Robert Samuelson: On Medicare and Social Security, be unfair to the boomers

Posted by Kendall Harmon

As a society, we've recoiled from a candid discussion of public and private responsibilities for retirement. The long-ducked question is how much government should subsidize Americans for the last 20 to 30 years of their lives. Social Security and Medicare have evolved from an old-age safety net into a "middle-age retirement system," as Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute puts it. In 1940, couples reaching 65 lived an average of almost 19 years, Steuerle notes. Now, the comparable figure for couples is 25 years. For Americans born today, the estimate approaches 30 years.

Overhauling Social Security and Medicare has many purposes: to extend people's working lives; to make them pay more of the costs of their own retirement, as opposed to relying on subsidies from younger Americans; to prevent spending on old-age welfare from crippling other government programs or the economy; to create a bigger constituency for cost control in health care. America's leaders have tiptoed around these issues, talking blandly about limiting "entitlements" or making proposals of such complexity that only a few "experts" understand.

Just because this is an awful time to discuss these questions does not mean they shouldn't be discussed. The longer we wait, the more acute our fairness dilemma grows. We can't deal with it unless public opinion is engaged and changed, but public opinion won't be engaged and changed unless political leaders discard their self-serving hypocrisies. The old deserve dignity, but the young deserve hope. The passive acceptance of the status quo is the path of least resistance - and a formula for national decline.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchAging / the ElderlyYoung Adults* Economics, PoliticsEconomyConsumer/consumer spendingCorporations/Corporate LifeThe Credit Freeze Crisis of Fall 2008/The Recession of 2007--The U.S. GovernmentBudgetCensus/Census DataSocial SecurityThe National Deficit

Posted December 29, 2010 at 5:00 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. IchabodKunkleberry wrote:

An even better idea is to scale back the overly generous pension
plans for state employees throughout the U.S. I live in Illinois,
where the state government is deeply in debt and we the people
are under constant threat of higher taxes so that state
employees can enjoy cushy retirements. Too bad we don’t have
a President who can crush AFSCME - like Reagan did to PATCO.

December 29, 6:30 am | [comment link]
2. Capt. Father Warren wrote:

Interesting; none of this hand wringing was evident back in 1967 when the Federal government started taking money out of my checks for this Ponzi scheme.  And a few weeks ago I just received the latest fairy tale missive from the Government telling me the glories that were coming due to me for my long service to the State (assuming of course that I continued my toil for the mandated period of time which the State has assigned to me).

And now this same Government, which has unleased Michelle-Antionette Obama to tell us how much salt to put on our meat, is going to reform itself so that we learn how to be more responsible for our own retirement?

Would one of the Progressives out there please put their right hand on a bible and swear they really believe in all this tripe, so help them God?  At least that would provide some confirmation that this is not all a bad dream.

December 29, 7:36 am | [comment link]
3. Archer_of_the_Forest wrote:

In 1940, couples reaching 65 lived an average of almost 19 years, Steuerle notes.

That is a completely deceptive statistic, which I am surprised he quoted because the average life expectancy in 1940 was just under 63. If you made it to 65, then, yes, you could likely live another 15 years, but the majority of the population did not live that long.

This is why social security was a hoot at the time it originally passed because the average life expectancy was 63 while people were not eligible for it until 65. All these people who had beat the odds of life were suddenly getting free money from the government, having never paid a dime into the program in their working years.

The article is right, though, in arguing that the program was not intended to be a retirement system. It was designed to be more like a welfare program for the poor elderly who had seen their life savings wiped out during the depression but were now to old to support themselves with trade labor jobs and such. 

I imagine the way the Federal Government has been abusing the program for years, it will eventually revert de facto to a welfare system again because the system will simply not be financially sustainable unless the federal deficit is seriously tackled.

December 29, 9:01 am | [comment link]
4. palagious wrote:

Sounds reasonable to me.  Baby Boomers (and I am one) have been the most selfish and undisciplined generation in the history of our nation.  I can’t think or a more deserving group of people to inflict fiscal austerity on.  I blame my parents for raising me this way.  So, I’ve got that going for me smile

December 29, 10:46 am | [comment link]
5. AnglicanFirst wrote:

“Baby Boomers (and I am one) have been the most selfish and undisciplined generation in the history of our nation.”

Speak for yourself, but there are whole bunch of us who have lived hardworking and self-disciplined lives.

Another thought.  Any attempt on the part of Congress to limit federal ‘retirement benefits’ must be linked to similar requirements to limit Congressional ‘retirement benefits.’

Otherwise, its sheer hypocrisy.

December 29, 1:06 pm | [comment link]
6. Archer_of_the_Forest wrote:

In defense of Baby Boomers (I am certainly not one nor are my parents for the most part), one thing that does need to be considered is what happens at their death. When the Baby Boomers depart, there will be the greatest transfer of intergenerational wealth in the history of man. They will ultimately give back some of what they’ve depleted.

December 29, 1:35 pm | [comment link]
7. David Keller wrote:

#6—If Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have their way we will be giving most of it Uncle Eagle.  Actually, I really can’t figure out why everyone sems to believe Baby Boomers are automatically opposed to changes in SS and Medicare.  We may be old, but we aren’t studip.  I can get full social security at 66, but since I plan on working until I am at least 68 (probably 70) as do most of my firends, I am willing to talk and listen.  In my age bracket (early 60’s)there are alot of people who don’t believe those two items are the 3d rail of American politics anymore.  I also think Medicare should be totally scrapped, along with ALL the federal employees who run it, and we should give people income based subsidies to buy health insurance. Every time I say that to someone in their 60’s they agree, so I just think politicians and the left wing news outlets aren’t really listening.

December 29, 3:54 pm | [comment link]
8. David Keller wrote:

OOPS—I am not studip but I am also not stupid for that matter.  BTW—I think the real vested interests in SS and Medicare are government workers, unions and the Democratic party, not Baby Boomers.

December 29, 3:58 pm | [comment link]
9. A Senior Priest wrote:

Impossible. We boomers will savagely unelect anyone who messes with what we EARNED. How many boomers are supplementing the incomes of kids who can’t make enough money?

December 29, 4:16 pm | [comment link]
10. A Senior Priest wrote:

PS- it’s always annoying to read stuff by rich people like Robert Samuelson which advocates cutting the benefits of those who aren’t. I say, take the cap off Social Security payments entirely, terminate SS to anyone whose income apart from SS is greater than $75k, raise the minimum private pension contribution from wage earners to 18% per year, and make it illegal for government retirees to have more than one government pension. Then, I’m willing to talk about it.

December 29, 4:20 pm | [comment link]
11. A Senior Priest wrote:

Ooops! that ought to be “raise the minimum pension contribution for both private and public employees to 18%”.

December 29, 4:22 pm | [comment link]
12. David Keller wrote:

#9,10,11—Actually I am OK with that. If SS will pay me back, in a lump sum, what I’ve paid in since 1965 I’m outta here.  What about “privitizing” Medicare?

December 29, 5:06 pm | [comment link]
13. centexn wrote:


I’d second that motion.

December 29, 5:25 pm | [comment link]
14. Paul PA wrote:

The boomers - I’m one - have elected people for years who have underfunded the system. We have allowed what funding was put in to be spent elsewhere ie not actually set aside. To now pretend that a younger generation has to bail this out in the name of fairness seems a little strange. Raise the age to the level it needs to be at to be solvent - At best that’s what we “paid for”

December 29, 5:59 pm | [comment link]
15. AnglicanFirst wrote:

A Senior Priest (#9.) said,
“How many boomers are supplementing the incomes of kids who can’t make enough money?”

My wife and I are providing at least 25% of our retirement income to supplement the income of our oldest son who is disabled with MS, parenting his adolescent son in his apartment home, and is on a limited disability pension.

And there are a lot more people than the two of us who can be called “baby boomers” who are supporting disabled children, dysfuntional (but not disabled) children, and unemployed children ranging in age from their 20s on through their 40s.

December 29, 8:17 pm | [comment link]
16. Mitchell wrote:

Private insurance companies have no interest in insuring old sick people and people who are disabled.  That is why we passed Medicare in the first place.  In fact prior to the enactment of Medicare, the American Hospital Association and the health insurance industry acknowledged before Congress that care for the elderly was costly and unprofitable and would require government support.  What good are government subsidies to buy health insurance if you are uninsurable?

December 29, 9:01 pm | [comment link]
17. Mitchell wrote:

I’m sorry my post was in response to the question, What about privitizing Medicare?

December 29, 9:05 pm | [comment link]
18. David Keller wrote:

#16—I don’t think that is why Medicare was passed.  It was passed by LBJ to buy votes of people who always show up at the polls.  If we privitize Medicare, it will require changes to the way insurance companies manage claims and provide coberage; but plenty of insurance companies make a big profit off Medicare supplimental policies and hospitals make a bundle off dying people.  The biggest profit is made by AARP, the largest institutional supporter of Obamacare.  But, if privitizing isn’t the answer, what is it?  I am open to any ideas; but what we are doing now already doesn’t work and it is unsustainable.

December 30, 1:21 pm | [comment link]
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