Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri lit up the media with his "Satan Sandwich" remark. That's what he called the debt-ceiling deal — a "sugar-coated Satan sandwich."
“If you lift the bun,” he told MSNBC, “what you see is antithetical to everything the great religions of the world teach, which is take care of the poor, take care of the aged.”
Cleaver wasn’t alone in over-the-top rhetoric. Last week, Republicans and tea partiers were called terrorists, hostage-takers, jihadists and worse — much of it coming from the same people who tut-tutted the GOP about “toxic rhetoric” after the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords.
But take a closer look at Cleaver’s quote. He implies a divine sanction for the political project of liberalism, which emphasizes getting more for those in need.
The impulse is laudable and on that point few would object. But the argument today isn’t about whether to maintain a safety net; that was settled long ago. At issue is what to do about the reality that the government is promising grossly more than we can afford to deliver.
The U.S. government has become a giant check-writing machine, with two-thirds of the federal budget given over to payments to individuals — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment benefits, food stamps, housing subsidies. Last year, government payments made up more than 18 percent of Americans’ personal income, a record.
That’s the place where we find ourselves, even though the leading edge of the huge baby-boom generation has barely reached retirement age. In a few years, the picture will get a lot worse.
In recent days I’ve received calls from seniors upset and angry about all the talk of reform. Tell the politicians to keep their hands off Social Security and Medicare, they say: We’ve paid into those programs all our working lives.
True, but most retirees will still get back far more than they put in. John Cogan of Stanford calculated that by the time they’re 66, the typical husband and wife will pay $500,000 into Social Security and Medicare. A tidy sum, but that typical couple will receive double that amount in inflation-adjusted Social Security benefits and Medicare services — courtesy of younger taxpayers.
No one has suggested cutting benefits for people close to retirement or already retired. But if Democrats succeed in blocking reform efforts while portraying any attempt to cut spending as satanic, we’re far more likely to reach that point.
Global credit markets will not forever tolerate Treasury’s current level of borrowing, nor will younger workers accept the huge tax increases — and diminished future — necessary to finance these programs as they stand.
Many on the left describe government benefits as rights on a par with the right to free speech or religion, echoing FDR’s suggestion that “freedom from want” should be on the same plane as freedom of religion. But the two kinds of “rights” cannot be the same.
As Noemie Emery wrote recently in The Weekly Standard, constitutional rights require payment from nobody, while government benefit programs deliver goods and services that cost money, have properties of scarcity and require tradeoffs.
Cleaver and his friends use the language of fairness and justice to suggest that the only policy in keeping with “the great religions of the world” is to grab a bigger share of other people’s money, ignoring the growth of the debt and the threat it will impede the wealth-creation process on which these politicians feed. Their basic program of more and more and more runs the risk of creating more people dependent on government.
This is not something that can continue. The real Satan sandwich will come if we do nothing and someday face the choice of blighting our children’s economic future or cutting benefits to people already retired — or both.