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Entitlement fallacy a drain on all of us

As I See It

As I write this column, the special session for tort reform is rocking back and forth. Gov. Haley Barbour and the Senate have been working to pressure the House to vote on legislation implementing awards’ caps for pain and suffering.

Regardless of the outcome of this session or any others that the governor may call, I think that the issue itself speaks volumes about a disturbing trend in our society.

By way of clarification, jury awards for pain and suffering are in addition to payments for real economic damages such as medical expenses and lost wages. Compensation for pain and suffering is supposed to subsidize the unhappiness resulting from whatever wrong was committed against the victim.

Our society is drifting away from rugged self-sufficiency toward a culture of entitlement. Too many of us think that we deserve to be happy no matter what, and if we’re not someone should pay money to compensate for our misery. Even our fatness is fair game for lawsuits though we clearly made the choices that led to our condition. We’re unhappy and someone should pay.

We expect doctors to be perfect and when they fall short of perfection we pounce on the opportunity of a lifetime. Many lawsuits are brought not by people who have been injured, but by folks who think they might suffer at some future time. This is utter nonsense.

Nation of lunatics?

Our exaggerated sense of entitlement does not end with expecting others to pay money for our unhappiness.

We’re rolling along spending our money like a drunken sailor while business and government is assuming less and less responsibility for funding our medical expenses and retirement.

We have refinanced our homes to take advantage of cheap interest rates, spent the equity on paying down credit cards and buying boats and extended the mortgage term into our 80s.

An outsider looking at our financial practices would deduce that we are a nation of lunatics.

Why do we expect others to manage our lives? Where’s our pride and sense of responsibility? Where’s the yearn for independence? I fear that our parents loved us too much and sacrificed too readily to make life smooth and easy for our generation. They had survived the depression and fought a world war and they wanted things to be good for their children. And, it was good for us. They were truly a great generation and nothing I’m saying is intended to be critical of their efforts. They did what they thought was right and should be revered for the lives they lived.

However, we didn’t learn enough personal responsibility. We didn’t learn that choices have consequences. We didn’t learn that success comes only with hard work, self-discipline and a measure of self-denial. We want our parents to keep on taking care of us even though they have either passed on or are in their golden years.

Who will take care of us now? Since our parents aren’t taking care of us anymore, we are looking for a surrogate to take their place. For a time it appeared that the government was going to pick up where parents left off but the burden was too heavy and the government has backed away.

In the years before so much emphasis on stock options, outrageous CEO compensation and global competition, big business provided for their retired workers more generously than they do today. Post-retirement medical coverage and pensions that replaced a substantial part of pre-retirement income were common among the largest companies in America. Those days are waning and will soon be gone entirely.

Our parents aren’t going to bail us out. The government isn’t going to insure our happiness. Our employers give us an opportunity to provide for our retirement through participation in 401(k)s, but we have to contribute some of our money to play. There seems to be a national backlash against ridiculous jury awards so that planning on making up for irresponsible living with a fat pain and suffering award is getting dicey, at best.

Waking up

So, what’s a Boomer to do? We’ve got to change the way we’re living or develop a taste for dog food. It’s not a moment too early to take a long, hard look at our personal finances and see where we’re going and how we’re going to pay for the trip.

Medical breakthroughs are making life better and extending our lives and are likely to continue to do so. Our retirement, assuming we can ever afford to retire, is likely to extend for 25 or 30 years, long beyond the point our finances play out. Outliving our money is a very real threat.

Every choice we make has consequences. If Americans would just eradicate their robust sense of entitlement and take over their lives, everything would work out just fine. Will we do it? Yes, as a last resort, we’ll wake up and seize control of ourselves. We’d be a lot happier a lot sooner if that day was today.

Thought for the Moment — He who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty. — Proverbs 28:19

Joe D. Jones, CPA, is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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