Robert Samuelson's Social Security Demagoguery at the Washington Post

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Monday, 27 December 2010 08:42

Robert Samuelson is once again calling for cuts to Social Security and Medicare, ostensibly in the name of generational fairness. Samuelson makes the now common argument that a hugely disproportionate share of government spending goes to these programs that primarily serve the elderly. Of course, using Samuelson logic we should also complain that a hugely disproportionate share of government expenditures go the very wealthy.

The reason that the wealthy get a disproportionate share of government expenditures is that they bought government bonds which pay interest. The reason that the elderly get a disproportionate share of government benefits is that they paid Social Security taxes and Medicare taxes that were intended to support these programs.

Samuelson goes on to complain that Social Security has become a "middle-age retirement system," citing Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute. Samuelson apparently is not familiar with data on life expectancy that shows that workers in the bottom half of the wage distribution have seen relatively small gains in longevity over the last three decades. He is apparently also unfamiliar with Steurele's calculations on the rate of return that retirees get on their Social Security benefits. For many middle income retirees in the baby boom cohorts it will be less than 1.0 percent and in some cases less than zero, according to Steuerle.

What is remarkable about Samuelson's piece is that there is absolutely zero effort to consider any real issues of generational equity in a piece that is ostensibly devoted to the topic. For example, there is no discussion of the fact that the current generation of near retirees experienced an unprecedented period of wage stagnation over their working lifetime. The median hourly wage in 2010 is less than 10 percent higher than it was in 1973. 

By contrast, the Social Security trustees project that average hourly wages will rise by more than 40 percent over the next three decades. While it is possible that income inequality will continue to increase so that these gains again go overwhelmingly to the top, there is no precedent in U.S. history for the level of inequality that this would imply.

It is also striking that Samuelson never mentions health care costs in discussing the enormous burden created by Social Security and Medicare. If per person health care costs were the same in the United States as in any of the countries that enjoy longer life expectancies, we would be facing huge long-run budget surpluses, not deficits. In other words, the problem is not that our benefits are too generous but rather that we pay too much for them.

There are simple mechanisms that would help to restrain health care costs in the United States. For example, supporters of the free market would suggest allowing retirees to buy into the more efficient health care systems elsewhere, with the U.S. government, the host government, and the beneficiaries dividing the savings.

We could also develop more efficient mechanisms for financing prescription drug research. This could save hundreds of billions of dollars a year on prescription drug costs, in addition to eliminating the incentive for drug companies to lie about the safety and effectiveness of their drugs.

However, raising these issues involves confronting powerful interest groups like insurance companies, drug companies, and the doctors lobbies. Robert Samuelson and the rest of the crew at the Washington Post (a.k.a. Fox on 15th) doesn't like to get these folks angry, they would rather just beat up the elderly.