The Runaway Trolley Problem

The Runaway Trolley Problem is one of those classic hypothetical situations that can be useful in helping us understand difficult trade-off decisions that often arise in dealing with complex issues.  The problem can be summarized as follows. …

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person tied up on the side track. You have two options:

      1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
      2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the most ethical choice?

This is a pretty good analogy of the current situation with the entitlement programs [Medicare, Medicaid, and if not completely replaced with something that can even theoretically work, the “Affordable” Healthcare Act  (aka Obamacare)] which, if left to themselves with no action very soon, will drive America into bankruptcy in fewer years than most politicians want to think possible.

I have written extensively in posts to this Blog and on the pages of this website [e.g., Unsustainable Fiscal Path] about the fact that if we don’t get our fiscal situation in order pretty soon, our ideological differences will become almost insignificant in comparison to our economic situation.

The “Entitlement Programs Problem” — A Version Of The “Runaway Trolley Problem”

Very few people, even in our leadership, are willing to unequivocally call our entitlement problem what it is  — a train wreck in the making. You don’t need to be a mathematician, an economist, or a financial expert to look at simple trend graphs and conclude that our current fiscal path is not sustainable in the long term, and that entitlement programs are the principal drivers of the problem. We have before us the same kind of choice presented by the Runaway Trolley Problem:

      1. Do nothing and just allow these programs to eventually drive us into bankruptcy [because continuing on our current path is not mathematically possible] — i.e., allow all the millions of current and future beneficiaries to ultimately receive reduced levels of (or potentially lose altogether) whatever benefits they currently receive or would otherwise be eligible to receive in the future. … Analogous to “Don’t pull the lever, and allow five people to die”. After the comma, however, a more accurate analogy would be “and cause 49,244,195 people to lose or receive reductions in benefits and/or be unable to begin receiving expected benefits” [49,244,195 is the 65+ population].
      2. Modify these programs now as required to make them financially sustainable — i.e., reduce the benefits to which future beneficiaries will be entitled, increase the age at which future beneficiaries will begin receiving benefits, reduce benefits being paid now to current beneficiaries, and/or increase taxes to fund the amounts required to pay current and future benefits. … Analogous to “Pull the lever, saving the lives of five people but allowing one person to die”. After the comma, however, a more accurate analogy would be “and increase the payroll taxes 200,241,033 people are paying” [200,241,033 is the 18-to-64 population].

So the ““Entitlement Programs Problem” is a tradeoff decision that is kind of reversed from the “Runaway Trolley Problem“: more like “adversely impact 49 million people later with no action now or four times that many people now by taking corrective action now”.

Would’a … Could’a … Should’a’ / What Now?

The truth of the matter is that this problem, had choice 2 been a decision made decades ago, would not exist today — and the number of people negatively impacted from then to now would have been far smaller than will be the case going forward from now. Chalk that up to the simple fact that politicians make their decisions not based on what is best for the country, but based on [in this order] 1) what maximizes their personal chances of being re-elected and 2) what maximizes their party’s chances of obtaining or maintaining majorities in the Legislature and having a member of their party in the White House. Unfortunately, that mentality results in a propensity to “ kick the can down the road” — i.e., to put off controversial decisions until after the next election [and of course, there’s always a “next election”].

House Speaker Paul Ryan has said that Entitlement Reform is a major 2018 agenda item. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seems less enthusiastic about that, and it’s hard to read at this time whether President Trump considers it a priority or not. As a current beneficiary of two of these four programs, I hope Speaker Ryan is able to drive toward action now.

Thanks for reading this post, and if you regularly follow my Blog, for that, too. Please consider sharing this or other posts with your friends, colleagues and associates.

img_7026 Charles M Jones

Charles M. Jones

Author: Charles M. Jones, PE, CPA

[retired — neither license active]

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