Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Death, health care and the national debt

By the year 2050, the cost of caring for Alzheimer's patients will be in the neighborhood of $1 trillion.

Michael Saphier lives in Sun Valley.


The life cycle includes many stages: We're born, we grow, we reach puberty, we mature, we marry (or not), we reproduce, we raise our children, and then we age and die. Gilbert Meilaender, in an excellent essay titled "Thinking About Aging," points out that we age because nature is not interested in keeping us alive beyond our reproductive years. He says that once we have passed on DNA to the next generation, we are, in effect, dispensable.

The result of the aging process is that we gradually deteriorate, our immune systems weaken, our muscles atrophy, our sensory systems degenerate and we contract life-threatening diseases like cancer and heart disease.

Since nature does nothing to maintain and preserve our bodies after our reproductive years have passed, our government has stepped in to fill the void. Even though our government has done little to "fix" or "extend" any of the pre-elderly stages of life, it has taken dramatic, extensive and expensive steps to "fix" and "prolong" the lives of people over the age of 65. Medicare and Social Security, aimed at extending life and insuring economic security in our twilight years, are the products of this cultural desire and willingness to spend our nation into bankruptcy.

As David Brooks states in a recent New York Times editorial titled "Death and Budgets," we have embarked on a journey of catastrophic health-care expenditures that are largely devoted to ill patients in the last phases of life. He points out that in the year 2005, the United States spent $91 billion caring for Alzheimer's patients, and those costs will double by the year 2015. By the year 2050, the cost of caring for Alzheimer's patients will be in the neighborhood of $1 trillion—double the entire current cost of Medicare.

Where does this willingness to travel a road that will inevitably lead to economic Armageddon come from? Certainly, the answer is not found in our constitution. That document does not impose on the United States' government the responsibility of extending the lives of our country's citizens past their useful reproductive purpose. Nor does it create an obligation for the government to insure each citizen's financial security in old age.

Don't get me wrong. I don't advocate the abolition of Medicare and Social Security. But just as I believe it is ludicrous to take a position that the superrich—the billionaires, the multi-millionaires, the oil companies, the corporate jet owners—should not lose some of their tax loopholes or should not pay a dime more in income taxes, I also think it is unreasonable to resist modest cutbacks and restrictions on Medicare and Social Security entitlement expenditures.

As the current debt-ceiling debate reveals, rigid adherence to ideological positions, grounded in self-interest and/or greed, creates a gridlock that will result in the economic demise of our country.

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