Our Big Fat Greek Habits

September 16, 2014

The following article was written by Holman Jenkins of The Wall Street Journal and served as one of Mr. Jenkins’ entries for the 2013 Coolidge Prize for Journalism. Mr. Jenkins was the first winner of the prize. You can apply for the 2014 Coolidge Prize for Journalism on our Prize webpage.

The U.S. isn’t Greece but . . .

It takes twice as many firefighters to put out half as many fires as it did 30 years ago. Fewer fires because of better fire safety is one reason, but another is the dispatch of overqualified firefighters and their vehicles to things that aren’t fires.

In Orange County, Calif., only 2% of responses involve fires. In Massachusetts the figure is 5%—only because Massachusetts doesn’t count emergencies that don’t result in injury or property damage.

The Orange County Grand Jury, an official watchdog agency, is the latest to plumb this phenomenon: “This transition from fire emergencies to medical emergencies has not generated major changes in the operation model. . . . Each emergency call generally results in both fire trucks and ambulances being dispatched to the site of the emergency regardless of the type of emergency.”

Many towns and cities try to get by with two or three firefighters per truck, which makes sense when a truck is responding to a fender bender or bicyclist who fell down. The firefighter-dominated National Fire Protection Association insists on five firefighters per truck—which makes sense when a truck is responding to a fire.

What would really make sense, of course, is properly manned fire trucks responding only to fires, leaving other emergencies to one- or two-person police or ambulance crews. But firefighter unions are among the most politically potent in the country.

The U.S isn’t Greece but . . .

In the University of California system, the number of senior administrators has grown four times faster than the number of teachers since 1993—to the point where the ratio is now one-to-one. Remember the Ross Perot joke about the USDA employee weeping at his desk because “his farmer died”?

The U.S. isn’t Greece but . . .

What information revolution? In 1980, it took one Medicaid administrator to oversee five Medicaid cases. Today the same administrator oversees only half as many.

The U.S isn’t Greece but . . .

Federal prosecutors just extended their deadline for immunity to Long Island Rail Road retirees who use phony disability claims to boost their pensions.

In 2008, a New York Times investigation found that 98% of retiring LIRR workers (many of them at age 50, after 20 years of service) immediately applied for and received disability benefits from the federal Railroad Retirement Board. (The retirement board, which was supposed to review these claims, apparently only reviewed whether its rubber stamp was well inked.)

Two dozen have been indicted in the scam, including two doctors. But the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara estimates 1,500 LIRR retirees continue to receive fraudulent benefits. Under an amnesty deal that was originally supposed to expire in July, those who fess up won’t be prosecuted, won’t have to repay their ill-gotten benefits, won’t have their names published, and won’t—despite having defrauded the federal railroad pension agency—lose their eligibility for a federal railroad pension (in addition to their LIRR pensions) when they turn 65.

Their only cost would be the loss of any future fraudulent payments, in some cases tens of thousands of dollars a year.

Mr. Bharara won’t say how many have come forward, but his office has extended the deadline to Sept. 14, and one lawyer who has represented LIRR workers told Newsday he expected none to take the deal because federal rules make it difficult to prove benefit fraud. Another told the paper: “It’s all part of a prosecution strategy to get witnesses they don’t have.”

The two main LIRR unions have remained mum on whether members should take the deal. Watch this case: An ignominious collapse of the government’s effort to prosecute benefit fraud would be a worrisome precedent.

We’re not Greece but . . .

The number of employed Americans grew by 316,000 during the first 41 months of the Obama presidency. The number receiving Social Security disability benefits grew by 1,291,000.

One factor, says MIT’s David Autor, was Congress’s extension of coverage in the 1980s to hard-to-verify mental illness and back pain. As in Europe, the U.S. disability program has quietly morphed into a way to disguise the extent of long-term unemployment. The program especially has become a place for older unemployed workers to keep body and soul together while waiting for Social Security eligibility. Though funded by a dedicated payroll tax, the program now runs a deficit of $26 billion a year.

The U.S. isn’t Greece. Its economy is growing. Its debt is willingly held by investors. It can print its own money. But if you don’t think we face Greek-like problems with interest groups standing in the way of change, return to the top and read again.

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