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The Menschkeit Deficit

Internally Displaced Person

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If you want to understand the looming debt crisis, watch the 2008 documentary I.O.U.S.A. Scrupulously fair and nonpartisan, its story, about the danger posed by America’s ballooning national debt, is divided into four sections, each of which describes a particular deficit that has made our debt crisis possible: the “budget deficit,” which includes not only current spending but currently unfunded liabilities; the “savings deficit” that results when people live beyond their means and don’t save; the “balance of payments deficit,” which includes but isn’t limited to the well-publicized trade deficit; and the “leadership deficit,” which basically includes our entire governing class with a few exceptions.

To these, I would like to add the “Menschkeit deficit.” Menschkeit is the state of being a mensch, the Yiddish word that describes someone whose life is characterized by “rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, and [responsibility.]”

The Menschkeit deficit matters because in a democracy, with a few legendary exceptions, elected officials tend to follow the lead of nineteenth-century French politician Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, who is supposed to have said, “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” (This is why the Founding Fathers distrusted democracy.)

And where “the people” want to go is a kind of political-economic Big Rock Candy Mountain where “your birthday comes around once a week and it’s Christmas every day.” It’s a place where “you never have to clean your room or put your toys away” because your “leaders” have pledged that they will make someone else do it. Try to lead “the people” anywhere else and you are very likely to become a former leader.

The recent elections were no exception, all the talk about the deficit notwithstanding. Granted, my opinion of the tea party phenomenon is probably a lot closer to Matt Taibbi’s hilarious, albeit profane, take in Rolling Stone, than that of most of the regular visitors to this website.

In it, Taibbi describes an epiphany he had while attending a tea party convention in Louisville. He noticed that many of the attendees were sitting on “motorized wheelchair-scooters.” The person next to him explained that the “scooters are because of Medicare . . . Practically everyone in Kentucky has one.”

“People in Medicare-paid scooters, railing against government spending and imagining themselves revolutionaries. . . . If there exists a better snapshot of everything the Tea Party represents, I can't imagine it.” Neither can I. It’s the Menschkeit deficit on wheels.

It’s why the most potent issue in the recent elections wasn’t the deficit—it was the proposed $500 billion in Medicare “cuts” over the next ten years that are supposed to pay for “Obamacare.” To paraphrase the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, everyone is entitled to their own opinion on “Obamacare” and health care policy in general, but not to their own facts, and the facts are these: health care costs are the biggest driver of our ballooning national debt.

We can, and probably will, tweak Social Security so that the system remains solvent but providing health care to an aging population is what will break the bank, especially with the addition of Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit. You can be a true “deficit hawk” or a supporter of the health care status quo but you cannot honestly be both. That we think otherwise testifies to the power of the Menschkeit deficit.

A similar lack of responsibility is on display in our thinking about the balance of payments deficit. We have been hearing a great deal about how much we owe China and this has many people worried. While this is understandable, the fact remains that half of the trade deficit doesn’t come from buying Chinese or anyone else’s manufactured goods—it comes from importing oil.

At this point, the problems and even perils associated with our dependence on imported oil are so obvious than even an australopithecine can get it. But, apparently, not many Americans. Case in point I: A few weeks ago, I was watching a muscle car auction on television. While showing off a fully-restored 1962 Impala, the announcer pointed to its bulbous windshield and told viewers that such a detail would be impossible today due to Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards and added that these standards were about to get even more “burdensome.”

Case in point II: The incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee has pledged to save the incandescent light bulb. His “Better Use of Light Bulbs Act” would repeal efficiency standards that would in effect mandate a switch to compact fluorescent bulbs (CFBs) and later to bulbs using Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs).

Now, I appreciate the classic Impala look as much as anybody else. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of checking out the new cars at the beginning of the new model year each autumn. I understand the appeal of brake horsepower and zero-to-sixty times in the sub six-second range. And I wish that it didn’t take so long for the room to light up with CFBs.

But, given how much our dependence on foreign oil is costing us, and how much we could save through simple conservation, I can’t help but think that a society that can’t forego some horsepower and change a stinking light bulb is beyond remedy. If, given what’s at stake, waiting an extra few seconds for the room to brighten or drive a somewhat smaller and more fuel-efficient car is too much to ask, then talk about “sacrifice” isn’t hollow—it’s a vacuum.

The odd thing about the Menschkeit deficit is that many of the people exhibiting its symptoms are, in other areas of life, rather mensch-like. They’re stand-up guys (and gals) who behave responsibly and who cannot fairly be accused of lacking a sense of right and wrong. Yet, all of this disappears on the political level: it’s easier to get my son to postpone gratification than it is to get many American voters to do the same.

Maybe I’m giving them too much credit—maybe what I’m calling “mensch-like” is actually a kind of superficial virtue made possible by abundance and now that the good times have ended their inner unmensch has emerged.

There’s another alternative: the Menschkeit deficit is the product of defective thinking. We find it hard to do what’s necessary because we’re in the thrall of an illusion, a belief that causes us to think that we don’t have to make difficult choices because somehow, unlike other countries, we are special.

In other words, we may be the victims of American exceptionalism, which is the subject of my next column.


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Comments:

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Part of the reason we import so much oil is the government's restrictions on developing our own energy resources. Moreover, some efforts to save energy carry a sustancial human cost. To meet fuel-efficiency standards, cars are now made flimsier, giving people less protection in crashes. Compact fluorescent light bulbs release harmful vapors if they break, and I've read that their light can harm people with certain medical conditions.
Correcting our menschkeit deficit would mean major cuts in government spending, but not harmful regulations(overspending and overregulation are both hallmarks of big government.
Ben M, I'm curious about your statement:

"I'd cut medicare, medicaid, welfare, and replace them with something else.. instead of the current system that once you get on it, it's designed to keep you on it".

The current welfare program in the US requires recipients to begin working within two years of receiving benefits, and has a lifetime limit of five years of benefits [1]. It seems to be already oriented towards getting people working. Likewise, Medicare is a health insurance granted to US citizens over 65 who've paid into Medicare for at least a decade, but doesn't really have anything to do with whether you work or not. It certainly doesn't penalize you for working.

I'm in favor of some parts of Obamacare: I think that everyone should have health insurance, just like everyone who drives has to buy car insurance. If you're in a horrible accident, the doctors may not have time to figure out if you have health insurance before they start treating you. By forcing everyone to buy health insurance, we make sure that the hospitals can be reimbursed for their work while still working quickly and efficiently in emergency situations.

Likewise, I'm in favor of our Social Security program, which keeps about half of our elderly out of poverty right now [2]. Poverty amongst elderly before Social Security was also about 50%, so it seems that this is a longstanding issue: many people will simply not save enough money for retirement. So I don't see how we can cut Social Security unless we want to let many of the elderly fall back into poverty.

By all means, if we can cut SS, we should.. I just don't see how we can morally do so. The reasons for poverty amongst the elderly are a lot more complicated than just "people are lazy", and addressing poverty as if it were that simple will get us nowhere.


Also, I'm honestly not that concerned about what the voter thinks. Americans are generally ignorant about the economy and politics, with a majority of us even thinking that taxes have increased under Obama [3].


1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_Responsibility_and_Work_Opportunity_Act
2. http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2008/07/elderly_poverty.html
3. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-10-29/poll-shows-americans-don-t-know-economy-expanded-with-tax-cuts.html

(I'd have included more references, but I'm afraid of getting blocked by the spamblocker).
Not good to write a column
when you don't understand all the issues.
(Note: This comment is from Benjamen R. Meyer. Because I messed up when I posted Roberto's piece, the comment went to the wrong place and got lost in the shuffle. I'm re-posting it for him. --GRD)

While I agree with you in the Menschkeit issue overall...you're sadly missing a big part of it.

I haven't been to a Tea Party rally - but would certainly consider myself in that category of being furious with both Republicans and Democrats, and have been looking for a good alternative for a while. I'm quite hoping the Tea Party will become formal and make the system into a 3 party system - I'd certainly join it. But I'm in no way what you described of the participants in Louisville, and that doesn't seem to be (from what I've seen) most of them either.

Of course, I'd cut medicare, medicaide, welfare, and replace them with something else - highly focused on providing for the needy and elderly, but designed to encourage those that can work to work. (Instead of the current system that once you get on it, it's designed to keep you on it.)

I'd also get rid of Social Security - entirely. Choose an age - in the 20's or early 30's - where people still have the ability to save up for retirement; that age and younger will never receive Social Security. When no more participants are on it, the remainder goes to paying down the national deficit. (Those who are disabled and collecting Social Security should properly be under the replacement for the Welfare system above; not on Social Security.) Yes - I'd eliminate myself from being able to receive it.

That's one side. Unfortunately, as you said, politicians are too busy leading by following to do the right thing and do the above - the Social Security one would likely be doable too since younger voters would be less inclined to lean on it; and the elderly won't care per the youngsters. (Though AARP might still have a fit.)

Per the issue of Oil and fuel economy - the customer is just out of luck. Back in 2005 I tried to get a more fuel efficient vehicle. I ended up with a Mazda5, which gets a piddly 26MPG/32MPG city/highway - good according to the industry. At the time, I really only had two options: buy a small car with no breaks from the dealers, or buy a Toyota Prius and wait 4 months to get the vehicle (since it was on backorder!). I couldn't wait 4 months; and dealer try to push people into the SUVs - which I can't stand.

Today, the MPG's aren't much better. There's a few more hybrid option - though none are very good; the Chevy Volt offers the most promise. Some vehicles (SMART, Nissan Leaf, etc) are going full-electric and GE is even rolling out personal charging stations. But still the market isn't that good. Most traditional (e.g. Prius-style) hybrids still get a piddly 35 MPG on the highway, while they'll roam around town on practically nothing depending on how much you drive in a day and when you can charge it - if you can charge it in an outlet. And then you get issues with the EPA, which still hasn't figured out how to give the Volt an MPG rating, which also holds us back.

Oh, want to submit something to one of the Big Three manufacturers to try to get heard? You'll get the response that they only listen to their focus groups (yes, I got that response when trying).

In other words, the auto industry is paying little if any attention to what customers might actually want - one of the reasons that GM and Chysler needed all those billions of cash infused in them while they got rid of stock nobody wanted and tried to build vehicles that would sell. Ford faired a little better as they were a little further down the curve than GM and Chrysler, but not by much. Still, they refuse to listen, and the laws are written in their favor - given all they contribute to elections, as well as the UAW. (Feeling helpless yet?)

So until we get politicians to actually do the responsible thing - eliminate Obamacare; fix medicare, medicaide, and welfare; eliminate social security; and actually do start listening to the people but also making good leadership decisions and being responsible with the budgets - nothing will change; sadly.

Oh - and the it was no surprise that the Democrats got such a whipping during the elections - given how they pushed through Obamacare even though every district in the US told them not to. Sometimes there are issues where you need to do the right thing (e.g. eliminate Social Security) and it won't be popular but will be right. Othertimes, you really do need to listen. Obamacare was one of those times when they needed to listen - it wasn't right by any means.
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