“I actually only write about politics to support my baseball habit,” joked Pulitzer Prize-winning conservative newspaper columnist George F. Will, who gave the keynote address at the 2012 AAOS Annual Meeting.
Mr. Will, known for his witty, insightful views on politics as well as for his baseball expertise, offered his opinions on the 2012 presidential race and discussed many of the issues facing the country. He called for a smaller role for the federal government and zeroed in on entitlement programs that have given rise to what he dubbed the “spreading web of dependency.”
Baseball and the presidential race
Before he began his address, Mr. Will asked his friend Tony LaRussa, former manager of the Chicago White Sox, the Oakland Athletics, and the St. Louis Cardinals, winners of the 2011 World Series, to join him on stage.
Mr. Will, who grew up in Champaign, Ill., between Chicago and St. Louis, Mo., said that his early decision to root for the Cubs had far-reaching effects.
“All my friends became Cardinals fans and grew up cheerful and liberal, but I became a gloomy conservative,” he said, drawing laughs.
Although he refused to make any predictions about who will win the presidential race this year, Mr. Will was willing to share his thoughts on some of the candidates.
“When it comes to political prophecy, I subscribe to the ‘Zeke Bonura principle,’” he said. “Zeke was a first baseman of spectacular immobility. Zeke understood the rule of baseball that says you will not be charged with an error if you do not touch the ball.”
In his view, the leading Republican candidate is Romney, and “his first name is ‘Not.’”
“Anyone who is not Romney is profiting at the moment,” said Mr. Will. “Most Republicans do not want to support their current frontrunner.”
Republicans have not been very capable in competing for minority voters—in particular, for the votes of Hispanics, the largest, fastest-growing minority in the country.
“In 2000, the electorate in the Bush–Gore race was 81 percent white. In 2008, it was 74 percent white. If the minority portion of the electorate continues to grow as it has for the 20 years since 1992, Mr. Obama can win in 2012 with only 40 percent of the white vote, assuming he gets—as we generally probably should assume—75 percent of the minority vote.
“There are 11 million illegal immigrants in this country,” he continued. “The Republicans have been campaigning against them relentlessly. But let me tell you a simple truth: they’re not going home. To deport 11 million Americans would require police measures that all good Americans would flinch from. Furthermore, these 11 million people are 5 percent of the American workforce.”
Spending and dependency
“Now for the really depressing stuff,” said Mr. Will, asking the audience to count from 1 to 10 with him.
“In those 10 seconds, your government borrowed another half a million dollars,” he said.
Adding to the nation’s economic woes, he said, is the problem of unemployment. Although the January jobs report was encouraging, even if that rate of job creation continued, he said, “we would not get back to full employment until 2019.”
“People say the solution is to tax the rich,” he said. “A country that has lost $7.4 trillion in home equity needs more than that.”
We are a nation, he said, that “has so thoroughly separated the pleasure of purchasing something from the pain of paying for it that we have now turned into a nation of debtors.
“What worries me is the spreading web of dependency,” he continued. This is not just an ancillary consequence of another agenda; I believe spreading dependency is the agenda.”
Dependency is becoming a national crisis, according to Mr. Will.
“One in seven Americans is on food stamps, and one in six Americans is eligible for Medicaid,” he said.
The problem of medicine
But the real problem, he said, is modern medicine, which “is swallowing the federal budget.”
“Competent medicine barely existed until recently,” said Mr. Will, adding that “probably a third to a half of the medical treatments available now did not exist in 1965, when we passed Medicare.”
At the time he was born, in 1941, a hospital’s principal expense was likely clean linen, he said. “That was true of many hospitals back then, before CAT scans, magnetic resonance imaging, laser surgery, and all the rest of what we’re delighted to have, and reluctant to pay for.”
As recently as 1961, said Mr. Will, the United States spent 6 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on health care; today, he said, that number is 18 percent and continues to increase.
“I don’t care who is president, and I don’t care what Congress says: the percentage of GDP that we spend on health care is going to continue to increase for three obvious reasons: we’re going to live longer, we’re going to have more disposable income, and we’re going to choose to spend it on the increasing competence of medicine.
“Living longer means we will become eligible for a rich cocktail of ailments all at once. Today something like 50 percent of Medicare patients are living with four or more chronic ailments, any one of which might have killed them two or three generations ago,” said Mr. Will.
Every day between now and 2030, he noted, 10,000 baby boomers will become eligible for Medicare and Social Security benefits.
“This crisis began on Jan. 1, 2008, when the first of 77 million baby boomers began to retire,” he said. “They began to retire because the majority of Americans begin collecting social security at age 62, which is preposterous.”
The thing to understand about the welfare state, said Mr. Will, is that “it exists to subsidize two things that did not exist in 1935 when the Social Security Act was enacted and we began to build a welfare state: protracted retirement and competent medicine.”
By the time all the baby boomers have retired in 2030, he said, the average age of the American population from coast to coast will be higher than it is in the state of Florida today, which he noted has such a high concentration of retirees that it is “justly known as God’s antechamber.”
A large part of the problem, he said, involves 12 cents—that is, only 12 cents of every healthcare dollar is paid by the person receiving the care.
“The other 88 cents are paid by someone else, such as the government,” he said, circling back to the concept of entitlement and spreading dependency. “This explains why Americans have a kind of buffet attitude to the healthcare system: when someone else is paying, let’s eat all the shrimp.”
He proposed that whenever an American is handed a ballot, a graph should be stapled to that ballot with two intersecting lines: the rising line would show more and more Americans dependent on the government for an increasing number of benefits, and the declining line would show fewer and fewer Americans paying for those benefits.
The declining line, he said, would illustrate participation in the income tax system.
“The top one percent of American earners pay 39 percent of the [total] income tax,” he said. “The top 5 percent pay 60 percent, the top 10 percent pay 70 percent, and the bottom 50 percent pay 3 percent. A clear, thumping majority—60 percent of Americans—pay either no income tax or less than 5 percent of their income in taxes.”
Thus, he said, most Americans have “no incentive to restrain the growth of a government they’re not paying for.”
Looking to the future
Despite the many issues facing America, said Mr. Will, he believes in the future of this country.
“Things are going to get better because the American character is a lot more durable than people think,” he said. “The thing for Americans to understand is we can get better by choosing to get better.”
He noted that the United States has a 100-year supply of natural gas, as well as two thirds of the 500 largest software companies.
“Sure, we have 6 million fewer people in manufacturing than when manufacturing employment peaked in the 1970s, but so what? With fewer workers, we now have 2.5 times the 1972 manufacturing output because we are more efficient.”
Mr. Will noted that he would understand if listening to today’s political rhetoric made some people feel as though they were like Earl Weaver, a former major league baseball manager, whom he described as a “short, irascible, dyspeptic, Napoleonic little figure.”
“When he was out of sorts, as he usually was by about the third inning, he was the scourge of American League umpires,” he said. “He would come out of the dugout, stick his chin into the chest of a much larger umpire, and would shout at the top of his lungs, ‘Are you going to get any better, or is this it?’”
According to Mr. Will, “the American people understand that a benevolent government is not always a benefactor, and that capitalism doesn’t just make us better off—it makes us better by enforcing what Margaret Thatcher called the stern virtues: thrift, industriousness, and deferral of gratification.”
Jennie McKee is a staff writer for AAOS Now. She can be reached at email@example.com