If you're not a parent, don't be a jackass
In front of my favorite grocery store, beside the handicapped parking spaces, are a handful of spots labelled "Customer with Child." These spots are great for parents, and over the last few years, I've grown accustomed to parking in them. However, not long ago, I witnessed a man in a big SUV using one of these spaces, even though he had no kids in tow, and I drove away repressing a certain amount of rage. What reason, though, did I have to get so furious? Before I first went to the grocery store in question, I never even knew such a convenience as parents-only parking existed. In addition, there are no laws being broken when someone without children uses one of these spots, and a pedant might argue that "Customer with Child" does not preclude people who have children but haven't brought them along to the store. What if the guy in the SUV is dyslexic or unable to read English? How can I feel that a wrong has been done when someone takes advantage of a free convenience that is neither necessary nor terribly important?
America is about to receive a serious wake-up call--one that is all too familiar in Europe at the moment--and my little experience at the grocery store is a perfect example of the societal problem we face. In Europe, it's called "austerity," an innocent-sounding word for severe cuts to social programs. Here in the states, we call it "entitlement." Throughout the second half of the Twentieth Century, the government has granted its people more and more perks--Social Security, unemployment compensation, Medicare, etc.--using the idea of a "social safety net" as justification. I'm not here to debate the value of these programs, but there is an undeniable fact we have to accept immediately: they are, in their current form, completely unsustainable.
I have no interest in rehashing the numbers or going over the extreme size and scope of the problem--there are plenty of other places you can go for that sort of thing--so I'll just say that, no matter how bad you think it is, it is much worse. In the next twenty to thirty years, probably even sooner, we will face a monumental financial crisis that is likely to cripple our country. Social programs are by far the most expensive things our government is doing, and they are inevitably going to grow in proportion to all other government spending. In other words, dealing with the coming financial storm by freezing discretionary spending, cutting the defense budget, raising taxes, and downsizing federal departments--rather than by addressing the social programs driving our debt--is, if I may overuse an already tired metaphor, like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
I'm not the first person to make this connection
However, whenever any politician from either political party proposes a solution to the problem, no matter how modest or tentative, that politician is immediately demonized, demagogoued, and defeated. You need look no further than the recent proposals of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, Chair of the House Budget Committee. Ryan has put out several budget proposals with "tackling entitlements" as a key goal. Even fellow Republicans have criticized Ryan's efforts--Newt Gingrich, for example, while still in the running for president, called them "right-wing social engineering"--and Democrats have predictably accused him of trying to "throw granny off the cliff" (there's even an ad featuring the political cliché). Granted, Ryan's budgets have included provisions that have no hope of passing bipartisan muster, such as a wholesale repeal of PPACA ("Obamacare"), so some critics may have a point. Regardless, no one doubts that, if Ryan were to put a bill in front of Congress that did nothing except attempt to deal with unsustainable spending in just one program (say, Social Security, the "third rail" of American politics) without resorting to the slaughter of any sacred cows, the bill would never reach the president's desk and the president would no doubt use it on his bully pulpit as an example of Republican cruelty to the disadvantaged.
This is because political power can best be found in reinforcing the entitlement mentality rather than fighting it. It is much easier to be seen as a good politician and get votes when you are handing out money. I can think of no greater illustration of this point than "Julia," the fictional, creepy, and faceless woman who lives her whole life receiving constant benefits from the government. Lest you think Julia is some right-wing charicature of left-wing propaganda, which would be easy to assume, know that "The Life of Julia" is designed as a campaign piece for President Obama's re-election, found on Barack Obama's own website. There is no question that the president wants people to think that government intervention is an important aspect of American life; it's the main thrust of his argument against Republican fiscal policy.
The problem is more sociological than social. Just as I had to repress rage when I saw a non-parent park in a "Customer with Child" space, the collective blood pressure of the citizenry tends to go up if there's even a hint that some social perk is in danger of being downsized. But we have to keep things in perspective: Social Security checks are a modern convenience, not a keystone of civilized existence without which we could not possibly survive. If we are forced by financial necessity to reduce the size of our entitlement programs--an inevitability as certain as tomorrow's sunrise--it would not, by itself, cause the fall of mankind. You'd better believe, however, that people will react as negatively as possible, just as they are currently reacting to austerity measures in certain parts of Europe. Whichever political party is deemed responsible will be immediately voted into oblivion, there will be demonstrations that turn to riots, and it will be a dark chapter in the history of the West.
Julia's website wouldn't exist without taxpayer dollars either
Look at the Occupy Wall Street movement, for instance. Though the movement isn't clearly defined or organized, the general consensus is that it exists to address apparent economic disparity. Unemployment and the cost of living are high, while the banks that are blamed for it have been bailed out by taxpayer dollars and the fat cats in charge of them have given themselves cushy and self-congratulatory bonuses. In other words, the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, and the Occupy Wall Street movement is angry. However, when you get down and dirty with the actual protesters, you find college kids demanding that the government wipe away student loan debt, liberal arts graduates demanding that they be given a good job and free housing, and elitist academics who complain that rich people are out of touch and should pay more taxes. It doesn't take much imagination to contemplate how these masses would react if Congress passed a reduction in unemployment compensation.
But as fiscally conservative as I am--I have never collected a dime of unemployment, even when I desperately needed it--I cannot ignore what I felt when I saw that parking SUV. I can sympathize with the sentiment of those who feel entitled to government money. Though I know it's not how Social Security works, I know that people feel like they've invested in it their whole lives and deserve to get paid back when they retire. I can appreciate why Medicare and Medicaid are popular, and I understand that people feel like they own these programs, that any attempt to shrink them is tantamount to theft.
But austerity is not theft; it is merely the unavoidable result of having too much faith in government. I am neither heartless nor lacking in compassion, but people who believe that the government can grant them happiness from cradle to grave need a good splash of cold water. If you are planning your life on the backs of promises made to you by politicians--if you are planning on relying on those Social Security checks to have a happy retirement--you are a fool. The government does not grant you prosperity, and you do not deserve it simply because you are alive. Once this mentality of being entitled to convenience kicks in, the clock starts ticking toward societal Armageddon. By my watch, we don't have a lot of time left.