Pain: Now or Later?


    A number of years ago there was a television commercial that encouraged regular oil changes.  In it, a mechanic pointed to a car behind him that was having the engine overhauled and noted that failing to get regular oil changes can cause serious engine damage.  At the end of the commercial the mechanic said, “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.”

    With the Administration and Congress once again at odds over raising our nation’s debt ceiling I keep wondering why no one in Washington seems to understand why doing so only makes the problem worse.  I understand that we can’t just suddenly stop doing everything that we’re doing.  Calling an abrupt halt to projects that are already in progress would do great damage to the economy.  I understand that.  But Congress isn’t just continuing projects they’ve already started; they are creating new ones and expanding others so that our debt problem gets worse instead of better.
    Whenever anyone suggests making cuts to existing spending, particularly to welfare, Medicaid, Medicare or Social Security, there is an outcry because it is easy to see how people will be hurt when cuts are made to these programs.  A similar claim is made whenever cuts are suggested to our spending on national defense.  No matter what cuts are suggested, we are told that those cuts will cause someone pain. 
    The problem with pain, as it relates to our spending, is that it is very much like that oil change commercial.  A little pain now will almost certainly save us from much greater pain later.  Why?  Because right now our nation spends about $3.5 trillion per year but takes in only $2.5 trillion in taxes.  Obviously, you can’t, in the long-term, spend more than you earn, everyone who has ever balanced a checkbook knows that, but Washington has been doing it (more or less continuously) for more than sixty years.   So far we’ve accumulated a national debt of $17 trillion dollars… and, as bad as that sounds, that’s the good news.
    We hear that our national debt is $17 trillion dollars but we are not told that this does not include the money that we “borrowed” from Social Security and Medicaid.  Every one of us has paid into Social Security for our retirement.  While all of the Baby Boomers were working, the surpluses from these deposits were immense… but they were never saved in any kind of “savings account” or “lockbox.”  Instead, to cover the growing deficits our elected representatives… spent them.  Because we borrowed the money from ourselves, this spending isn’t really considered part of the national debt, but when the Baby Boomers retire they will, naturally, expect to collect from the system they paid into.  How much do we owe them?  At present, our borrowing from Social Security and Medicare amounts to an additional $85 to 95 trillion and our expected payments for the national prescription drug benefit add another $20 trillion.  All together that comes to an astounding $125 trillion in debt.  (That works out to over a million dollars in debt for every U.S. household!)
    Here is where things get ugly.  If we assume that over the next forty years, everyone who is currently working will retire, then we will have to repay most, if not all, of that debt over that same forty year period.  I know the math is more complicated than that, but this oversimplification will get us close enough to see the problem.  If we think of this as paying down a mortgage, we have forty years to pay back $125 trillion in debt with an annual “income” of $3 trillion. 
Do you see the problem?
In order to repay $125 trillion in 40 years, our annual payments will exceed our current income.
    If we start right now, and we could somehow stretch those payments out for a hundred years, we would still have to repay $1.25 trillion per year.  That would seem reasonable, but if we first balance the budget (so as to stop borrowing even more money while we were paying off our debt), we would still have to cut our current spending by fifty percent!
    Worse, none of this is theoretical.  This is money that we have already spent and which must be repaid.  Because we borrowed most of it from retirement plan, failing to pay it back will mean that Social Security checks don’t go out and retirees’ medical bills don’t get paid.  We complain that making small cuts causes pain, but how much pain will there be if we default and those checks don’t go out at all?
As the man said in the commercial, “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.” 
Either way, there will be pain.  The longer we put it off, the worse it will be.
Our only choice is whether we want to experience pain now or worse pain later.

Why I Stand With the Catholic Church

   In recent weeks the President of the United States and his Administration announced that all employers would be required to provide health coverage that included coverage for birth control and abortifacients regardless of the employer’s religious affiliation.  What this means is that religious institutions will be required by law to provide the means to do something that the parent religion considers to be a violation of conscience.  The federal government has told the Catholic Church that its hospitals, its adoption services, and its other outreach branches, as well as Methodist Hospitals, Baptist Hospitals and Jewish  and Muslim charity and community centers, that they must all provide this benefit to their employees regardless of whether or not this is a violation of the teachings of their religion.  I want to be clear, I am not a Catholic but this is serious stuff and it is important for all of us regardless of religion.
   I have heard friends say that the complaints against the government are just a power play by entrenched male power interests in the church to oppose necessary health provisions for women but I don’t think so.  It was the Catholic Church (and a few other churches) who built charity hospitals to provide care to the poor when medical care was something only the wealthy could afford (did you ever wonder why so many hospitals have Saint something in their name or end in Methodist, Baptist, or Catholic Hospital?)  It was the Catholic Church who built one of the biggest AIDS clinics in San Francisco when many hospitals were afraid to treat AIDS patients.  The caring and compassion of the church, particularly in the field of medicine, has been repeatedly demonstrated.  
   What’s more, the consistency of the Catholic Church is well established.  As a Protestant, I do not have a problem with birth control but draw the line at abortion and abortifacients because we believe that a child in the womb, a fertilized egg implanted and growing in the uterus, is a life.  Somehow, those of Protestant faith believe that a fertilized egg is not necessarily a life, but once it has ‘taken root’ it becomes a life.   This is a pretty fine line.  The Catholic Church doesn’t try to split hairs and it never has, they believe that a fertilized egg is a human being, period.  The position of the Catholic Church has never changed on this and although I do not agree, I have great respect for the consistency of their argument.  Life is life.
   For the government to say that the Catholic Church (and all other churches) must provide benefits that it believes are morally unconscionable is, to me, a clear violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.  What if the government re-instituted the draft to support the military?  In such a draft, undoubtedly, persons would be drafted that, for religious or moral reasons, choose not to carry a gun or to be placed in a situation where they might be required to kill another human being.  For that reason, our nation has allowed these persons to become conscientious objectors, and we allow them to serve their country in another capacity.  One of my uncles served in the Korean Conflict as a medic for that reason.  If our government is allowed to force people of faith to provide birth control and abortion inducing drugs against their will, is it any stretch at all to imagine that conscientious objectors could be forced to carry a gun into combat?  Can American Indians be prohibited from ceremonies that require the use of peyote?  Could Muslims be prevented from making daily prayers during the workday?  The principle is exactly the same.  If religious objections are overruled for one, they can be overruled for anyone.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances
– U.S. Constitution, 1st Amendment, Article 3.
   If the government is permitted to prevent Catholics and others from exercising their religion, and their conscience, in this way, what other Constitutional rights will it find “inconvenient” tomorrow? 
I am not a Catholic and though I respect the Catholic Church I often do not agree with it.  My position on birth control is different than the one held by the Catholic Church.  Even so, I think they are right and the government is wrong.  I stand in support.  Will you?