Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 15, 2005
By: Kevin Drum

CRISIS-MONGERING....Dick Meyer's "Against the Grain" column at CBSnews.com yesterday is actually even more remarkable than Josh Marshall says. After several hundred words acknowledging the Bush administration's relentless use of phony crises to whip the public into a lather, he says this about Social Security:

But in defining the issues supporting an aging population so narrowly, the Democrats are every bit as disingenuous as the administration. When you put Social Security on top of Medicare, on top of rising medical costs and in the context of a shrinking workforce and expanding elderly population, you have something pretty close to a crisis. But its not one either party is talking much about.

Um, Dick? The Democrats aren't defining anything here. President Bush is the one who has chosen to focus exclusively on Social Security and he's also the one who chose to support a fantastically bloated and inefficient expansion of Medicare costs in 2003. Democrats just aren't the ones setting the agenda these days.

And while I'm at it, there's another rhetorical device worth noting here because I see it so often: writing about Social Security's financial problems and the shrinking workforce and the expanding elderly population. But these are all the same thing: Social Security's long-term problems, such as they are, are caused by an increase in the elderly relative to the size of the workforce. They aren't separate things.

What's more, it all washes out in the numbers. If you say, for example, that Social Security costs are going to rise x%, that number all by itself includes every single cause of rising costs: workforce growth, wage growth, life expectancies, immigration rates, etc.

(I get this a lot in comments. I'll say something like "Social Security will cost 6.5% of GDP in 2050" and someone will respond that the real problem is that there are fewer workers to support a growing number of retirees. But that's why Social Security is going to cost 6.5% of GDP in 2050 in the first place. Once you put a dollar figure on it, you've covered everything.)

If Social Security and Medicare were strictly demographic issues that is, more retirees living longer neither one would be a huge problem. You can pick your own preferred solution, but even in the worst case some modest combination of benefit cuts and revenue increases phased in over a period of decades would solve everything. The real problem isn't Social Security or Medicare per se, it's healthcare costs in general. That's the problem that needs to be solved, not healthcare for old people alone.

But no one wants to do it. Why? Because unlike Social Security, it's a really hard problem and it doesn't lend itself well to simplistic, demagogic solutions. In other words, it just doesn't fit George Bush's agenda.

Kevin Drum 2:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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