Hello, My Name is Bret, And I Have A Problem.

There’s an old joke that went something like this: I used to be addicted to cigarettes, but then I tried nicotine gum. I no longer smoke, but now I chew 10 packs a day. When I think about the first time I heard that joke, it still brings a smile. But when I think about how appropriate that story is to describe the current state of things, it scares me a little.

Breaking the grip of an addiction is no laughing matter, and there are far too many examples of people finally breaking free of one substance, only to become addicted to the cure. The cycle of addiction and the consequences of any lack of self-control can be devastating to individuals, families and friends.

The hard part is that, lately, I feel like I need to attempt an intervention. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how to get the entire United States of America into my livingroom. And even if I did squeeze everyone in, I’m not sure how to get them to listen. After all, there are plenty of programs to help you stop smoking, drinking, or even taking drugs, but I’m unfamiliar with a single program that will help ween us off of government subsidies.

I guess the first step is always admitting you have a problem. So here it goes…

Hello, my name is Bret Callentine, and I’ve gotten far too comfortable living in a society that I no longer can afford, with programs that I don’t value nearly enough and policies that I don’t do my part to maintain.

Wow, they’re right, I feel better already.

Like the amputee who gets hooked on pain pills, the United States didn’t start out with a spending problem, they were only trying to cure other societal ills.  We saw the problems facing the elderly, so we created Social Security. We saw families fighting homelessness and hunger so we created things like food stamps and government housing. We heard the cries of those looking for work so we created unemployment insurance.

We started with the best of intentions and the most noble of goals, but as the dosage got bigger, our immunity seemed to get stronger, and after a while, no one seemed to even ask if the medicine was having any real effect.

When Social Security was enacted, most people didn’t even live to age 65, let alone have the need for government assistance once they got there.  But once we got comfortable with the premise, the program quickly moved from being a safety net to a right of passage. As the average life span went up and the average retirement saving went down, we took a program that was meant as a “might need” and turned it into a “must have”.

More than 50 years later, we’re all hooked on Social Security, but if we took a moment to look around, we might ask, is it really saving anyone from poverty anymore, or is it just saving us the responsibility of having to secure our own future?

But this isn’t just about entitlement programs. It’s about lifestyle. In January, President Obama gave his State of the Union Address. In it he prompted us to “win the future” by taking up the causes of renewable energy, high speed rail and better education. But if we want to tackle our future, we first need to reconcile with our past.

If we have trouble justifying public transportation, look no further than decades of government intervention making it easier for companies to build cars, cheaper for people to buy cars, and helping families become all too dependent on having them.

The public clamors for less waste and more recycling, but if we were really serious, we’d stop throwing money at the problem and start addressing our addiction to the laziness surrounding it. If the old tv breaks down, no problem, just put it out on the tree lawn. Never got around to finishing the meatloaf in the fridge? No big deal, just pitch it in the garbage. Just a year ago, Lakewood went crazy when we were told we had to wheel our cans to the curb. But how green do you think we would be if the city only picked up the recycling and we had to drive all our garbage to the dump? I think we’d be a little more cautious of what we throw away if we had to toss it in the trunk of our car once a week to get rid of it.

John Maynard  Keynes postulated that in the face of a societal need, the natural state of the economic picture can be manipulated to stimulate demand or subsidize supply. But where most people argue the question of if and when to step in, we’re all seeing the dangers of figuring out how and when to get out. What starts as programs to resolve problems we can’t solve on our own, slowly develops into a resource to handle issues we don’t want to handle on our own.

Then, as time and tolerance goes on, it evolves into an entitlement we think we simply cannot live without.

Read More on Perspective
Volume 7, Issue 4, Posted 6:48 PM, 02.22.2011