Robert Samuelson Underestimates Dependence on the Government

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Monday, 11 April 2011 06:12

In a column complaining that too many people are dependent on the government, Robert Samuelson badly underestimates how many people are dependent on the government. He failed to take note of the fact that nearly every person in the country is dependent on the U.S. Postal Service to deliver its mail.

Of course it would be silly to claim that people who use the Postal Service for some of their mail are dependent on the government, but much of Samuelson's column falls victim to the same sort of silliness. For example, he wants to say that Social Security beneficiaries are dependent on the government. The problem with this story is that these beneficiaries paid taxes during their working lifetime that cover the cost of their benefits.

Social Security is a retirement program that is run through the government because the government provides the service far more efficiently than the private sector. The administrative costs of the retirement portion of the Social Security program are equal to about 0.5 percent of the benefits paid out each year. By contrast, the administrative costs of privatized programs, like the one in Chile that is often held up as a model, are in the neighborhood of 15 percent of the benefits paid out. Why is it a problem that we choose to run our retirement system in the most efficient possible way?

The same story applies to Medicare. The Ryan plan for privatizing Medicare, which Samuelson smiles upon as a step forward, would add more than $20 trillion (more than $60,000 per person) to the cost of buying Medicare equivalent policies over the program's 75-year planning horizon. This $20 trillion is not the savings to the government from paying less for retirees' Medicare. This is the pure waste associated with establishing a more inefficient system of health care.

While Samuelson makes his usual point about a broken and bloated government, the facts tell a different story. The country has a broken health care system: full stop. If the United States paid the same amount per person for health care as people in any other wealthy country we would be looking at huge budget surpluses, not deficits.