Michael Metzger

“Houston, we’ve had a problem.” In that instant, Jim Lovell’s dream died. The promise of walking on the moon went poof. Americans have been promised a plethora of benefits. Now they face a debt problem. The super committee is tasked to find a solution, but the bigger problem is how people typically react when promises go poof.

Lovell’s words became folklore in the film Apollo 13. Over 200,000 miles from Earth, one of Odyssey’s oxygen tanks had exploded. The mission became moot—the dream of walking on the moon was dead. The crew had to solve a more narrowly defined problem—getting home. Still, promises are hard to let go of. In a touching scene, Lovell looks wistfully out his spacecraft’s window as the lunar surface passes him by.

Much of the Western world has a problem—promised benefits threatened by ballooning debt. In the U.S., The Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction has until November 23rd to produce a plan to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years. If it fails, automatic spending cuts from defense and social programs will be triggered. These cuts, while a step in the right direction, don’t address the bigger problem—promises made that now seem unrealistic. Consider retirement promises made to baby boomers.

Every day, 10,000 baby boomers become eligible for Social Security and Medicare, from which they will receive, on average, $1 million of benefits ($550,000 from the former, $450,000 from the latter). These benefits are part of a palette of entitlement programs that were virtually non-existent until the 1930s. Social Security was first. In 1950, it had 16 U.S. workers paying for each retiree’s promised benefits. By 2010, it had shrunk to 3.3 workers. By 2025, it is projected that there will be two U.S. workers for every retiree. It’s an unsustainable program, as are interest payments on the U.S. national debt and spending on entitlement programs. Together, they consume approximately 15 percent of GDP today but are projected to devour 50 percent of GDP by 2080.

Promises also plague the Postal Service. The USPS projects deficits of $238 billion—roughly the GDP of Portugal—through 2020. The postmaster general talks of raising rates, reducing delivery, closing facilities, and trimming the work force (the second largest in the U.S.). The real problem is the USPS is not competitive. Decades of contractual promises made to unionized workers, including no-layoff clauses, are increasing costs. Labor represents 80 percent of the agency’s expenses, compared with 53 percent at United Parcel Service and 32 percent at FedEx. Postal workers also receive more generous health benefits than most other federal employees—with a huge wave of retirees on the way. Yet Fredric V. Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, warns against rescinding any promises. “This is about one of America’s oldest institutions… we have to do everything we can to preserve it.”

“The public-sector workplace has become a kind of artificial Eden,” writes New York Times columnist Russ Douthat, “whose fortunate inhabitants enjoy solid pay and 1950s-style job security and retirement benefits.”1 It’s not just the public sector however. After the housing collapse, America’s 100 largest corporate pension plans were underfunded by $217 billion. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation says that the number of pensions at risk has more than tripled since 2008. Still, Americans assume they’ll get every penny promised, evidenced by the fact that approximately half of all U.S. workers have less than $2000 saved up for retirement. According to one recent survey, 36 percent of Americans say that they don’t contribute anything at all to retirement savings.2 Everyone is living in an artificial Eden. Just look at the healthcare system.

Americans believe the healthcare system will deliver on its promised benefits, no matter what. The Economist however reports that Type II diabetes alone will bankrupt the system in less than 20 years.3 Type II diabetes is usually a preventable problem—exercise and proper diet—but Americans aren’t into prevention. Today, just one in seven U.S. workers is of normal weight without a chronic health problem, according to Gallup.4 The healthcare system cannot cope with the mushrooming costs of caring for a population that is getting fat and old. The problem is, few fat people feel it’s their problem.

Recent college graduates do feel there’s a problem. “The Mortgage Crisis Was Only the Beginning”—the tag line for David Smick’s The World is Curved. The housing collapse ignited a cascade of crises, first felt by college graduates. Lisa Kahn, a Yale School of Management economist, has found that those who graduate during a recession earn seven percent to eight percent less in their first year out than comparable workers who graduated in better times. The effect can persist up to two decades.5 Couple this with the average college debt load—$28,100 for those with a degree from a four-year private school, $22,000 for those from public schools—and we have the Occupy movement. As one protestor blogged: “I am a college graduate. I am also unemployed. I was led to believe that college would insure me a job. I now have $40,000 worth of student debt.”

We see, in unrealistic promises and the rampant indebtedness of the U.S., what Yuval Levin has called a “gluttonous feast upon the flesh of the future.” The solution however has less to do with politics and more to do with how Americans see promises. In the Book of Hebrews, chapter 11, we read of believers who lived exemplary lives yet “all of these did not receive what was promised.” Only half got what was promised in this life. The other half were stoned, sawed in two, or murdered in cold blood. In a fallen world, some promises go poof. In God’s design, promises are expectations, fulfilled in this life or the next. Because of human stupidity, selfishness, and shortsightedness, we often forget this, treating promises as entitlements to be fulfilled in this life, period. Reality doesn’t work this way, however, which is why marriage vows include “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health.” The promise to stay together no matter what keeps an expectation of good health or healthy finances from turning into an entitlement.

What about Americans—are they in this together? Through stupidity, selfishness, or shortsightedness, the public and private sector has made promises that are now proving to be unattainable in the foreseeable future. Regardless of what the committee proposes, the challenge is reframing promises. Jim Lovell understood how promises work. Once the tank blew, he relinquished the promised moonwalk. It went poof. Are Americans capable of reframing ill-advised promises and relinquishing the ones going poof?

1 Russ Douthat, “What Tax Dollars Can’t Buy” The New York Times, October 29, 2011.
2 www.cnbc.com/id/32862851/
3 “America’s Diabetes Epidemic,” The Economist, February 15, 2007.
4 “86% of Workers Obese or Have Other Health Issue” The Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2011.
5 Sara Murray, “The Curse of the Class of 2009” The Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2009.


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  1. Careful, Mike. People are going to think you are too political! 🙂

    Which is part of the problem. All of these issues you discuss have ossified into political Dogma. Just like Jesus and the Pharisees, there is talking but no communication. The opportunity to have a real, objective discussion on the current challenges we face are lost in a flood of political positioning.

    The United States has, thoughout the modern era, spent more money than it has collected. Period. That habit is unsustainable. Period. Therefore, we have to change that modern habit or face the eventual complete global political collapse. Period.

  2. Chris – I’ve never met a man who had so many periods.

    Just kidding – I agree. The problem is in many ways scarily simple.

  3. With the reframing of promises, must be added the reframing of leadership and the common good. Lobbyists have replaced statesmen. Special interests, the common good.



    This is a good article about the “artificial Eden” (great terminology!) this country has created for itself. Like somebody “owes you a living” or what?

    Especially love the statement by the college student saying, “I was led to believe that college would insure me a job.” By who??? That is too funny for words. Colleges today don’t seemed to have students anymore- they have “customers” at $25,000-35,000 a year. They need to start telling these kids the honest truth that the harder they work, the more luck they will have. And life doesn’t always go like we think it will go. Grow up kid and be willing to do whatever it takes.

    Proverbs 16:9 A man’s heart deviseth his way: but the LORD directeth his steps.

    No guarantees-just hard work.

    Line up and take your chances like everyone else and no more “sniffling”

    Proverbs 20:24 Man’s goings are of the LORD; how can a man then understand his own way?

    God’s opinion on how to have good success and be prosperous (with or without a “college degree”) in any economy is very simple:

    Joshua 1:8 This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success.

    Psalms 34:8 O taste and see that the LORD is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in him.

    What a young man or woman needs is the blessing of the LORD.

    Proverbs 10:22 The blessing of the LORD, it maketh rich, and he addeth no sorrow with it.

    And if they have the blessing of the LORD, what does it matter about anything else, college degree or no college degree?

  5. Why do we think we need to “retire?” I suppose there will come a time when my old bones will not be able to produce any output for which somebody is willing to pay, yet at the same time I will be using oxygen, food,and other precious resources. But until that day I want to be “working” for a living. I hope to go out with my “boots on.”
    On the submarine, whenever we went out for a short trip (2-7 days) there were always a couple of staff guys who wanted to come along because they needed 2 days a month of sea time to keep getting their “sea pay.” They were jokingly considered to be NWOs – Non Working Objects – who wasted oxygen, food, and space. On a submarine EVERY man worked 14-18 hours a day, anything less and we would wonder – “Why are you out here with us?” If we offered the staff guy a chance to come along for a REAL underway – a month or more – you would see the proverbial “rats off a sinking ship” in action. “I wish I could come along, too much work to do at squadron….” Hmmm, what is more important, being on the front lines or pushing paper across a desk at squadron?
    We’ve come a long way from the Jamestown mentality – where every man had to work to eat.

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