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

18 Comments Posted December 29, 2010 at 5:00 am

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