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Robert Reich: The Truth Behind the Social Security and Medicare Alarm Bells

May 13, 2009


What are we to make of yesterday’s report from the trustees of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds that Social Security will run out of assets in 2037, four years sooner than previously forecast, and Medicare’s hospital fund will be exhausted by 2017, two years earlier than predicted a year ago?

Reports of these two funds’ demise are not new. Fifteen years ago, when I was a trustee of the Social Security and the Medicare trust funds (which meant, essentially, that I and a few others met periodically with the official actuary of the funds, received his report, asked a few questions, and signed some papers) both funds were supposedly in trouble. But as I learned, the timing and magnitude of the trouble depended a great deal on what assumptions the actuary used in his models. As I recall, he then assumed that the economy would grow by about 2.6 percent a year over the next seventy-five years. But go back into American history all the way to the Civil War — including the Great Depression and the severe depressions of the late 19th century — and the economy’s average annual growth is closer to 3 percent. Use a 3 percent assumption and Social Security is flush for the next seventy-five years.

Yes, I know, the post-war Baby Boom is moving through the population like a pig through a python. The number of retirees eligible for benefits will almost double to 79.5 million in 2045 from 40.5 million this year. But we knew that the Boomers were coming then, too. What we didn’t know then was the surge in immigration. Yet immigrants are mostly young. Rather than being a drain on Social Security when the Boomers need it, most immigrants will be contributing to the system during these years, which should take more of the pressure off.

Even if you assume Social Security is a problem, it’s not a big problem. Raise the ceiling slightly on yearly wages subject to Social Security payroll taxes (now a bit over $100,000), and the problem vanishes under harsher assumptions than I’d use about the future. President Obama suggested this in the campaign and stirred up a hornet’s nest because this solution apparently dips too deeply into the middle class, which made him backtrack and begin talking about raising additional Social Security payroll taxes on people earning over $250,000. Social Security would also be in safe shape if it were slightly more means tested, or if the retirement age were raised just a bit. The main point is that Social Security is a tiny problem, as these things go.

Medicare is entirely different. It’s a monster. But fixing it has everything to do with slowing the rate of growth of medical costs — including, let’s not forget, having a public option when it comes to choosing insurance plans under the emerging universal health insurance bill. With a public option, the government can use its bargaining power with drug companies and suppliers of medical services to reduce prices. And, as I’ve noted, keep pressure on private insurers to trim costs yet provide effective medical outcomes.

Don’t be confused by these alarms from the Social Security and Medicare trustees. Social Security is a tiny problem. Medicare is a terrible one, but the problem is not really Medicare; it’s quickly rising health-care costs. Look more closely and the real problem isn’t even health-care costs; it’s a system that pushes up costs by rewarding inefficiency, causing unbelievable waste, pushing over-medication, providing inadequate prevention, over-using emergency rooms because many uninsured people can’t afford regular doctor checkups, and spending billions on advertising and marketing seeking to enroll healthy people and avoid sick ones.

Robert B. Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written eleven books (including his most recent, Supercapitalism, which is now out in paperback). Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s “Marketplace” are heard by nearly five million people. This entry appeared on his blog.

Copyright 2009 Robert B. Reich

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