The Gravy Train

October 1, 2017

In the newly published “The High Cost of Good Intentions” author John Cogan relates a 230-year history of Federal entitlements, beginning with veterans’ pensions after the Revolutionary War. For 150 years the expansion of veterans’ benefits was prompted by budget surpluses brought on by high import tariffs. Each was targeted to a small number of soldiers who had died or become wounded during a war. Each program expanded into giant giveaways to any soldier or state militiaman and their wives.

Republicans expanded Civil War pensions to secure control of federal and state legislatures at the turn of the 20th century. Twenty years later, FDR and the Democratic Party used the same strategy of benefits to wrest control from Republicans.  First, the old system of service for benefits had to be curtailed. Like previous pension programs, benefits for WW1 veterans had been extended to those with non-service disabilities. Immediately after assuming office in 1933, FDR persuaded Congress to give him emergency authorization to alleviate the financial crisis. FDR eliminated almost a half-million veterans with non-service disabilities from the pension rolls and reduced pensions across the board. For the rest of the decade Congress tried to reinstate veteran’s benefits over the Presidential veto.

In 1934, the administration launched the New Deal, a series of programs to alleviate Depression-era hunger and unemployment. For 150 years, military service had been the prerequisite for federal benefits. Under FDR need, not service, became the primary requirement. An act of compassion quickly became a political tool that secured Democratic control at both the federal and state levels. Under the newly introduced Social Security program, a small amount of tax paid during the working years now entitled an older voter to federal pension benefits. No military service required.

For eighty years, benefit programs have become a political football. Two-thirds of the ten legislative increases to the Social Security program have occurred in election years. Today the total cost of entitlements is 60% of the $4.2 trillion in Federal spending.

If asked to list the federal entitlement programs, how many could we name? In addition to veteran’s benefits for service to the country, there are:
Income replacement programs like Social Security retirement and disability;
Income supplemental programs for poor families, such as the earned income tax credit (EITC), unemployment insurance, SSI and TANF;
Health insurance programs like Medicare and Medicaid, and the ACA’s health insurance subsidies;
Food assistance and price support programs like food stamps (SNAP) and child nutrition (WIC);
Business and individual loan guarantees and subsidized insurance programs including Sallie Mae education loans, FHA mortgage programs, and flood insurance subsidies.
This list does not include the many tax subsidies handed out by Congress.

I found that I could open this book at random and be both informed and entertained. Mr. Cogan combines an engaging narrative style and extensive research to construct an epic story of human need and greed, and the politics of pork.

I’ll turn to another book, “The Framer’s Coup” by Michael J. Klarman for some related backstory. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, anti-Federalists objected to the “general welfare” clause of the proposed Constitution. What was to stop the Federal government from becoming a charity funded by taxes, they asked?

Nonsense, Constitutional delegates James Madison and Edmund Randolph countered, pointing to the enumerated powers in the Constitution as a restraint on the Federal government. Just as the anti-Federalists feared, the Court has long adopted a liberal interpretation of the Federal government’s enumerated powers. In the 1819 case of McCullough v. Maryland, Chief Justice Marshall set a precedent that the Congress could enact legislation that was “convenient or useful” to the exercise of its enumerated powers.  After that decision, then ex-President Madison admitted that if the Constitution had clearly stated the signers’ intention to firmly restrict the power of the Federal government, the Constitution would not have been ratified.

Turn the dial forward to the present. In the expansion of the welfare state during the 20th and 21st centuries, the Supreme Court has never found that the Federal government has exceeded its enumerated Constitutional powers. The most recent example was the Court’s finding that, under the enumerated power of taxation, the federal government could force people to buy health insurance under the ACA program.

The liberal interpretation of those two clauses – “convenient or useful” and “general welfare” – has unleashed the Federal government, whose agencies have become an omnipresent force in every American’s life. Each month, politicians in Washington take tax money from one set of voters and give benefits to another cohort of voters. Everyone  who receives benefits convinces themselves that they have paid into the system in some way. When it comes to tax money, it has always been better to receive than to give.

As the benefits to the receivers slowly exceed the taxes from the givers, there will be a crisis, and then some urgent half-baked legislative fix will be passed. I wish there was a better way.  Oh wait, I forgot.  There is a better way.  Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, introduced the plan last year. Now that Republicans control the Presidency, Senate and House, they will fix the problem and avert a looming crisis of entitlements.  Silly me.  I can focus on the baseball finals now and stop worrying.

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