Who Does George Will Think Paid Elders' Medical Costs Before Medicare?

Beware the doctor who jokes about Medicare. Back in the day, doctors were uniformly opposed to Medicare and despite a shift by some toward a more equitable system, many still are. Here's just one example, from today's debate on This Week With

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Beware the doctor who jokes about Medicare. Back in the day, doctors were uniformly opposed to Medicare and despite a shift by some toward a more equitable system, many still are. Here's just one example, from today's debate on This Week With Christiane Amanpour.

WILL: I have -- five years ago when I turned 65, I got my Medicare card. I showed it to my doctor, he said, that's wonderful, George, now we'll send your bills to your children. I find that a regressive transfer of wealth, and the welfare state is full of them.

Hmmm. We'll send your bills to your children, and regressive transfer of wealth. Really? Let's think that through for a minute with a (sort-of) hypothetical example.

Let's say there was a woman who worked from the 1930s through the 1970s for one company. She was an employee pre-Medicare and post-Medicare. The reason she went to work at all was because her young husband was suffering from debilitating headaches and could no longer work. At some point, that youngish husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

There was no Medicare at the time. She worked and she paid the bills and her children worked and paid the bills. Possibly there was some state aid, but mostly they relied upon clinics like Mayo to provide care, which meant going back and forth. Still, she worked and so did her children to make sure the bills were paid and they ate.

Medicare was born while she was in the middle of her working life, and like others, she paid into it via payroll deductions throughout the sixties and early 70s, until her retirement. When she turned 65, she was eligible for Medicare. She died 30 years later, at age 95. Some, but not all, of her long-term care expenses at the end of her life were paid by Medicare and the insurance she still had from the company she had retired from.

Her children inherited her home and savings, but not her medical bills. Her daughter is retired now and is also covered by Medicare. As a result, I don't pay her medical bills. If I had to pay her medical bills, our family would not eat. This is the story of three women, three generations, and how Medicare saved all of us from bankruptcy, even though I am not yet eligible for Medicare.

I might add that my grandmother took great pains to live a healthy life, and even in her later years, walked every day and did her own housework. She understood the value of prevention and she valued the fact that she had doctors who diagnosed her cervical cancer early and her breast cancer at age 90 early. She didn't die of cancer; she died of complications from a stroke.

It was possible for her to live to age 95 because of Medicare. It was possible for my mother to work at her own business without going bankrupt on medical bills because of Medicare. It is possible for me to be writing this post at this desk in this house because I did not have to sell everything to pay her bills, nor did my brother.

We did, however, pay Medicare taxes and those taxes certainly did fund Medicare for the time that my mother and grandmother have been covered by it. This is how Medicare works. And because it works this way, it is not a regressive transfer of wealth at all. It is a wealth protector.

But you know, this is what they do. They drop lies like this with really big concepts like "regressive transfer of wealth" which is an utter lie, and expect everyone to simply nod yes, yes, that's right. Evil socialists transferring wealth from the middle class to the middle class. Except they're not.

Here's an example of a regressive transfer of wealth in the health care arena. Uninsured Americans who are not eligible for Medicare lose their homes, life savings, and ability to recover because of health costs. And if they have family who can help, that family member also transfers wealth to large corporate interests, doctors, clinics, hospitals and other providers in our for-profit, free market health care system. That is regressive. Medicare is not.

Now that I've ranted, here's how Barney Frank and Robert Reich put Will's lie to rest, from the transcript:

AMANPOUR: But how does one do that, George Will? If as decades now of evidence shows, at least in the last decade, that this upward mobility in this country has stalled. Mitch Daniels is one who said upward mobility from the bottom is the crux of the American promise. Can government, should government do what the congressman is doing and allow upward mobility, which stalled?

WILL: Big government inevitably exacerbates the problem of inequality. Big government inevitably is a servant of the strong. I'll give you two examples. The tax code has been changed 4,500 times in the last decade. Every one of those times at the service of a group strong enough and attentive enough and wealthy enough to hire a Washington lawyer to represent them to game the tax code.

The welfare state exists to transfer wealth basically from the working young and retired elderly -- working young and middle aged to the retired elderly. The elderly are, according to the CBO study, the net worth of a family of a household on average, household headed by someone 65 years old or older is 47 times larger than that of the net worth of a household of someone 35 or younger. That's a record, and has doubled in the last five years. Big government is responsive to big, muscular interest groups.

(CROSSTALK)

REICH: Well, I -- let's just be clear about the facts. I mean, right now, the top 1 percent is claiming in terms of their pay, a larger share of total income than has been at any time since before the Great Depression. And their tax rates -- and their tax rates are lower than they have been in 30 years.

You look at that period. I mean, George, you say that, you know, big -- rich people and big corporations have undue influence. Yes, I agree with you. But the answer is not to shrink government and not even to have government attempt to invest in education, in job training and all of the ways in which we traditionally have generated upward mobility. The answer is to get money out of politics, to make sure that those who are at the top reaches, that is both individuals and corporations, don't have the untoward influence they now have.

One final point. In the first three decades after the second world war, we had in this country much more of an equal distribution of the fruits of economic growth. And yet what happened? It turned out that in those days, the economy grew faster than it has grown since. There was, under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom nobody accused of being a socialist, a marginal tax rate on the top of 91 percent. I'm not advocating we go back to 91 percent. I'm just saying that for conservatives to say that we cannot tax the wealthy, when all of the nation's wealth and income, virtually speaking, is at the top, to invest in people and education and training and everything else we need to invest, it's absurd on its face.

WILL: You are a pyromaniac in a field of strawmen. No one is arguing against government investing in education. That's not --

FRANK: Wrong. You guys are.

RYAN: No, we're not.

WILL: No, we're not.

FRANK: I'll make the point.

WILL: Look, I'm not attacking the elderly. I am elderly.

(LAUGHTER)

WILL: I have -- five years ago when I turned 65, I got my Medicare card. I showed it to my doctor, he said, that's wonderful, George, now we'll send your bills to your children. I find that a regressive transfer of wealth, and the welfare state is full of them.

FRANK: Let me talk about education. In the first place, George, you were simply wrong when you say all of the tax -- I thought you said all of the tax increases help the wealthy. I voted, Paul voted against, a tax increase under Bill Clinton which raised the rate on the top people -- at that point it was above 150,000, I would go higher than that.

It created great increase in revenue. It helped us balance the budget, along with military cuts. And, you know, I do want to go back to the fact that it is the right wing that wants to expand the government in form of the military enormously and also claims it's job-creating.

Interestingly, the only way we create jobs, according to my conservative friends, in government spending, is not with highways and not with environmental cleanup, but overseas military bases.

But the point is that the Clinton tax increase was not for the wealthy. It helped, it raised taxes on the wealthy. It actually moved more in the direction of equality in the tax code.

Secondly, as to education, it is this attack on public spending that we have had to defend Pell grants, college aid for low-income people, against right-wing efforts to cut them. And in particular, and when I talk about income inequality, both Ben Bernanke and Alan Greenspan correctly hailed community colleges as a major way -- as a transmission belt (ph).

But community colleges are largely public-funded. And community colleges are suffering from this right-wing attack on government revenues so that our ability to give community colleges the funds that give people the skills they need, is being eroded by this blindsided attack on government.

AMANPOUR: Congressman, when it comes to taxes, we've just said that the top 1 percent pay 38 percent of all federal taxes. But 49 percent American households don't pay any taxes at all -- any federal taxes at all, is that fair?

FRANK: It is if you don't think Social Security is a tax. In fact, the Social Security tax, which is a very significant tax, which goes to what George was just talking about, Medicare and Social Security, is not only a tax heavily paid by lower income people, but it's regressive.

Because if you make $100,000, then everything you earn is taxed, and if you make $1 million, 10 percent of what you earn is taxed. So, yes, if you exclude the Social Security payroll tax from the calculation, then the lower income people don't pay taxes. But if you look at the percentage of their income...

RYAN: Yes, but the EIC, you can't make your point.

FRANK: What? But the percentage of income that's taxed is taken into account and you take Social Security tax, then that figure isn't true.

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