Thursday, May 19, 2011


Here's a novel idea. If you really think it through, maybe Social Security and Medicare are nothing more than an effort to institutionalize a uniquely American concept of personal independence. Stay with me here...

I read somewhere that two thirds of Medicare payments go to nursing homes and I have no reason to doubt this figure. But for the elderly, what are the alternatives to nursing homes? There's really only one I can think of. That would be living with one's kids. In American culture, this arrangement is almost universally viewed a failed lifestyle. Consider:

While watching the National Geographic show about The Three Gorges Dam in China, I was particularly struck by the tremendous difficulties the Chinese faced in relocating families whose homes and farms were going to be submerged by the rising waters of the Yangtze River.

In nearly every case, the families being displaced were noticeably different in composition from typical American families. To wit: a typical, traditional Chinese family usually consists of at least 3 generations living together. And each generation - at least so far as I could see - had some worthwhile skill to add.

Here in America, we tend to view things differently. We attain adulthood, establish careers, get married, raise families, then retire. In China, traditionally, all of these phases of life occur within the same family in the same home.

In America, the success of parents in raising kids is determined by how soon and how well the kids are able to move off and start their own lives - independent of their parents. Well brought up kids are supposed to reach a point in life where they no longer need the help of their parents to make their way.

Steve, I can well remember the stories of how my grandfather and grandmother looked after my great grandmother in her declining years. My great grandmother had her own room in my grandparent's home. My grandmother spend considerable time attending to her.

Nowadays that sort of arrangement is a thing of the past. In today's world, my great grandmother would be living in a nursing home, essentially a ward of the state. In all cases, parents, forced by necessity to live with their grown kids, would be mortified, and consider themselves absolute failures.

Is it possible that in the process of limiting, culturally, the definition of what constitutes a successful family, we have lost something?

Ironically, it seems to me that all the cultural warriors out there fighting to define and defend marriage - the "one man one woman" crowd - are missing the point. What they should be actively promoting is not traditional marriages, but traditional families.

Maybe this sounds naive and simplistic and I'm sorry if it does, but if you are going to assert that stable marriages comprise the bedrock of American society, why would you not consider multi-generational families to be the best (and perhaps only) alternative to entitlements - and have the courage to say so?

Just trying to think a little outside the box here...



  1. Boy, you’re opening a wide-ranging and varied can of worms, aren’t you?

    I’ve give a few simple answers to kick things off…

    Should we (as a society) promote “traditional marriages”? Yes.

    Should we (as a society) promote “traditional families”? Yes.

    Is there a (direct) role for *Government* in this process? There *is*, operationally, but there should not be: I disagree with all attempts at social engineering using the power of government, no matter how well-intentioned. It all comes down to: "Who decides?"

    Now, as to Social Security (and by extension, Medicate/Medicaid)...

    I think the (stated) INTENTION of Social Security is well-known. Under the guise of a government-run insurance program, the (publicly stated) INTENT was to ‘protect’ workers and covered family members against loss of income from the wage earner's retirement, disability, or death. [IMHO, There are many other purposes behind the SSA, some of which would be highly unpopular if generally realized by the public.]

    Using the classic "risk pool of funds", the Social Security program tries to "spread risk" just like any insurance program (public or private). Everyone in the pool is insured against the same risks, but not everyone will benefit to the same extent, for obvious reasons.

    What Social Security has BECOME is a wealth-redistribution program with the express purpose of buying votes. I shouldn’t have to justify that statement: it is what it is. In simple terms, it’s Ponzi scheme.

    Now, we can go down the road of INTENTIONS and REALITY for the SSA if you wish. A quick look at Wikipedia covers a lot of the basics. There are other sources. We need not repeat those discussions of cause-and-effect here.

    On the larger, cultural issue of how families live and exist together in symbiosis... that might be worthy of discussion. Again, some interesting aspects of cause-and-effect will be uncovered. However, when looking at “what we’ve lost”, don’t overlook those things we have “gained” over time. Whether these changes are tipping the scales in the direction we want (or whether that direction is correct) is certainly open for discussion.

    In short, while there *may* be cultural advantages to the lifestyle in China using your example), I - personally - would still rather live here than there. I'm not sure the two styles are mutually exclusive, but I'm just as unsure if they can co-exist on a large scale, either: at least in the modern world.

    Are you simply longing for the Good Old Days - when times were simpler, and we all died sooner? Be careful what you wish for. ;-)

    - Steve

  2. It goes without saying I disagree with you on the advantages of traditional marriages. But of course I don't have any objection to promoting them - so long as it is not government which is doing the promoting.

    This post is basically an exercise in considering how cut-backs in Medicare and Social Security would affect society. If retired persons have less money to finance independent lifestyles, what would be the alternatives?

    No, I don't long to go back to the "good old days". But if the contemporary model of government financed retirement is not sustainable, it seems to worth considering alternative models.

    Neither would I want to live in China, either. My point was that for a society to rely on multi-generational families need not be looked on as a weakness. A household comprised of three generations might easily be considered to have several important advantages over households comprised of one or two.

    Like I said, maybe this is an over-simplification, but consider: mom, dad, the kids and grandkids buy and maintain a home large enough to house all three generations. This advantages the household with added financial resources, time and skills.