Cooling out the Marks in Uncle Sam’s Ponzi Schemes

The flap over whether Social Security is a Ponzi scheme reminds me of two passages about Social Security’s sister program, Medicare, from Cato adjunct scholar David Hyman.

The first is from his book Medicare Meets Mephistopheles, which remains the best (and only) satire ever written about Medicare:

Consider what happened when I presented some considerably less pointed remarks at the conference at Washington and Lee University School of Law. One of Medicare’s most enthusiastic supporters responded by making an impassioned speech that it was improper to describe Medicare as a “Ponzi scheme,” and the program should not be judged by the standards that would apply to a private pension because it was actually a “sacred bond” between the generations. (Leave aside the fact that I never used the word “Ponzi” in my remarks. I did note that the Medicare program bore certain similarities to an inter-generational pyramid scheme, which is something quite different. Of course, it is possible that the use of this term by the commentator was a Freudian slip.) His words brought enthusiastic applause from those members of the audience who had heard enough bad news of the sort found in this book and were more than ready to ignore Medicare’s problems on the basis of empty political sloganeering.

The second is from Hyman’s response to a critic of Medicare Meets Mephistopheles:

Finally, my reply is titled “Cooling Out the Marks, Medicare Style.” This is a reference to a well-known article by a famous sociologist, on con games and the social process of adaptation to failure:

“Sometimes, however, a mark is not quite prepared to accept his loss as a gain in experience and to say and do nothing about his venture. He may feel moved to complain to the police or to chase after the operators. In the terminology of the trade, the mark may squawk, beef, or come through. From the operators’ point of view, this kind of behavior is bad for business. It gives the members of the mob a bad reputation with such police as have not yet been fixed and with marks who have not yet been taken. In order to avoid this adverse publicity, an additional phase is sometimes added at the end of the play. It is called cooling the mark out. After the blowoff has occurred, one of the operators stays with the mark and makes an effort to keep the anger of the mark within manageable and sensible proportions. The operator stays behind his team-mates in the capacity of what might be called a cooler and exercises upon the mark the art of consolation. An attempt is made to define the situation for the mark in a way that makes it easy for him to accept the inevitable and quietly go home. The mark is given instruction in the philosophy of taking a loss.”  Erving Goffman, “On Cooling the Mark Out: Some Aspects of Adaptation to Failure,” 15 Psychiatry 451, 451-52 (1952).

The occupational hazard for Medicare’s defenders is the tendency to become coolers on the program’s behalf. Professor Horwitz largely avoids this temptation, although she is not (yet) willing to concede how hot things actually are in the place in which we find ourselves. The same cannot be said for Medicare’s more ardent defenders, who routinely justify and excuse Medicare’s pathologies on the grounds that it is a “sacred inter-generational trust,” and not just another mediocre government program. Yet, even these ardent defenders may eventually find themselves wondering, in the dark of night, how it came to pass that they became coolers, giving instruction to the poor and working classes on the philosophy of taking a loss at the hands of a program that was supposed to help them, but ended up treating them as marks. With friends like that, who needs enemies?