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Sunday, September 05, 2010

Making Social Security Less Generous Isn't the Answer

Ezra Klein:

Making Social Security less generous isn't the answer, by Ezra Klein, Commentary, Washington Post: ...Raising the Social Security retirement age has become as close to a consensus position as exists in American politics. ... And for a while, I agreed... People live longer today, and so they should work later into life. But as I've looked at the issue, I've decided that I was wrong. ... We should leave the retirement age alone. In fact, we should leave Social Security alone...
Start with the basic rationale for raising the retirement age. As Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has argued, when Social Security was signed into law, the retirement age was 65 and life expectancy was 63. "The numbers added up pretty well back then," he said on Fox News. But that's misleading. That figure was driven by high infant mortality. ...
Moreover,... averages conceal a lot of inequality. In 1972, a 60-year-old male worker who made less than the median income had a life expectancy of 78 years. By 2001, he had a life expectancy of 80 years. Meanwhile, workers in the top half of the income distribution shot to 85 years from 79. ...
Lurking beneath this conversation is an unquestioned assumption: We live longer, so we should work longer. That's pretty intuitive to members of Congress, who seem to like their jobs and don't seem to like the idea of retiring. It's also pretty intuitive to blogger/columnists, who spend their time in air-conditioned rooms opining about pension programs. But most people don't work in Congress or in the media. They work on their feet. They strain their backs. They're bored silly at the end of the day. By the time they're in their 60s, they want to retire.
You see that reflected in Social Security. Age 66 is when you get full benefits. But most people begin taking Social Security at age 62. They get less, but they can retire earlier. To them, the trade-off is worth it. ...
An August survey ... tested reactions to a variety of Social Security fixes. One of the options was raising the retirement age to 70. Two-thirds of respondents opposed it. Another option was eliminating the cap on payroll taxes so that well-off workers pay the tax on their full income, just as middle-income workers do now. A solid 61 percent supported it.
That's almost the reverse of the conversation in Washington, where affluent people who like their jobs propose cutting benefits for the poor (which is, after all, what raising the retirement age would do) rather than lowering benefits or increasing the payroll tax on, well, themselves. ...
The universally unpleasant options for reform are a testament to Social Security's efficiency. It's a simple transfer program, with administrative costs that amount to less than 0.9 percent of total spending. There's not much fat to cut.
That can't be said for much else in American public policy. Our health-care system costs twice as much as the German system and doesn't deliver better results. Our defense sector is wasteful and bloated. Our tax code could raise more money and do less to harm growth if we cleaned it out. Our home prices are driven upward by the mortgage interest tax deduction. Our health insurance premiums are goosed by the exclusion of employer-sponsored insurance from taxable income.
Reforming any of those sectors ... would be politically difficult, but would mean better policy. Reforming Social Security will be politically difficult and result in worse policy. ...

Here's what I argued in May of 2005:

1. An increase in life expectancy does not necessarily imply that people are healthier at age 65 or 70 than before. Suppose, for example, that medical advances are discovered that extend the end of life by several years, but have no effect on health prior to the last few years of life. In such a case there would be an increase in life expectancy, but no increase in the health of workers at the age of retirement. If people aren’t healthier, then increasing the retirement age imposes a hardship over and above that faced by current retirees.

2. It’s already difficult for elderly workers to find employment, and when they do they are often underemployed relative to their skill levels. Raising the retirement age will make this worse.

3. What about workers employed in physically demanding occupations? Is it reasonable to ask them to work until, say, age 72? If not, how equitable is it to have some workers work until 72, and others allowed to retire at a younger age depending on their occupation?

4. Will this distort occupational choice decisions? ... How will we decide when a worker is unable to work due to reasons associated with age?

5. The life expectancy of some groups of workers is lower than for others. If poorer workers die younger than richer workers on average, then raising the retirement age will have a larger impact on low income workers and thus, in essence, be regressive.

    Posted by on Sunday, September 5, 2010 at 12:34 AM in Economics, Politics, Social Security | Permalink  Comments (53)



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