My recent declaration of enmity for the AARP because it supported the $6 trillion prescription drug benefit was one of those columns.
It brought a torrent of reader mail. A surprising amount was positive. But it disturbed me that the negative mail came in the form of personal attacks suggesting that I was too affluent, didn't care what happened to poor people, etc.
The negative mail also suggested we could easily pay for the prescription drug benefit by eliminating all the "waste, fraud, and abuse" in government spending. We could, for instance, eliminate spending on medical care for illegal immigrants. Others wanted to do it by cutting defense spending. Still others thought eliminating subsidies to corporations could cover it.
Sadly, "waste, fraud, and abuse" is what the government spends on others. It is never what the government spends on us. As large as waste, fraud, and abuse may be, nothing comes close to what we spend on Social Security and Medicare.
As I pointed out earlier last year, a new measure of the size of the bill we are sending to our kids was cut from the Presidents Budget for 2004. It was cut because the figures were so frightening. The new generational accounting found that our government had promised far more in benefits than it would ever collect in taxes. Priced in today's dollars, the shortfall was $43.4 trillion in 2003 and will rise to $44.8 trillion this year.
That's more than our collective net worth, even if you include Bill Gates. In effect, the United States of America is already a bankrupt nation. The only question is when our government will default on its promises--- and how the hurt will be distributed. Virtually every dime of that shortfall is related to two programs: Social Security and Medicare.
That $43.5 trillion figure, by the way, was growing more than $1 trillion a year before passage of the Medicare prescription drug plan. Which raises a question: when will either political party get real about what we can, and cannot afford?
If all this mystifies you, let me take you to the two root problems.
Biology. The shortfall isn't the result of an evil plot by tax cutting Republicans or free spending Democrats. It is the result of raw biology. When Congress created Social Security in 1935, and Medicare in 1964, they created a seamless bond between our life expectancy and government spending. When life expectancy goes up, so does the cost of supporting the retired. Ditto their medical expenses, which are part of the cost of living. If the costs go up, taxes must rise proportionately.
In 1935 life expectancy at birth was under 60 years. A promise of lifetime income after age 65 wasn't a big deal. Life expectancy at birth, however, has been advancing for more than a century. As recently as 1950, male life expectancy at birth was only 65.6 years, indicating an average "retirement" of about 7 months.
By 2000 male life expectancy at birth was 79.5 years, indicating an average retirement--- at age 65--- of 14.5 years. If the trend continues, as we all hope it will, life expectancy will grow about 2.5 years every decade.
Retirement is getting longer and longer and longer.
Are we saving more money to pay the expenses? No. We're saving less.
Instead, we lobby for more benefits from government. This means we want our government to take the money from someone else--- those "waste, fraud, and abuse" people or, more likely, from our children.
The second problem is political. Politicians of both ilks continue to wallow in comfortable but useless Have vs. Have-Not arguments. A more important dimension is never mentioned, let alone discussed.
And what is that?
It is the enslavement of the Laters by the Nows. We are willing to impoverish our children by voting to spend their future income on ourselves, while cutting what we pay in taxes today.
This is an issue we need to discuss honestly and head-on. It will affect all our futures, rich and poor, young and old.
Our silence is deafening.
On the web:
Sunday, December 14, 2003: It's right to refuse the AARP
Tuesday, June 10, 2003: Aging is a constant; Circumstances aren't
Sunday, June 1, 2003: Facts got cut prior to taxes
Sunday, may 4, 2003: Social Security's Secret
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