By Jared Roebuck
Yesterday’s Meet The Press featured the usual nonsensical fanfare of Sunday talk shows. David Gregory, fittingly, wasted his interview with the President. David Brooks blamed the nations problems on the tattered moral fabric of the country. But perhaps the most nauseating part of the show was the discussion about the need to cut entitlement spending.
Tom Brokaw, author of a book that lauds our current seniors, seems to have lost his scrupples:
MR. BROKAW: They’ve got to address it. And the president I think, could help himself a lot if he were tougher on the AARP for example, and said look, it’s not about the people at the bottom for whom Medicare really is the lifeline. It’s about all of the people, including those of us around the table who get the same benefits, members of our family who are very working class. My brother, you know, has a really great working class career working for the telephone company. But there’s a big disparity between what I’m worth and he’s worth but we get the same benefits at the end of the day. There’s something wrong with that. And, you know, the fact of the matter is that we’re all living longer as well. Social Security can go up if you give it some lead time to retire at 67 and probably 20 years from now to retire maybe at 70 because people are staying in the workplace longer. He ought to be able to raise those issues in a way that he can begin to sell them to the idea of– sell to the American people the idea that we’ve got fundamental reforms that we have to do, as David says, downstream because we are going to be bankrupt not just our children but your grandchildren.
The problem with Brokaw’s suggestion that we raise the retirement age to 70 is a common example of losing our humanity when talking about CBO projections, which in this case in strange, because Brokaw is able to integrate his understanding of actual people when talking about policy– see the part where he talks about his brother and Medicare. It may very well makes sense to means test benefits for folks like Tom, while keeping benefits “generous” for people like his brother. But after the clear analysis, Brokaw goes off the rails when talking about Social Security. Now, were we only understanding seniors through the lens of CBO projections, it might be plausible to raise the retirement age, as people are living longer. But this skips this fundamental question: Do we want people working until they are 70?
Think about it this way, people may well be living longer, but that’s because we’re getting better at keeping them alive as their health declines. We haven’t really figured out how to keep 70 year olds fit or strong enough to perform physical labor. The fact that people are living longer doesn’t mean that people are healthy enough to stay in the work force. Now, if your career requires you to read from a teleprompter and talk gibberish on the teevee, one could conceivably work well into their 70s. But what about people like Brokaw’s brother who engage in jobs that require physical labor? Are their bodies going to hold up until 70? Moreover, it isn’t as if they would be able to easily transition into less demanding fields in their 60s. We should also note that keeping older people in the workforce stops new people from moving up the ranks.
Aside from raising the eligibility ages for entitlement programs, people have also talked about cutting Social Security payments. Here it’s important to talk about how much retired Americans depend on Social Security as a source of income. Via Mike Konczal, we get this chart:
Here we see how vital Social Security payments are for a large number of seniors. What would it mean for a retiree making less than $12,000 a year to receive reductions in their payments? What’s strange is that these kinds of questions–ones that ground policy in the lives of actual people– are nowhere to be found. Instead we get vague allusions to “bankrupting” our children. Maybe, just maybe, the children of retirees might be willing to forgo a permanent middle class tax cut to allow their parents to retiree with dignity.