George Will

WASHINGTON -- During presidential elections, when candidates postulate this or that "crisis" for which each is the indispensable and sufficient cure, economic hypochondria is encouraged, so a sense of suffering is rampant. Recently The Wall Street Journal, like Joseph Conrad contemplating the Congo, surveyed today's economic jungle and cried, "The horror! The horror!"

Declines in housing values and the stock market are causing some Americans to delay retirement. A Kansas City man had been eager to retire to Arizona but now, the Journal says, "figures he'll stay put for another couple of years." He is 59.

So, this is a facet of today's hydra-headed "crisis" -- the man must linger in the labor force until, say, 62. That is the earliest age at which a person can, and most recipients do, begin collecting Social Security.

The proportion of people aged 55 to 64 who are working rose 1.5 percentage points from April 2007 to February 2008, during which the percentage of working Americans older than 65 rose two-tenths of one percentage point. The Journal grimly reports, "The prospect of millions of grandparents toiling away in their golden years doesn't square with the American dream."

Oh? The idea that protracted golden years of idleness is a universal right is a delusion of recent vintage. Deranged by the entitlement mentality fostered by a metastasizing welfare state, Americans now have such low pain thresholds that suffering is defined as a slight delay in beginning a subsidized retirement often lasting one-third of the retiree's adult lifetime.

In 1935, when Congress enacted Social Security, protracted retirement was a luxury enjoyed by a tiny sliver of the population. Back then, Congress did its arithmetic ruthlessly: When it set the retirement age at 65, the life expectancy of an adult American male was 65. If in 1935 Congress had indexed the retirement age to life expectancy, today's retirement age would be 75.

The standard definition of a recession -- two consecutive quarters of contraction -- means we still are likely several months short of being in one. The 9.9 percent first quarter decline of the S&P 500 barely ranks among the 40 worst quarterly losses ever in the index's history. Leave aside the 39.4 percent decline in the second quarter of 1932. The economy experienced no long-term trauma because of the declines of 10.3 percent, 14.5 percent and 23.2 percent in the third quarter of 1998, the third quarter of 1990 and the fourth quarter of 1987, respectively.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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