What a Wonderful World

Originally Published in Flourishing May/June 2013

As many of you know, we are members of The Golden Circle, a group that provides support for a series of events performed by the South Kansas Symphony, led by Dr. Daniel Stevens.  Daniel is doing a fantastic job, both with the South Kansas Symphony and with the Southwestern Youth Symphony.  And, Daniel is himself a wonderful musician. 

Anyway, at this season’s finale, Daniel presented me with a plaque which says simply, “Life Is Good”.  Daniel said that he chose that message, because I’m always smiling.  He couldn’t have paid me a higher compliment.  Why do I mention this?  Simply to establish my credentials as an optimist.  And, yes, I am bragging.  Optimism is a state of mind, and as such, it is not something you’re born with; it is something you work to develop. (Ask my children, I used to be grumpy.)

But, did you ever hear me say that we don’t have problems?  No, you didn’t, and you have no idea of the troubles I’ve seen.  Nor will you, because I don’t allow trouble to define me.  Indeed, part of my job as your advisor is to help identify your troubles and aspirations, to put both into a rational perspective, and deal with them in a positive way.

So, the issue I hear about most frequently from clients is that our federal  government continues to spend irresponsibly—as it has for most of my lifetime.  But, now it’s worse than ever.  As Ben Stein’s economist father, Herb, famously said, “If something can’t go on forever, it won’t.”  But, life will go on;  and here’s the key point—BETTER THAN BEFORE.  That will be true, because it has always been true.  That is my faith.

Still, according to the federal government’s own actuaries, unfunded liabilities for things like Social Security and Medicare and federal employee pensions now exceed $87 trillion. That doesn’t include the official $16.7 trillion national debt.  The population is about 315 million people. Not counting the official $16.7 trillion national debt—and not allowing for cost-of-living adjustments—the average American owes over $275,000 for America’s unfunded liabilities.  (I’m not counting PPACA (Obamacare), either, but that’s an issue for another day.)

Looking at this more optimistically, I realized that if I’m the average American, Uncle Sam owes me $275,000 in future benefits.  So, here is my offer: The government says my life expectancy is another sixteen years.  Pay me now, instead of later.  I’ll even take a haircut.  In lieu of all future benefits, pay me today with a $100,000 Treasury bond with a guaranteed rate of 5% (the long-term historical average) and maturing in sixteen years.

Over sixteen years, I’ll collect $80,000 in interest on which I’ll pay tax at the optimistic rate of 25%.  The Feds will get back $20,000 in income tax payments, leaving a net cost of $160,000 ($100,000+80,000-20,000).  If I don’t live sixteen years, my heirs can either sell the bond in the open market or hold it to maturity.  And, let’s be fair about this:  Give every American citizen the same haircut, with the face amount and the maturity of each person’s bond based on today’s life expectancies.  I haven’t figured out how to treat people born tomorrow and the next day, but…

…I realize that the real solution needs to be a bit more sophisticated than my example here.  Whether my proposal is adopted or not,  you can be sure that something like it—a haircut for virtually everyone—will have to happen at some time, because as Ben Stein’s dad told Nixon, “If something can’t go on forever, it won’t”.  And, that’s really a good thing, because…   

…out of fiscal necessity, I’m convinced that America must and will find a way to return to its founding ideals of self-determination and family responsibility.  The $trillions now committed to a very long list of wasteful entitlements—not to mention countless other stupidly expensive commitments—will be free to flow into privately funded miracle cures and “for profit” space stations; to name just two possibilities. But until then, don’t waste your mental energy on things you can’t control.  Ignore the “news”, if that’s what you have to do, and force yourself to notice and appreciate the good things in your life.  As my first self-help mentor, Earl Nightingale, always advised, “Begin each day with an attitude of gratitude”.  It really is a wonderful world out there—and that’s why I’m always smiling!  mh


The Half-Life of the Welfare State

Originally Published in Flourishing August/September 2011

Social Security is projected to exhaust its trust fund in 2036. Medicare will be out of cash in 2024. Technically speaking.

In reality, both systems are already in the red, because there are no actual assets in those trust funds; only government IOU’s. As Social Security and Medicare begin to pay out more than they take in from payroll taxes, they’ll scarf up virtually the entire federal budget and guarantee a steady increase in our already dangerous national debt. Add to that the current low interest rate environment (0-2%), and ask yourself what happens when we’re paying a more normalized 5% rate on upwards of $17 trillion.  Why else do you think the Federal Reserve is determined to keep rates so low?

Everyone already senses this, of course, but most people don’t yet understand that the current budget crisis heralds the beginning of the end of the Era of Entitlements.  Though Social Security has been around since 1935, the growth of cradle-to-grave entitlements accelerated in the 1960’s and ’70’s, when we decided that we  could subsidize everything for everybody. From education, to housing, to medical care, to food stamps, to the arts and entertainment, to retirement; a consensus of Americans decided that a policy of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” would be a fine thing. The wealthiest among us would somehow pay for it all.  Or most of it, anyway.  But it was an illusion. The 2009 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act  (PPACA) was the last gasp grasp of that philosophy, and because the American people—having finally realized who would really pay—overwhelmingly opposed PPACA, it had to bullied through Congress in the dark of night.  That Act, following hard upon the government-led bums’ rush into housing (1995-2006), and the subsequent $trillions wasted on bailouts and stimulus packages have pulled back the curtain.

So, we’re now intimately acquainted with the life cycle of the entitlement hoax. Benefits, bailouts, and tax breaks are passed by the Congress and millions rush to claim them.  Marginal taxes rates can never be raised fast enough to keep up with an unending stream of entitlement promises without triggering a recession, so Congress makes up the difference with massive deficit spending and an ever-increasing debt burden—and we get a recession, anyway.  The Federal Reserve sops up the government’s debt with an increasing supply of inflationary electronic dollars—until we reach the point where we are now.  Over a (pork) barrel.

The task of our generation, and perhaps the next, is to preside over the dismantling of the voracious entitlement monster we’ve created.  We can now see that it was the unprecedented wealth created by the entrepreneurs, savers, and investors of our parents’ generation that made the welfare state seem plausible. In particular, the post-World War II boom in Americaand Europesupported the fantasy that we were rich enough to afford such an immoderate system of cradle-to-grave entitlements.  But, despite the incredible wealth creation of the past sixty years, the Age of Entitlement is now kaput.  We are living in the Age of Recompense.  Without explanation—since none should be needed—let me just assert that that’s a good thing.  It means that working, saving, and personal responsibility will soon be in vogue, and not just for those formerly willing, but for everyone.  Well, I guess that is the explanation, isn’t it?

The science of Physics tells us that a radioactive isotope decays perfectly according to first order kinetics.  For example, the half life of the Carbon 14 isotope is 57.3 centuries, which means that in 5,730 years, one half of any given quantity of Carbon 14 will have decayed into its surroundings.  By its nature, Carbon 14 is physically unsustainable.

As an extreme, and, therefore, educationally valuable case, consider the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greeceand Spain).  Over the last forty years, they were all built on the self-same ideal of cradle-to-grave entitlement; and here they are, begging the world for bailouts.  The entitlement philosophy is economically unsustainable, because compound interest, being mathematically akin to radioactive decay, guarantees that sooner or later entitlements will consume all of a country’s capital, and then destroy its credit, too.  With the demonstration and dissemination of that knowledge provided by the sad spectacle of the PIIGS, the remaining half-life of our own welfare state will not be measured in centuries, perhaps not even in decades.  mh