Yglesias

How To Run America Like a Business: Get Rid Of All The Old People

Jamelle Bouie tags Sarah Lacy’s piece on why America can’t “function like a fiscally responsible company” as a good example of “why tech writers should stay away from politics.”

I endorse his critiques, but there’s really a deeper issue here. A state is fundamentally an ethical enterprise aimed at promoting human welfare. A business isn’t like that. If you’re trying to look at America from a balance-sheet perspective the problem is very clear. It’s not “entitlements” and it’s not “Social Security” and it’s not “Medicare” and it’s not “health care costs” it’s the existence of old people. Old people, generally speaking, don’t produce anything of economic value. They sit around, retired, consuming goods and services and produce nothing but the occasional turn at babysitting. The optimal economic growth policy isn’t to slash Social Security or Medicare benefits, it’s to euthanize 70 year-olds and harvest their organs for auction. With that in place, you could cut taxes and massively ramp-up investments in physical infrastructure, early childhood education, and be on easy street. The problem with this isn’t that it wouldn’t work, it’s that it would be wrong, morally speaking.

Now obviously an idea like raising the retirement age to 70 isn’t as wrong as mandatory euthanasia at the age of 70. But by the same token, it doesn’t “work” as well at boosting per capita GDP or cutting down on American red ink. And both ideas exist on a continuum of the same tradeoff—bolstering the living standards of old people is an economically inefficient undertaking that we sentimental human beings find ethically appealing. That’s not to say that the spot on the continuum occupied by current policy is the best possible way to make the tradeoff. But it’s simply to dramatize the nature of calculus we’re talking about. As a “business strategy” it’s ridiculous—on a par with preserving the natural beauty of the Grand Canyon or having the military pay health care costs of soldiers who are too injured to fight—but that’s because it’s not a business strategy.