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Walter Williams
Walter E. Williams
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Do We Deserve Our Fate?


The latest Social Security Trustees Report tells us that the program will be insolvent by the year 2037. The combined unfunded liability of Social Security and Medicare has reached nearly $107 trillion in today's dollars. That is about seven times the size of the U.S. economy and 10 times the size of the national debt. Those entitlement programs, along with others, account for nearly 60 percent of federal spending. They are what Congress calls non-discretionary spending. About half of discretionary spending is for national defense. Each year, non-discretionary spending consumes a higher and higher percentage of the federal budget.

The language Congress uses to describe their spending is corrupt beyond redemption. Think about the term entitlement. If one American is entitled to something he didn't earn, where in the world does Congress get the money? It's not Santa or the Tooth Fairy. The only way Congress can give one American a dollar is to first take it from another American. Therefore, an entitlement is a congressionally given right for one American to live at the expense of another. In other words, Congress forcibly uses one American to serve the purposes of another American. As such, it differs in degree, but not kind, from that uglier part of our history where black people were forcibly used to serve the purposes of their slave masters.

What about the terms discretionary versus non-discretionary congressional spending? Non-discretionary refers to uncontrollable things like sunsets and sunrises, low tides and high tides and laws of thermodynamics. By contrast, all congressional spending is discretionary and controllable. For political expedience, Congress has written laws to shield certain spending from annual budget scrutiny by calling it non-discretionary.

The level of congressional spending is unsustainable, but how willing are Americans to do anything about it? A courageous member of Congress, Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Budget Committee, has put forth a budget plan that would trim the deficit by $4.4 trillion over 10 years by reforming Medicare and Medicaid, making defense cuts and imposing hard spending caps on domestic spending.

Ryan's plan was immediately attacked as trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor. In the wake of this attack, even some of his Republican backers, including House Speaker John Boehner, have become lukewarm in support.

The president and his supporters call for tax increases as a means to cover the deficit, but higher tax revenues cannot eliminate the deficit. Controlling for inflation, federal tax revenue today is 23 times greater than it was in 1960, but congressional spending is 42 times greater. During the last half-century, except for five years, the nation has faced a federal budget deficit. It's just simple math. If tax revenues soar, but congressional spending soars more, budget deficits cannot be avoided.

People ask what can be done to save our nation from decline. To ask that represents a misunderstanding of history and possibly a bit of arrogance. After all, how different are Americans from the Romans, Spaniards, French and the English? These were once mighty nations standing at the top of civilization. At the height of these nation's prosperity, no one would have predicted that they'd become third-rate nations, especially England. If during Queen Victoria's Jubilee in 1887 had a person suggested that England would become a third-rate nation and later challenged on the high seas by a sixth-rate nation (Argentina), he would have been declared insane.

One chief causal factor for the decline of these former great nations is what has been described as "bread and circuses," where government spends money for the shallow and immediate wants of the population, and civic virtue all but disappears. For the past half-century, our nation has been doing precisely what brought down other great nations. We might have now reached the point of no return. If so, do we deserve it?

Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University. To find out more about Walter E. Williams and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



7 Comments | Post Comment
Another great article Walter. I've been reading you for years.

According to Martin Armstrong of Princeton Analytics, it was increased pensions that brought down Rome. More promises to pay to one group from another. He has researched history to become one of the most accurate economic forecasters of the 20th and now 21st century. So your article, while not as specific, is telling the same story. And it seems, there is no turning back. Because, as in the past, there is no political will. And they have all the guns.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Andy
Tue May 31, 2011 9:54 PM
I've been loaning the govt. money, at no interest, since I went to work in 1962. Now it's an entitlement? My favorite quote is "We'll be held accountable for NOT leaving a trail of politicians and CEO's hanging from every lampost from Pennsylvania Ave. to Wall Street". Now that's what the average Joe, walking the tightrope between indigent and destitute, is thinking. The ranks of desperation and hopeless are growing quickly, and THAT is sustainable.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Mike Love
Wed Jun 1, 2011 1:53 AM
Prof. Williams I envy your students. I'll bet that question would get any class buzzing. Do we deserve it?
There really is no good answer to that question considering that "we" is made up of so many different folks. Variables span from the 60-something unfortunate with terminal cancer who paid all his life to the 20-something who will pay into the system for the next 40 years with slim hope of a payback.
I must agree with Gary North who thinks that as the culture changes and less people pay more and more for a larger number of dependents there will arise pressure for a political solution. Perhaps the change will be too late or something else will do this country in. There are many other problems as well.
My answer to your question would be the same as the character William Munny from the film Unforgiven. "Deserve's got nothing to do with it."
Comment: #3
Posted by: Bill
Wed Jun 1, 2011 4:50 PM
Society changes from generation to generation, and we must change with it or be doomed. I deposited my contribution to the Social Security Fund from every paycheck when I worked according to law. When I reached age 62 (earliest) I was to start receiving some of this money back each month based on a percentage stated by the Social Security Act. When I reached age 62, I began taking payments from this Fund, again according to law. Unbeknownst yet unpublicized over the last half century, Congress has been "borrowing" from this Fund to pay for what can only be described as pork projects, or earmarks more recently, and NOT repaying this money so that now we are in a situation that it must be modified to remain, at least by some definition, solvent. By not adjusting for solvency over the years, we have created a Frankenstein monster that now, by severe action may only be saved by diligent and hard choices by Congress. Social Security recipients are not asking for a handout like similar entitlement programs (examples welfare and free school lunches). What we should be demanding is that we be given the money we have EARNED by contributing, as stipulated by law, to this Fund during our work life set up to provide for our security in old age.
Comment: #4
Posted by: robert wilkinson
Thu Jun 2, 2011 4:32 AM
Mr Williams.Would you kindly explain how you believe that Social Security and Medicare are entitlement programs.They are not like Welfare where the recipient pays into it.But SS and Medicare are paid for by working people like myself that pay into the social security tax ans medicare each paycheck.So yes if i paid into it yes i am entitled to it.The biggest problem with these two programs are the corrupt politicians in both parties who waste this money,not to mention the hundred of thousands of people who are on SSI and others who dont pay into the system but still receive benefits from them.
Comment: #5
Posted by: Phillip Stacy
Thu Jun 2, 2011 3:28 PM
If Mr. Williams believes in not spending money from somebody else, would he pay cash if he gets a major medical problem or gets into a major car crash? The cost of such events my well vastly exceed any money he has personally paid to the insurance companies. Would it not be asking for somebody else to pay his way for him to accept money in excess of his premiums? How would he deal with the guilt?
Comment: #6
Posted by: Mark
Sat Jun 4, 2011 12:30 PM
Mark - your example is incorrect because you assume if the gov't does it and it's wrong, then it's wrong in the private sector also. The problem is gov't taking over private sector functions, and NOT having to conform to the rules/regs they require from the private sector. Gov't is suppose to be the ultimate referee, not insert itself as a player and crowd out the other players.

All or nothing examples irk me. I see them as fear mongering or as a basic lack of understanding of reality by the poster.
Comment: #7
Posted by: Amy Shulkusky
Sun Jun 5, 2011 11:32 AM
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