Playing with Medicare and Social Security

I retired recently from a white collar, management, high stress job at the age I have always expected to retire, 65.  I think I can say that my retirement was a cause of envy among many of my co-workers who are just as tired and stressed as I was but have many years before they can retire.  As I said to my former staff members at lunch the other day, you don’t realize how tired you are until you retire.  And even then it takes time to de-stress.  So I can imagine if I were working a job that was physically demanding (and maybe also stressful) and how it would make me feel if I knew I had to work until 67 or 70 to get any kind of benefits which is where many Republicans (and some Democrats) want us to end up.  I don’t think that some of the corporate CEO’s and elected officials understand this which is why this piece by Ezra Klein caught my eye.

I’ll be clear: Raising the Medicare eligibility age makes no sense. It cuts federal health-care spending but raises national health spending, which is what really matters. It doesn’t modernize the system or bend the cost curve. It doesn’t connect to any coherent theory of health reform, like increasing Medicare’s bargaining power, increasing competition in Medicare, ending fee-for-service medicine, or learning which treatments work and which don’t. I’m not opposed to cutting Medicare — quite the opposite, actually — but this is a particularly brain-dead way to do it.

Its importance in the negotiations is attributable to the fact that raising the age at which Americans can receive Medicare and Social Security has a weird, symbolic power in Washington. As House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi puts it, the eligibility age is “a trophy” that Republicans can bring back to their base. Though the policy is deeply unpopular with voters, it’s quite popular among Republican elites.

Klein floats this idea

If it’s age increases that the political system wants, there’s a better way to do it. Ezekiel Emanuel, who advised the Obama administration on health care and now works with the Center for American Progress, calls it “graduated eligibility,” and it would link the age of eligibility with lifetime earnings:

Here’s how it would work. People in the bottom half of the lifetime earnings distribution would become eligible for normal retirement benefits at age 65 for Medicare and 66 for Social Security, just as they are today. But people in the next quarter of the lifetime earnings distribution would become eligible for the respective programs at 67 and 68, and those in the top quarter would become eligible at 70 and 71. All eligibility ages would increase over time, as they are scheduled to now.

This makes sense on a few different levels. For one thing, a favorite argument for raising the age at which benefits begin is that seniors live longer today than they did when these programs began. But those gains aren’t equal: Richer seniors live six years longer than poorer seniors, on average. “Graduated eligibility” accounts for that fact.

This does make a certain amount of sense, but I still worry about those who work physically demanding jobs like construction.  I’m not even sure about the scheduled age increases for full benefits.  Maybe we should lower ages at the bottom, leave the middle, and raise it even highter at the top.

I remembered that I heard somewhere that the average retirement age is 62 and went looking for confirmation.  I found this story in the Financial Advisor from April 2012.

More than one third of pre-retirees (35%) surveyed think they will never retire, an increase from 29% in the 2009 survey. Only one in 10 pre-retirees thinks they will retire before age 60. Half of pre-retirees say they will wait until at least age 65.

In reality, 31% of retirees quit work before age 55, 20% before age 60, and another 10% before age 62.

“There is a major disconnect between when people say they plan to retire and when they actually do,” the survey says. Some of it may be because of health problems or because they are downsized. “Many who lose jobs in their 50s and 60s experience more difficulty finding new employment,” the survey adds.

The survey was taken of 800 pre-retirees and 800 retirees, ages 40 to 80. It is the sixth survey of this type taken by the Society of Actuaries since 2001.

So there is also a disconnect between the proposals on age eligibility and what people so in real life.

I am worried that we are going to end up with a policy that has very bad unintended consequences.  I saw Nancy Pelosi in an interview a few nights ago when she said she hadn’t seen how raising the Medicare age was going to create savings.  She said, “Show me the money.”  I would go further and say, I don’t think that anyone has done the math and I can only hope that the President, Democrats in Congress and maybe some Republicans will do the math first.

Photograph:  Alex Wong

2012 Budget Talk

There are three budget proposals on the table that have been made public:  The President’s, Paul Ryan’s, and the Progressive Caucus.  So far all the talk is on Ryan’s cutting of Medicare.  It has defined the Republican politics.  Newt Gingrich found that out.  As I understand the President’s proposal it uses the 2008 budget as a baseline – a baseline we are already below. But no one is talking much about the Progressive budget.

The Progressive and Ryan budgets are good symbols of the world views currently held by many on the two sides.  The Democrats being democrats are not as monolithic and many will object to the severe defense cuts in the Progressive budget, but it seems to me that these proposals can be the end points that let everyone meet in the middle.

The National Priorities Project compares the two proposals.

  Congressional Progressive Caucus People’s Budget Rep. Ryan’s The Path to Prosperity
Underlying Philosophy Strengthens role of government in reducing income inequality and providing social safety net. Reduces deficit through combination of increased revenues and reductions in spending Relies on private sector to spur economic growth and employment using a trickle down approach. Reduces deficit solely through spending cuts
Revenues Shifts tax burden towards higher income earners and corporations Decreases taxes for wealthy and corporations
Individual Taxes Allows for the expiration of Bush era tax cuts Maintains the Bush era tax cuts
  Reverts highest individual tax brackets to 36% and 39.6% from 33% and 35% Cuts the top individual tax rate to 25% from 35%
  Enacts new tax brackets for high income earners (45%-49% for $1 million – $1 billion range Consolidates the current six tax brackets
  Taxes capital gains and dividends as ordinary income Eliminates $800 billion in tax increases imposed by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act
  Limits tax benefit of itemized deductions to 28%  
  Enacts progressive estate tax in which larger estates pay higher tax rates  
Corporate Taxes Imposes financial transaction tax on derivatives and speculative financial products Reduces corporate tax rate to 25% from 35%
  Repeals tax deductions and preferences for oil, natural gas and coal producers Eliminates loopholes and deductions that allow some corporations to pay no tax
  Taxes US corporate foreign income as it is earned instead of as dividend  
  Imposes tax equal to 0.15% of covered liabilities for banks with more than $50 billion in assets  
Investment Emphasizes public investment as engine for job creation and economic growth Believes that public investment crowds out private investment
  Rebuilds infrastructure – highways, railways, National Infrastructure Bank  
  Funds highway construction through increase in Gasoline Tax of 25 cents  
Health Care and Social Safety Net Maintains government role in providing vital public services and programs Limits government provision of social programs
  Maintains Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors Privatizes Medicare starting in 2022 for new beneficiaries
  Establishes public health care option in health care exchanges starting in 2014 Repeals Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act
  Negotiates drug prices with pharmaceutical companies Raises age of Medicare eligibility to 67 from 65
  Increases Social Security benefits based on higher employee contributions Converts Medicaid into block grants to the states
  Raises Social Security contribution limits, including employer contributions for high earners Converts SNAP (food stamps) into block grant to the states. Requires recipients to work or get job training
    Reduces Pell grants to 2008 levels
    Imposes time limits and work requirements for recipients of federal housing assistance (Section 8)
Defense Makes significant cuts in annual defense spending and ends the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in FY2012 Largely exempts the military from spending cuts
Funding for Security Generates $2.3 trillion in savings compared to the CBO baseline over the FY2012-2021 period Provides real growth for “security” in each year through 2021, totaling $214 billion in new spending
Annual Pentagon Spending Reduces DoD baseline budget by $692.2 billion over 10 years compared to CBO, or $816.7 billion compared to the Obama Pentagon spending plan Reduces DoD waste by $178 billion. Reinvests $100 billion of this into key combat capabilities and uses $78 billion to reduce the deficit
Overseas Contingency Operations (Iraq & Afghanistan) Provides $161.4 billion for “Overseas Contingency Operations” (OCO) in FY2012 and withdraws U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. Provides no funding for OCO starting in FY2013, saving $1.6 trillion between 2013-2021 compared to the CBO baseline Continues Iraq and Afghanistan wars and provides $117.8 billion in FY2012. Anticipates over $1 trillion in savings from reduced costs of the “Global War on Terror” over the next decade by using the Pentagon’s $50 billion annual “placeholder” for OCO costs
Government Maintains size and role of government Reduces size and scope of government
  Provides percentage increases for discretionary programs Reduces size of government to 20% of GDP by 2015 and 15% of GDP by 2050
    Reduces non-security discretionary spending to pre-2008 levels
    Reduces public sector employment by 10% through attrition by 2014
    Institutes government pay freeze through 2015
    Increases federal employee contributions to retirement
    Privatizes Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac
    Decreases regulation of the energy industry
    Establishes a binding cap on total spending as a percentage of the economy
    Requires any increase in debt levels to be accompanied by spending reductions

I couldn’t find a chart that adds the President’s budget proposal, but here is a short summary.

Key Budget Facts

  • The Budget includes more than $1 trillion in deficit reduction – two-thirds of it from cuts — and puts the nation on a path toward fiscal sustainability so that by the middle of the decade, the government will be paying for what it spends and debt will no longer be increasing as a share of the economy.
  • The President meets his pledge to cut the deficit he inherited in half by the end of his first term.
  • Five-year non-security discretionary spending freeze will reduce the deficit by over $400 billion over the next decade and bring this spending to the lowest level since President Eisenhower sat in the Oval Office.
  • 10-year Deficit Reduction:  $1.1 trillion, excluding war savings and not extending 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for high-income earners. Two-thirds are from spending cuts.
  • 2011 Projected Deficit: $1.645 trillion, 10.9 percent of GDP; 2012 Projected Deficit: $1.101 trillion, 7.0 percent of GDP; 2015 Projected Deficit: $607 billion, 3.2 percent of GDP; 2017 Projected Deficit: $627 billion, 3.0 percent of GDP

The budget itself is composed of proposals made by federal agencies under guidelines from the White House budget folks, but it seems to be a timid version of the Progressive Budget.

The choices are pretty clear.  And the news this week – increased unemployment and no job creation – has everyone saying it is bad news for the President.  But with the layoffs of public employees is it surprising that unemployment is rising?  Wasn’t keeping the Bush tax cuts supposed to create jobs?  Where exactly are all these jobs?  The Republicans are all about not raising taxes on anyone and cutting the size of government and government benefits.  They don’t care about the widening gap between rich and poor but seem to be perfectly happy to accept tax payer paid benefits.   Like Congressman Woodall. (R- GA) who thinks we should all be self reliant except for him.

The bottom line:  We have two visions of American and the one that wins will determine our future.