Last Saturday night Barack Obama and John McCain participated in a structured debate hosted by Pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church in Orange County, California. If you missed the broadcast on Fox News, you should watch it online. For the interviews provide stunning insight into the two candidates.
I was shocked by the degree to which McCain overwhelmed Obama in these exchanges. McCain’s crisp, clear, unequivocal answers on the issues were far superior to Obama’s postmodern philosophical meandering. In answering the question about evil in the world and what to do about it, McCain said, “Defeat it.” Obama said there was evil at home here in America too, and we should be humble about combating evil because a lot of evil has been done in the name of combating evil. So in answering a question about evil in the world, he thinks about America, and never brings up Al Qaeda. People who might think Obama’s answer was better are dangerous to the rest of us. We can’t have a national leader who is uncertain and plagued with moral doubts about confronting evil threats to America.
On the question about the most difficult decision each man made in his life, McCain talked about his time as a prisoner of war during Vietnam. Because his father was a top admiral, the Vietnamese respected that by offering him early release. Even though he was being tortured and he was suffering what would be permanent physical harm, he declined the offer of favoritism, condemning himself to years of even worse torture. Obama talked about his struggles with personal drug abuse at nearly the same age as McCain exhibited his wartime valor. What a contrast, the same sharp contrast that appears on the substantive issues over and over.
If I was to put a football score on the event, it would be McCain 63 Obama 0. The event revealed as well that the “religious right” is the most civil social group in America, with both Warren and his audience polite almost to a fault. That contrasts quite favorably with the nasty media and the vicious critics who constantly deride them.
BUT I WANT TO FOCUS here on Obama’s answer to the question about why he wants to be President and what motivated him to go into politics. He referenced the biblical injunction from Jesus Christ in the Book of Matthew, saying, “Whatever you do to the least of these you do unto me.” Obama expressed his concern that America is not doing enough for the least among us, the poor, the sick, the old. He wants to be President most of all to lead the government to do more for these most vulnerable and weakest of citizens, and ensure that they are cared for adequately.
This sentiment is what motivates most grassroots Democrats, who hold the vague and uninformed notion that America is not doing nearly enough to combat widespread poverty. Obama’s background, rhetoric and policy proposals suggest to me there is something more to his motivation, that he fundamentally rejects our entire economic system as immoral, and is really looking for basic “change” in that system. But I want to focus here on the more moderate grassroots Democrat sentiment about the poor, which is widely held among our upper income professional classes.
A recent book that explores this issue in great depth is Stealing From Each Other: How the Welfare State Robs Americans of Money and Spirit, by Edgar K. Browning, Professor of Economics at Texas A&M University. Browning is a world-class scholar who grounds his discussion in thorough facts and careful analysis reflecting decades of academic work (though the book’s title may be overly provocative). What leaps out at you in reading the book is that you are dealing with a top mind.
Let’s look first at our current welfare state for the poor, the sick, and the old. Browning reports that the federal government maintains 85 means tested programs targeted to the poor and low income families. In 2005, total Federal, state and local spending on these programs was $620 billion. This was 25% more than was spent that year on national defense.
The largest of these programs is Medicaid, which pays for essential health care for those who lack sufficient funds. The program pays for doctor’s bills, hospitals, and long-term care in nursing homes. Federal and state spending on this program alone this year is an estimated $330 billion.
For food stamps and other food and nutrition assistance, the Federal government is spending $60 billion this year. For housing assistance programs, the Feds are currently spending another $40 billion. Federal spending on income security programs such as the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, now renamed Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, will total $130 billion this year.
Government spending overall this year for the 85 federal means tested welfare programs will total about $735 billion. That compares to the national defense budget for this year of just over $600 billion. We are still spending almost 25% more on welfare than national defense.
Moreover, this does not even include the major programs for seniors, Social Security and Medicare. Total spending for Social Security this year will be $615 billion. Another $400 billion will be spent on Medicare, for a total spent for senior citizens of over $1 trillion.
That leaves our total welfare state costing us about $1.7 trillion, almost 3 times national defense. Those are the funds spent for the poor, the sick, and the old. Our total Federal budget is about $2.9 trillion.
EVEN WORSE IS WHAT is projected for the long term, which I have mentioned in this column several times. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are projected to explode in spending over the next several decades, as the baby boom ages. They are currently projected to lead federal spending to almost double as a percent of GDP over the next 35 years or so, from around 20% today, where it has been for over 50 years now, to close to 40%, an astounding, unmanageable burden.
In the face of this long-term burden, to think we can handle any sort of big increase in welfare and entitlement spending over current programs is ludicrous. That would ultimately just crash our economy and ruin our prosperity. This applies as well to the notion of any sharp increase in spending for national health insurance, which liberal Democrats seem to think is just a natural and obvious development.