Our nation of takers is expanding

| Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012, 11:37 a.m.

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Entitlements. They aren't just digging us deeper into a perhaps unpayable national debt, $16 trillion and counting

They're digging into the national character, too. Taking away, for instance, the one-time stigma (and spur to ambition) that clung to poverty programs like food stamps (now received by some 50 million of us). Plus, they're crowding out spending on defense and other national imperatives.

Worse, millions of Americans, especially of the gender that used to wear the pants, as the saying had it, don't want to go to the office, factory or store anymore.

“The impact on men is a flight from work,” says Nicholas Eberstadt. “A disturbing proportion of American men are on 52-week vacation,” he told an audience at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank at Stanford University.

More than 20 percent of U.S. males 20 and older are out of the workforce now, he says, versus just over 10 percent in the “greatest generation,” circa 1948.

Job morality suffers. Americans are “gaming” the system of getting paid for nothing, says Eberstadt. Over 12 million of us receive disability payments now. This outnumbers the 12 million workers in manufacturing.

Eberstadt doesn't think so many are hurting so bad as to have to give up earning. Phony claims point “sadly,” he says, to “collusion by medical professionals.”

He defines entitlements as “government payments for which no service is performed.”

They're a financial mushroom cloud of the past half century. Many would put the initial blast in 1965, when Medicare started. Social Security started tamely in 1935, but went on the wild side in 1971, when it was indexed to inflation. Rampaging medical costs are the major factor.

Entitlements went from just $24 billion a year in President Eisenhower's time (the 1950s) to $2 trillion now, according to Eberstadt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Checks from Uncle Sam in the 1960s accounted for about 6 percent of personal income. Now it's 18 percent.

Ironically, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's famous crack about 47 percent of us now depending on government payments may be an understatement. Eberstadt's guess is more than 50 percent.

And he knows what you're thinking — that the blame belongs to “welfare” recipients and the politicians who cater to them. But no, he says, about 90 percent of the growth has been in “middle-class retirement benefits” such as Social Security and Medicare.

And this under Republican as well as Democrat presidents. Eberstadt gives a slight edge, in fact, to GOP entitlements growers. It's anybody's guess why, maybe a conscience thing. Since 1960, he says, total government transfer payments from one American to another have risen from less than $1 for every $3 of federal spending to $2 in $3 now. Everything else government does has to come out of the $1 left.

He's written a tight little book about it, with a title anything but complimentary: “A Nation of Takers” (Templeton Press, 134 pages).

Trimming what we're taking is such a politically charged task that Eberstadt offered no predictions when or how our elected leaders will do it.

“An optimist would predict a crisis,” he quipped, “an early day of reckoning.”

Jack Markowitz is a columnist on Thursdays for Trib Total Media. Email him at jmarkowitz@tribweb.com.

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