Thursday, January 17, 2013

Raising the Retirement Age is a Lousy Idea

Senator John McCain as a Wal-Mart Greeter...
This is an idea that I have never liked:

Executives of the Business Roundtable  are urging Congress to raise the Social Security and Medicare age eligibility to 70, from the current 67, and to adopt means testing for wealthier retirees, in order to keep the entitlement programs solvent longer-term. 
"When you look long-term at the U.S. fiscal health, you have to look at these questions," said Business Roundtable President John Engler during meeting with reporters in Washington Tuesday. 
The idea is not likely to be popular. The Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction committee saw opposition when it suggested lifting the retirement age to 69. The Roundtable executives argue that raising the level gradually for those less than 55 years of age now will provide substantial long-term savings to the entitlement programs, while still giving Americans time to adjust to the new requirements.
What will keep entitlement programs solvent is politically unpopular--the funding streams have to be increased, and that means controlling what those entitlements cost and the amount that working people have to pay in. It means that we stop raiding the Social Security trust fund and it means growing up about what living in American society is about. Namely, it's about shared sacrifice and commitment, and it's not about sticking it to the poor and confiscating wealth for the upper class.

This is a manufactured problem, designed to get people to accept things like cuts and austerity as being the normal way to preserve what little we actually do for the poor and the elderly. We don't need cuts and we don't need austerity. We need political solutions that force everyone to come to an agreement about what is fair and just.

The long-term fiscal health of the United States is threatened by two things--unrealistic tax cuts on the wealthy (which haven't created jobs) and out of control defense spending. A modest increase in taxes on the wealthy, coupled with defense cuts, won't solve everything, but that doesn't mean that those options should be discounted. As part of a comprehensive fix, those are the common sense solutions that the political class in Washington refuses to embrace so that they can continue to reap the rewards of keeping their donors happy and at a ridiculously low tax rate for an industrialized nation. What they want to do is find a slick way to stick it to the poor. And sticking it to the poor is always the easiest and more irresponsible choice amongst people who don't have the courage or the curiosity to find out how to make things work. It's also the choice that brings the least amount of risk with it when the voters are misinformed and when organized labor remains on the fringes of society.

Raising the retirement age does for the political class what any good dodge is supposed to do--it changes the subject and avoids dealing with the problem head on. It forces people to remain in the work force, paying into the entitlement funds (and into the income tax base, which will be used to fund subsidies for businesses and more defense spending, in part) that were promised to them at a certain age. It forces life changes and disruptions, and it doesn't cost executives a dime because they're not being asked to make any sacrifices.

At a certain age, depending on the line of work that a person is in, working past 65 becomes more of a struggle and a burden than working at 45 was for these folks. Are we talking about people who work at a desk or people who are on their feet all day? Are we talking about mechanics, firemen, police officers, factory workers or retail workers? Are we talking about sedentary positions or positions where people are on their feet all day, actually doing things? Skilled or unskilled?

Unless you've actually had to work at a job where you pick up things, move things, drive around, or have to be in motion for long stretches, raising the retirement age looks like a great thing. For many, it's akin to a death sentence, meaning that the chances of that person being injured or having a shorter lifespan increase as they work past the current retirement age. It's the removal of three years in a person's life where they could be working half days or less, which actually might make more sense, and it's the breaking of a promise, plain and simple.

The solution to our problems should not mean making life harder for people who actually have to work for a living. That's what's lousy about the idea of raising the retirement age--it should be a personal decision based on life experiences and it should not be arbitrarily enacted just because a handful of business leaders have figured out how to protect their own wealth.

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