I am 59 -- and Congress should cut my future Social Security and Medicare benefits. The same goes for people 58, 48 and even 68. Plenty of present retirees could afford to have their benefits cut. The chances of this happening soon are, of course, about nil. If President Bush and his critics agree on anything in the Social Security debate, it is that existing retirees and "near retirees" shouldn't be touched. This is all about politics. The moral and economic case for shielding these people -- people like me -- is nonexistent.
Give Bush credit for broaching, however indirectly, these sensitive issues. Criticize the Democrats for their limp "how dare you" response. But recognize that Bush's chosen vehicle for overhauling Social Security -- "personal" investment accounts -- distracts from what ought to be the central question: How much should younger and poorer taxpayers be forced to pay for older and richer beneficiaries?
People talk about potential benefit cuts as if they would be war crimes. The unspeakable truth -- unspeakable because hardly anyone speaks it -- is that benefit cuts are inevitable, because the baby boom's retirement costs will force them. The combined spending of Social Security and Medicare, according to government projections, would require at least a 30 percent tax increase by 2030. "Personal accounts" don't come close to closing the gap. Sooner or later, chances are there will be a political backlash or a budget crisis. The wiser policy is not to wait; it is to pare benefits now.
Social Security and Medicare are programs with split personalities. They're part "safety net" (the common view) and part retirement subsidies. By retirement subsidies, I mean that older people are paid -- by the government, meaning taxpayers -- to stop working and to enjoy themselves. How? Well, about 20 percent of cruise ship passengers are retired; so are 17 percent of casino gamblers. In its magazine, the AARP offers its 35 million members motorcycle insurance. "It's time to ride," says the ad.
It's doubtful that Franklin Roosevelt had casinos and motorcycles in mind when signing Social Security in 1935. We ought to nudge these programs back toward their original purpose as safety nets -- and not retirement subsidies. When the ratio of workers to retirees was high, we could afford to blur the two roles. In 1960 there were five workers for every retiree. But now there are three, and the projection for 2030 is two. The consequences of subsidizing retirement are increasingly undesirable. It penalizes the young, threatens the economy with higher taxes and drains capable workers from the labor force.
Long ago we should have begun gradually raising eligibility ages and trimming benefits for wealthier retirees. Aside from a glacial increase of Social Security's normal retirement age to 67 (in 2027), little has been done. This sort of overhaul founders on popular myths. One is that, because retirees are generally poorer than workers, it would be unfair to cut their benefits. Some statistics seemingly confirm the stereotypes: In 2003, for instance, the median income for households 65 and older was $23,787, about half the median for households younger than 65 ($50,171).
But the numbers mislead. For starters, nearly 5 million of the 65-and-older households (about a fifth) have incomes exceeding $50,000, including 1.4 million with incomes over $100,000. Elderly households are also smaller. Few have children; many are singles. Adjusting for that, average incomes per person among those ages 65 to 74 are higher than average individual incomes for all those younger than 44, reports the Conference Board. In many ways, the old are better off than the young. Virtually all (99 percent) have health insurance, mainly Medicare. By contrast, 82 percent of the under-65 population is covered. Most elderly are homeowners, and three-quarters have fully paid their mortgages. Among younger homeowners, three-quarters have mortgages.
Indeed, many elderly realize that they're better off. In surveys, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago asks respondents whether they're satisfied with their financial situation. Among those ages 65 to 74, 52 percent said "yes" in 2002. The next highest group, those from ages 50 to 65, had 33 percent satisfied.
Now, these achievements wouldn't exist without Social Security and Medicare. They are triumphs. Social Security provides about 40 percent of the total income of the 65-and-older population. Among the poorest fifth, it provides about 80 percent. But their very successes should not insulate them from change. Along with being safety nets, they are also increasingly exercises in reverse Robin Hood. Younger and poorer taxpayers are supporting older and wealthier retirees.
In principle, both liberals and conservatives should oppose this -- liberals because the growing costs of the elderly make it harder to help anyone else; conservatives because these costs are the main engine of enlarged government. In practice, both keep quiet. They fear offending retirees and near retirees, rich and poor. Bush's proposal is shattering the quiet. But his personal-account proposal substitutes confusing babble (rates of return, trust funds, risk) for clarity about the transfer between the young and old. Obscuration may actually be Bush's aim.
Barring calamity, I will retire comfortably, probably in the richest fifth of the old. I don't deserve to be subsidized by someone younger and poorer. The same can be said -- to a greater or lesser extent -- of millions of present and future retirees. They can afford to pay more for Medicare. They can get along with less Social Security. These realities are obvious. Our unwillingness to admit and discuss them for decades is why we have a problem.