This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.
SALT LAKE CITY — A character in Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" asks Mike Campbell, a hopeless rummy, how he went bankrupt.
He says, "I went bankrupt two ways: gradually and then suddenly," said syndicated columnist George F. Will, speaking at an invitation-only luncheon Thursday hosted by Zions Bank.
"The American people feel, not without reason, we're approaching the sudden phase of that trajectory."
In 1916, the richest man in America, John D. Rockefeller, could have retired the entire national debt by writing a personal check. If Bill Gates liquidated his entire net worth today, he'd be able to pay just two months' interest on that debt, Will said.
The nation knows what the problem is, he said. "It's not a partisan problem. It's the entire political class, across the spectrum, that has a permanent incentive for deficit spending."
As Americans insist on certain government benefits, the cost of those entitlements is deferred to future generations.
"There's no way to say this politely. This is a kind of decadent democracy," Will said, adding that the United States "is in the midst of the most predictable crisis in our nation's history."
(The U.S.) is in the midst of the most predictable crisis in our nation's history.
Seniors are the most affluent segment of Americans. They are also one of the most rapidly growing groups, particularly those 85 years old and older. But their average health care costs are five times that of Americans who are 55 years old, he said.
Will, 73, said he, too, is elderly, showing the audience his Medicare card.
When he received it, he showed it to his doctor, who said, "That's wonderful, George. Now we'll send your bills to your children."
In the not-so-distant past, Americans paid a larger percentage of their health care costs. When John F. Kennedy was president, Americans paid 40 percent out of pocket for health care. Today, they pay 12 percent, he said.
Health care comprised 6 percent of the nation's gross domestic product during the Kennedy administration. It's now 18 percent and rising, he said.
Will said few people concern themselves with the cost of what he called "competent health care."
He asked audience members if any of them ask their physicians about the cost of tests they order. A few hands went up.
"Liars!" he said. Then again, there is little point in asking doctors because few of them know the answers to those questions either, he said.
No presidential prediction
In the question-and-answer portion of his presentation, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and political commentator would not predict the winner of the 2016 presidential election.
Will said he subscribes to the Zeke Bonura principle, a first baseman of "spectacular immobility."
Bonura reasoned "you will not be charged with an error if you do not touch the ball," Will said.
But Will had plenty to say about the issue of immigration.
The omnibus Senate immigration bill, passed by the Senate in June 2013, is 1,197 pages long, Will said, placing a copy of the bill on the speaker's podium.
The Homestead Act of 1862, which is regarded as one of the most important pieces of legislation passed by Congress, was just four pages long. It was also immigration legislation, written to encourage immigrants to settle the West, he said.
Asked what he would put in an immigration bill, Will said legislation needs to acknowledge that net immigration from Mexico is zero. "People come here to work, not to get on welfare."
The nation must address caps on H-1B visas used by employers to hire engineers and high-tech workers or keep top international students graduating from American universities from taking their talents elsewhere.
"We've got to quit educating Ph.D.s and then expelling them," he said.
Last, the nation must shift its attitudes about the 11.5 million immigrants who are unauthorized to live or work in the United States.
"We're not going to expel them and we shouldn't," he said.
Deporting them would require a line of buses bumper-to-bumper from San Diego to Alaska and a police action that most Americans would not tolerate.
"It's not going to happen. Get over it. And who wants it to happen? These are good people."