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The Therapy Sessions
Thursday, December 16, 2004

Saying no

Who Will Say No?:
The larger lesson is that Americans are living in a self-created culture of delusion. The central truth about retirement 'entitlements' is this: The only guaranteed way to cut spending growth is to cut benefits. But this truth is unspeakable, so no one speaks it. In this climate, (Tommy) Thompson's self-serving boast passes as a plausible claim when it's actually an absurdity.

There's a compartmentalization of thought and conversation. Rapid spending growth is considered 'bad,' but anything that might cut that growth can't be discussed. By and large, the news media abide by this protocol of deception. Not surprisingly, news coverage of the Medicare drug debate was abysmally one-sided. Hardly anyone mentioned who would pay the long-term costs or asked whether the benefit was justified. Much coverage focused on gaps in the proposed coverage. Meanwhile, a drumbeat of other stories deplored present and future budget deficits. The inconsistency was glaring.

In wealthy democracies -- welfare states all -- individual benefits once conferred are considered sacrosanct, but when their total costs threaten the collective good, they must somehow be controlled. There's the paralyzing contradiction. The politics of 'yes' must ultimately yield to the politics of 'no' -- and the longer it's delayed, the more painful it will be.

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