Debt and Deficits

Woman Still Getting Civil-War Survivor Benefits Shows How Federal Policies Mortgage the Future

Abraham Lincoln couldn't have dreamed that 21st-century Americans would still be paying for pensions created under him.


John Lund Blend Images/Newscom

Twenty or 50 years from now, the uproar over the House Intelligence Committee memo will be no more than a footnote to history, and many Americans living then will have fading memories, if any, of the Trump administration. But they will be sure to feel the consequence of other policies, little noticed now, that will weigh more heavily with each passing year.

You may have never heard of Irene Triplett, who illustrates something politicians often forget: Decisions made for immediate purposes can reverberate for a long, long time.

During the Civil War, to bolster military recruitment, the U.S. government established pensions for veterans wounded in battle and widows of those killed. After the war, the system was repeatedly expanded to cover ever more beneficiaries, including men whose disabilities had nothing to do with their service in uniform.

As economist John Cogan of Stanford University and the Hoover Institution notes in his new book, The High Cost of Good Intentions, Congress eventually granted pensions to widows of Union veterans who married after 1890. Then it included all widows whose marriages had lasted 10 years. "In 1957," he writes, "Congress dropped the 10-year requirement. Incredibly, a year later, Congress granted pensions to widows of Confederate soldiers."

In 1924, Mose Triplett, who had served in both the Union and the Confederate armies, married a woman who bore him a daughter named Irene. Born five years later, she is still getting survivor benefits from the Civil War, 153 years after it ended.

Cogan's book chronicles the steady growth of federal entitlements. Social Security was originally meant to ensure protection against poverty to about half of future retirees. But "every Congress, save one, and every president during the years from 1950 to 1972 took action to expand the program."

The pattern is logical. New programs "confine benefits to a group of individuals who are deemed to be particularly worthy of assistance," says Cogan. But groups outside the category push to be included and ultimately prevail. The change puts another group closer to qualifying, and that group does the same thing. The process repeats until the original rationale is lost.

Today, federal entitlement assistance of one type or another goes to more than half of U.S. households—and 31 percent of beneficiaries are in families whose income exceeds the national average. In 2015, households in the top fifth of earners collected $225 billion in federal benefits.

Restraining the cost of entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare is especially hard now. The ongoing retirement of the baby boom generation automatically swells their rolls. With a commitment to fiscal responsibility and regard for future generations, our elected officials might devise humane ways to curb this growth. But to the extent that commitment ever existed, it is gone.

It vanished on December 22, when President Donald Trump signed a tax bill that the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget projects will generate $1.8 trillion in additional deficits over the next decade—on top of the $10.2 trillion already in the pipeline.

The bipartisan watchdog group also says, "Congress is likely to consider increasing discretionary spending caps for the next two years, disaster relief to deal with last year's hurricanes, (and) extensions of temporary tax provisions that expired at the end of 2016." In that scenario, the extra 10-year deficits would be more like $2.2 trillion.

Conservatives claim the gap will force Congress to slash domestic spending. Fat chance. In the late 1990s, President Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress could envision and reach a clear achievement: balancing the budget. But once that goal is hopelessly out of reach, politicians have nothing to gain from spending discipline.

Once deficits are considered the immutable norm, elected officials have every reason to enlarge them, delivering ever-richer benefits to current voters without charging those voters the full price. Much of the cost is deferred to future taxpayers, who have no say.

Since 2001, the federal budget has gone from a $156 billion surplus to a $440 billion deficit. Outlays, which then were 17.6 percent of gross domestic product, are now 21.5 percent of GDP. Deficits don't constrain spending; they stimulate it.

Abraham Lincoln couldn't have dreamed that 21st-century Americans would still be paying for pensions created under him. Our leaders, by contrast, know full well that the debt they are piling up today will be a burden on our descendants. When they look back, they may curse us.


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  1. The fun part will be when practical near-infinite life spans are possible. What will happen to people collecting pensions, whether Social Security, state and local, or ordinary corporate pensions? 401(k), IRAs, etc, probably won’t be a problem, except when the capital itself is withdrawn because people didn’t expect to live past, say, 100.

    Gonna be some fun times.

    I also wonder what will happen to all those cops and firemen on tax-free disability pensions when medical science can pretty much cure anything. Probably nothing for retirees over a certain age, but cops who want to retire early on sweet fake disabilities? At some point, politicians and voters will wonder why a cop is being paid full pay, tax-free, for a disability which could be cured for less than a single year’s pay and all that valuable experience could be put back on the street.

    1. Well, private and public pension-paying entities could offer bounties on recipients. If you take out Joe, you get 10% of his pension or SS check added to yours (and the state or corporation wipes the other 90% off their books). Could even be broadcast.

      Fun times indeed.

  2. “In a libertarian society, we’d all live in gated communities with private police forces and competing court systems. A John Galt statue stands in every town square.”

    The US was pretty much a libertarian society when it began, at least in the northern states. Since then, the politics of dependency – making everyone dependent on government for something – would make it difficult to transition back to a libertarian society, but your hypothesis about everyone living in a gated community is just that – a hypothesis.

    Most people are libertarians in their everyday lives. Most people, at least until recently, support themselves and their families and do what they want while minding their own business. It’s when they get in the voting booths that people delegate their stealing, kidnapping, deceit, etc. to government officials.

    1. “The US was pretty much a libertarian society when it began, at least in the northern states.”

      Uh, not quite. The northern colonies mostly derived from religious fundamental groups with very strict ideas about proper society and behavior. And the New Englanders especially were not shy about promoting and propagating their views (still the case today). The southern colonies established outliers of displaced aristocracy and, of course, the slave-based economy transplanted from the Caribbean. The vestigates of New Amsterdam, around NYC, were more inclined to free market principles, but still supported the English king (and became the HQ for the “invading” British force). Any true libertarian spirit might have been found in the then western frontier, ancestors of today’s hill-billy culture. (and full credit to Collin Woodard–I recommend his American Nations)

      So arguments that we have to return to founding root ideas are unfounded.

      1. In what areas??? We were more libertarian then on the whole than now. Taxes were lower. Vastly fewer laws. Society, not the government, imposed lots of standards on people, but that’s perfectly compatible with libertarianism. Honestly I’d say 1800s, to maybe early 1900s was our golden era as far as libertarian politics go. No place on earth was probably freer than the wild west baby!

        The USA was never perfect, but it was probably the best example ever in human history. We should take the good from back then (a lot) and keep some of the good that has happened since then (some to be sure) and make a better country than there ever has been, including the USA of the 1800s!

        1. If you mean in the early history there hasn’t been enough time to enact laws and levy taxes you’re on to something. Given enough time we all fuck ourselves with good intentions.

          1. That’s basically it. We hadn’t had time to fuck it up yet! As I have got older I’ve realized that the founding fathers took WAY too much for granted with the constitution. They really should have been far more explicit in limiting government powers. I think most of them, being the smart chaps they were, had the right ideas about things. They wrote it assuming common sense on later interpreters… That was their mistake.

            But there was a strong philosophical streak, inspired by their clear and obvious intentions, that was very strong in the 1800s. This carried on into today, but really lost steam during the 20s/30s more than anything. Since then we’ve accepted government getting involved in everything, much to our detriment.

        2. In what areas??? We were more libertarian then on the whole than now.

          Sure, if you only care about taxes.

          But if you care about representation (women couldn’t vote in most states, various Jim Crow laws kept blacks from voting in others), if you care about owning property (in many states women couldn’t own property), religious freedom (Incorporation wouldn’t apply the First Amendment to the states for a long time, and religious tests for state offices, state sponsorship of specific religions and so-on was accepted), privacy rights (we’re decades before Griswold v. Connecticut and a full century before Lawrence v Texas), family (heck, forget SSM, we’re talking miscegenation laws), blue laws, gun control laws (remember, it wasn’t until Heller that the 2nd Amendment was read to guarantee an individual right to bear arms)…

          So sure. If you just want to talk money? Then go for it. But there were lots of government-imposed standards on people, lots of restrictions on personal freedom, lots of criminalizing behavior that folks thought was “immoral”.

          So taxes and drugs. That was more “free”. But if you weren’t white and male, or if you deviated from the norm in other ways? Then there were a lot of problem.s

          In fact, your

          1. That stuff is mostly all true. But you’re ignoring a thousand other counter points as well. You didn’t have minimum wages. You didn’t have zoning laws. More property rights in general in many respects. You had MORE gun rights in many ways.

            You can come up with points on either side, but frankly most of it comes down to identity politics stuff of black people, women, and gays got screwed. Which is more or less true. But if you were a white man it was fucking amazing. My point is that we should take the best of things from back then, and now. I want EVERYBODY to be able to live like a white man in the 1800s if you care to think of it that way.

  3. The federal budget surplus of $156 billion for 2001 does not account for the intragovernmental borrowing from the Social Security Trust Fund. When that is accounted for, there was a budget deficit as evidenced by the increase in national debt. What about the $440 budget surplus figure — does that also ignore intragovernmental borrowing?

    1. Oooops, my point on the 2001 budget deficit was already explained by Michael Hinn. But my question on the $440 budget surplus figure remains.

      1. Interesting question, don’t have time to google it now though… I hope it does… If it’s really even higher than that… UGH.

      2. No, it was explained by me.

  4. The important things in life are simple.
    The simple things in life are very hard.

    Social Security:
    Admit is was a scam from the start; politicians wanted the old guys to retire so the unemployed young men could get their jobs and not riot in the streets.
    Remove the earnings cap from the tax to infuse a few more bucks.
    Remove the disability portion and make ‘social security’ a pure retirement program. Either roll disability into medicare/medicaid, or just set up a new bureau to deny (I mean review) the claims.
    Index the retirement age to life expectancy. (closing the gap will take a few years, but we all have time, right?)
    Pick a year when enrollments will cease. Those born after that year will be on their own.
    Everybody has health insurance now. Stop enrollments in Medicare. Continue the program until those enrolled die out and the program dries up.
    Health care / Health insurance:
    There is a character limit, so you have to figure that out on your own.

    1. Pretty much. Another alternative to keep SS going is to just invest even a portion of it into REAL investments instead of uber low yield government bonds. It would be waaay more than solvent if they invested even 25% or 50% into the stock market, even keeping the rest in shit bonds. These problems are all so easy to solve it makes me want to puke to see the can just get kicked down the road endlessly.

    2. Of course the real way to save $ on Medicare & Medicaid is to deregulate health care & thus make it less expensive. Stop focusing so much on pushing the costs around, focus more on getting costs down.

        1. You seem to be more interested in who’s discussing the subject than the subject matter itself. Pretend there’s no Michael Hihn, then. Isn’t it better thinking to focus on what’s creating the costs than the hot potato that the costs have become?

          Yes, it does matter who pays, because consumer incentives work. But at this time the potato’s so hot that it’d be more productive to focus on producer incentives, i.e. the supply side.

      1. And wouldn’t all the ‘Professional’ organizations (not just Doctors) scream like Trump-frightened Democrats is we even suggested it? The Doctors LIKE being a are and therefore expensive item. They don’t WANT to be considered chancre mechanics. And the Lawyers know goddamned well that if GPs are as hard to find as jiffy-lubes, THEIR lucrative racket suing for malpractice goes poof…and their ‘Bar Association’ swindle might be in danger.

  5. Nothing. Left. To. Cut., period.

  6. This woman died last summer.

    1. Did they catch whoever’s been cashing her checks since then?

  7. In 1935 life expectancy was 58 for men and 62 for women. Retirement age was 65. FDR saw it as a government money maker.

  8. First argument: wait a minute here. what’s the big deal? it’s not like the US currency is gold backed or anything! it’s just paper! Didn’t government bail out the EU, banks, and everyone else during the “great recession”. Just print the money. Modern economies are just an elaborate form of kabuki theatre.

    second argument: how else are you going to get people to go fight in war? traditionally it is has been offer non-citizens citizenship, offer college tuition, retirements…. and the list goes on. stop picking on veterans and their families!

  9. yest that the good point.. Freebet Terbaru

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  10. Really?
    An entire thread based on some idiocy posed by Michael Dihm(wit)?
    If anyone is worried about federal payments exploding; wait until the scammers figure out the whole, libertarian supported, “anyone can ‘marry’ anyone” doctrine will have entire chains of generations getting spousal benefits.
    Widowed mother will “marry” son, who will “marry” daughter, who will “marry” dog – each getting surviving spousal benefits.
    I guess Saint Anthony didn’t think through his unconstitutional elimination of marriage restrictions the states had, legally set up.

    1. Spousal benefits don’t chain like that. You get benefits for your spouse, not your spouse’s prior or passed spouse.

      For that matter, in many cases spousal benefits stop if you re-marry. It’s actually a weird incentive for widow(er)s to cohabit rather then re-marry, because while cohabiting they can both collect their retirement benefits as well as their survivor benefits, but if they remarry then they can’t collect their survivor benefits anymore.

      And that said, Obergefel v. Hodges (2015) eliminated sex-based restrictions. Restrictions based on co-sanguinity, age, and consent are still fully valid. So no, you can’t marry your mother, daughter or dog. Except in Alabama.

  11. “…our descendants…may curse us.” I curse the statists now. But I’m ahead of my time.

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