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Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013 03:37 pm

This mess won’t end well

One recent afternoon, my infant daughter slept in my arms while I flipped through a backlog of magazines. I stumbled upon this article – “Dysfunctional Illinois: No Play, No Pay” – about our “enormous unfunded pension liability” (about $133 billion) in The Economist. It was disconcerting that my state government’s reputation as an inept laughingstock had gone global.

An article in the Aug. 19 issue of Time reminded me that our congressional leaders also have successfully transformed this country into a target for ridicule. Reporter Zeke Miller observed that “just 22 bills – almost none of them significant – have passed both chambers in the first six months of the 113th Congress.”

 Such meager production merits a worse label than the “Do-Nothing Congress;” this is the “Comatose Congress” or the “Brain-dead Body.” For this epic incompetence, which we the people unwisely tolerate, members of Congress earn a base annual salary of $174,000, well over three times the median household income of the citizenry.

 “Think very carefully about this vote,” Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins reportedly asked her peers, shortly before another bill imploded. “It will be so unfortunate if we go home to our constituents in August and are forced to tell them that we’re unable to do our job.” Yes, but they all went home and blamed the other guy, senator.

 Consider, as a comparison, the quality on display at Springfield’s Memorial Medical Center. I spent time there during July because of my mother’s life-threatening illness, and I witnessed numerous instances of competence throughout the organization. Thank you to the staff members who worked directly with my mother. My family owes you a debt of gratitude (and your bosses owe you a raise).

 From the annual report of the hospital’s foundation, I learned about the expansion project and examined the long list of donors. These actions wisely reinforce success and support excellence. (One reason why this country is crippled by a damaging tax revolt is that our citizens know that you should not reinforce failure or reward incompetence.)

 During my long hours in the hospital, one disturbing scenario occupied my attention. The villain in my scenario is like a massive tsunami that will crush the middle class.

 The large Baby-Boomer generation is aging. The American population is in poor, and worsening, health. Wages have been stagnant or declining for most workers for decades, and most households have too much debt and only meager assets as the adults approach retirement age. Well-paying jobs are increasingly scarce. Many couples have shifted to multiple-earner relationships to support their children. Decades of disastrous economic policies and weak job markets have forced extended families to disperse across the country.

 Seniors who are struggling to pay the costs for original Medicare or who do not trust their government are placing themselves in the ruthless hands of private companies that have clear profit incentives to prevent patients from receiving the care they qualify for under Medicare. Shortsighted political leaders grumble about the need to slash pensions, Medicaid, food aid, Medicare and even Social Security. With our country’s recent luck, those goals are the ones they will achieve. Oddly, many people who need these programs continue to vote for the people who want to shred them.

 Then diabetes, and strokes, heart attacks, broken hips, and back injuries will mow down the Boomers, while the costs of medical care and the time demands of caregiving place enormous stress on all families not among the ranks of the top one percent of wealth holders. What will those stressors do to the fabric of families and communities?

 Energetic leadership could prevent this impending disaster. It is a human-made problem that can be fixed by our elected representatives, if they are true public servants and competent at the job we pay them to do.

 I’m trying to stay optimistic. I told my little daughter that our leaders will safeguard her future.

Nick Capo, associate professor and departmental chair of English at Illinois College, writes as a public scholar and private citizen.
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