around the pension programs and declare them sacrosanct while the rest of the government gets shredded. It’s all about balance, a favorite Obama word.
[Update: I ran into an astute colleague who pointed out something I missed in my analysis: Military spending, in the Obama formulation, is distinct from “investment" spending. Obama clearly eyes the Pentagon budget as a place for some judicious and significant budget cuts, something that I don’t think he’s discussed much, certainly not in this inaugural address. But look for that becoming a huge issue in the months ahead.]
Which brings up another point. Ezra points out the key passage in the speech: “The commitments we make to each other – through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security – these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
Here’s what I need Ezra or one of the other wonky folks to figure out: To what extent — and I want precise numbers! — do working-age people benefit implicitly and immediately from the entitlement programs for retirees? And to what extent do we get back the money we pay into the Social Security and Medicare systems? As a taxpayer, I’m putting money every week into those programs, but I know I’m supposed to get at least some percentage of that money back should I make it to old age. There aren’t many scenarios in which I’m in the poorhouse as an old man — I’m protected even if I decide that I’m going to devote my life to street-corner preaching atop a milk crate (my true vocation). More importantly for me, I know my parents are to some extent taken care of by these programs. Every family is different and I won’t detail the dynamics of mine, but in a broad sense these programs make life easier for anyone who might worry about the financial well-being of aging parents. That’s what Obama is talking about in very general terms: “they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
Sounds right to me — but I want to see the numbers. The footnotes.