The United States Is A Ponzi Scheme

Ponzi Scheme: a usually-illegal operation in which participants pay to join and profit mainly from payments made by subsequent participants. 

Humans have evolved to believe in one fallacy over all of the others: “If it seems too good to be true, it must be the truest thing of all.” As a species, once we humans have achieved some level of comfort we appear to become convinced that we have done something to deserve that comfort for the rest of our lives. That’s not just a problem in the USA, but everywhere there are people with “1st world problems.” Here in the USA we have taken that quality to extremes. 

Republicans harp at “entitlements” without bothering to look up the word to see what it actually means. They, of course, object to the working class entitlements like Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, Medicare and Medicaid, welfare, and anything that isn’t an immediate transfer of funds into the paws of our 1% and, even, the Russian 1%. They do not object to the corporate welfare and idle rich entitlements. Obviously, if you are rich you deserve to be so. God said so; Jesus, not so much. I, however, object to all entitlements that are unfunded. 

Take Social Security, for example. Washington D.C.’s Urban Institute, a non-partisan research institute found that “a two-earner couple receiving an average wage — $44,600 per spouse in 2012 dollars — and turning 65 in 2010 would have paid $722,000 into Social Security and Medicare and can be expected to take out $966,000 in benefits. So, this couple will be paid about one-third more in benefits than they paid in taxes.” That’s not an “unrealistic return on investment” over a half-century of work and interest accruement. 

My parents’ generation, the so-called “Greatest Generation,” really kicked Social Security in the teeth by voting themselves solvent after a lifetime of insane military spending and general economic foolishness. The Urban Institute found, “If a similar couple had retired in 1980, they would have gotten back almost three times what they put in. And if they had retired in 1960, they would have gotten back more than eight times what they paid in. The bigger discrepancies common decades ago can be traced in part to the fact that some of these individuals’ working lives came before Social Security taxes were collected beginning in 1937.” The reason we’re expecting Social Security to become insolvent any minute now is because the Greatest and Silent Generations paid themselves overtime salaries on part-time work. Of course, the other reason is that Republican Presidents since Nixon have raided the so-called Social Security “lock box” for every military boondoggle imaginable and if they couldn’t outright steal that money, they simply spent money that didn’t exist and attached the bills to the Social Security IOUs. Trump is doing that with his wall boondoggle. Best case, “Come 2034, so say the system’s trustees in their 2015 report, the trust fund will be exhausted and, absent a law change, they will be able to disburse only 75% of promised benefits.” Worst case, the whole US economic house of cards will collapse on itself and Social Security insolvency will be the least of our concerns. It has happened, often, in the country’s speckled history and is more likely to happen again than not. 

The two biggest money-sinks outside of actual earned, useful, and necessary “entitlements” are our grossly racist and unjust prison system and the military. People are making money out of the slave labor harvested in the prison system, but those people aren’t “the people.” The more than 2 million people in US prisons are generating a profit, but not for the public or government forced to live with the world’s most incarcerated public on the planet. The corporations harvesting slave labor, charging exorbitant prices for “services,” and providing labor to the for-profit and government administered prisons are one of the largest lobbies in a nation of monster lobbies. Just the prison phone services make $1.2 billion per year and they doing such a terrible job that PharmaBro Martin Shkreli is still running his old drug company from prison and Tweeting as if he were an actual human being not doing time for felonies far worse than many people doing far more time than this “white collar criminal.” The collection of corporate-welfare queens in the prison system run from commissary companies racking up $1.6 billion to the $3 billion for-profit bail system to the privately-held for-profit prisons that are not adequately monitored and whose income isn’t even known because they don’t have to disclose that information to the people, taxpayers, who are paying the tab. 

The War on Drugs is another corporate-welfare entitlement that involves local, state, and federal “law enforcement,” the for-profit prison system, a collection of para-military sub-contractors, drug enforcement equipment and weapons providers, and a variety of con artists who make buckets of money convincing the public that prohibition will actually work “this time.” As long as there are billions of dollars to be made selling illegal drugs, someone is going to be getting that money. The solution is to cut the legs out from under that profit motive by legalizing drugs, emphasizing education and providing safe and economical use for the small percentage of addicted users, and whatever is left to be described as “illegal” penalize at the source. 

Finally, the biggest cause of the nation’s insolvency is the vast and uncontrolled war spending. Like the drug business, war materials are a source of easy money with practically no quality requirements or practical purpose. The military-industrial complex has had exactly the kind of ride as the dope peddlers: low cost and outrageous profit margins. Worse, the Pentagon has no interest in making the slightest effort at controlling costs or making sure the public gets something for its money. The country has flushed somewhere between $5T and $15T down the post-9/11 war rabbit hole. The Pentagon, through incompetence, corruption, and laziness “misplaced” more than a few trillion dollars (total amount unknown); somewhere between $3 and $9T. Our current national debt is about $22T and the country hasn’t made a serious attempt at repaying any of that debt since Nixon started cutting taxes in 1971, but we really kicked the debt into overtime during Reagan’s fiscally irresponsible regime. Reagan paid lip service to shoring up the Social Security fund with his 1983 “reform act” (never believe any Republican tax modification is a “reform”), but he followed that up with massive deficit spending and liberal use of federal funds for a variety of money-wasting military projects. 

Obviously, the insane pensions paid out to military lifers—especially the officer classes—are just more of the same sorts of boondoggles taxpayers should not be tolerating. A grade-10 general makes $19,762.50 per month and will receive as much as 100% of that salary after 40 years of “service.” Considering the miserable job the military has done both protecting the country and being responsible with taxpayers’ money, I think they ought to be indentured servants after a few decades of leeching off of the public tit. When we say “thank you for your service” to these characters, we should be rubbing our sore assholes and walking bow-legged at the same time. Likewise, the variety of “injuries” ex-military people use to justify disability claims is amazing. Having taught at a college that actively recruited veterans with “disability college funding,” I’ve seen some pretty comical characters burning taxpayer money while avoiding working for a living. Worse, I’ve heard some of the strangest claims from veterans of my generation and, based on that, I can only hope Trump does succeed in privatizing the VA so that it can quickly bankrupt and be abolished. 

If we—meaning my generation the “Boomers”—don’t help solve these problems, our kids will solve them at our expense. Between the X-Gens and the Millennials, we are finally outvoted, demographically if not practically. In 2019, Millennials will outnumber Boomers. They could elect representatives whose only platform is balancing the budget by any means possible, including putting Social Security on pause until it is solvent. I cannot think of a good argument against that, in fact. My generation has been financially irresponsible . . . forever, since early adulthood. Today, half of the country’s bankruptcies are over-50. “Seniors are going into retirement still carrying debt, including mortgages, credit card debt and student loan debt. They are depleting their savings and retirement accounts just to make ends meet.” 

One of my many complaints about news reporting leading up to the Great Recession was all of babble about “more people than ever own homes,” when what they should have said was “more people than ever are in debt for home purchases”; two distinctly different things. Almost everyone I know in my generation has some to a lot of house debt and one of the most basic rules I know of is “you can’t retire until you own your own home.” “Own” your own home, not live in a property that is owned by a bank. If you not only don’t own your home, but you don’t own your car, recreational vehicles and/or boats, haven’t paid off your credit cards or, even, college debt, you not only are not ready to retire you have also demonstrated an inability to manage money like an adult. Our kids should take that information for what it is and stop listening to Boomers as if they were full-developed, educated adults. As the third generation of Ponzi Scheme suckers Boomers are not totally to blame for the economic mess the country is in, but we are likely to be the ones to take the fall for it. Based on the evidence, we won’t deserve much sympathy.


Gratitude, Don’t Leave Home without It

Twenty-five years ago, our youngest daughter suffered dozens of critical injuries in a car crash. Luckily, she was quickly rescued and treated by some of Denver’s most dedicated and talented police, firefighters, EMTs, and doctors. After she had been released by the hospital, Denver General, and was on the road to recovery, I began an effort to thank the people involved in her rescue and recovery. My motivation was not as self-inspired as I wish. When we were waiting for our daughter to regain consciousness in Denver General’s brand new ICU, I noticed a picture of a young man on crutches stuck to a post in the middle of the sparkling, hyper-busy, multi-million dollar ICU. It was an unprofessional photo in a cheap 8x10 plastic frame with a small note from the parents of the young man, thanking the medical personnel for their dedication and for their son’s life. After reading that note and seeing how special it was to the people who worked in one of the country’s busiest and most sophisticated hospitals, I started bringing in pastries every morning while our daughter was in the ICU. For several years afterwards, I sent the Denver General ICU a picture of our daughter with an update on the life they had given her and a box of artery-clogging pastries from one of our favorite Denver shops.

That got me into a cycle of trying to identify everyone involved in my daughter’s rescue so that she and I could thank them. What I learned from that was that of the three million people living in the Denver area and however many thousands of people rescued by first responders, almost nobody felt particularly grateful when they or a loved one was rescued, kept alive, brought back to life, and/or returned to good health from near death or terrible injury. The chief of the fire department that cracked open my daughter’s demolished pickup, extracted her from the wreckage, and delivered her to the helicopter the moment it arrived at the scene (14 minutes after the crash) had been with the Denver fire department for 40 years. During his career, the only time a citizen had contacted him about any of the thousands of rescues he’d been involved in was a lawyer delivering a lawsuit summons.

The same goes for the citizens who take on the responsibility of running our cities, counties, states, and the federal government. At the lowest level, it’s a thankless job that sets up the office holders for disrespect and abuse without much return on the time and energy investment. At the highest level, as we saw in the 2016 election, the more service and committment a candidate has given to the community and the country the worse that candidate is treated by both the media and the voters. There is a price for creating a society where greed, ignorance, and narcissim are valued characteristics: that price is best described by “we get the government we deserve.”

A recent editorial in my local newspaper, “Thank Our Elected Officials,” was a timely and decent reminder that we can disagree with our elected officials while still respecting them and appreciating their service. There is no such thing as a successful non-participatory democracy and Americans better either step-up to the responsibilities of maintaining that form of government or we’ll have to relearn that, as disorderly and inefficient as democracy is, it is far better than the alternatives.