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$135 Billion "Oops"

It became news about a week ago that the new Medicare prescription drug entitlement will cost about a third more than advertised. I'm not surprised the original number ($400 billion) was dramatically wrong, but I am surprised that the truth came out in only two months. I expected Bush to be safely retired before the costs became apparent enough to cause political heat.

Bush certainly deserves harsh criticism for this. It would genuinely please me if the "Bush Lied!" crowd would seize this opportunity to grow their brand.

But on a personal level, when I think about this $135 billion "oops" I just feel numb. I'm a little disappointed that this matter doesn't fill me with apoplectic rage that I could channel into a scathing condemnation of runaway government spending, because that would be very entertaining. Maybe I haven't been getting enough sleep lately. Or maybe I understand the roots of this problem and have seen it so many times that I've become desensitized.

How did we get here?

I don't blame the politicians. Really. The fact that they pander to special interest groups like seniors is totally natural. It's an effect of the structure of our political system. The "pork incentive" is systemic; it's not a failure of any particular individual politician.

The blame lies squarely with the voters. They vote for politicians who bring home the bacon, because they bring home the bacon. They elect and reelect politicians on the basis of indirect bribery. Of course it's true that most people don't vote for candidates whose ideologies they explicitly endorse — instead voting for the lesser of two (or more) evils — but the positions of the candidates must generally reflect those of the electorate or they would have no popularity at all.

Most people want a Medicare prescription drug entitlement. I feel comfortable saying that the vast majority do, because the only significant political opposition it encountered was from people saying that it would increase the deficit too much. The open presumption, then, is that if the government had a surplus there would be no objection to the program — i.e., the program would be superior to reducing taxes.

For people who already believe that the government has a responsibility to provide medical care to seniors, a drug program is a completely natural extension of existing policies, a sensible way to keep in stride with the ever-changing capabilities of medical science. It is a tiny minority who argue against the new entitlement on the basis that the government shouldn't be involved in medical care or wealth redistribution to begin with.

A prescription drug entitlement was inevitable no matter which political party controlled whatever branch of the government. A creeping socialism is inherent in democracy. At one time the United States was understood to be a republic, not a democracy, and the government power was strictly limited precisely to protect the rights of minorities from the will of the majority.

We've come a long way. It's a long way back.

Tiny Island