The most pampered generation

Posted: Jun 20, 2003 12:00 AM

It's the iron rule of American politics: What Granny wants, Granny gets. Right now what she wants is someone else to pay for her prescription drugs, not because she can't afford them, but because paying their cost is irritating --and Granny doesn't want to be irritated.

If Tom Brokaw ever writes a sequel to his runaway best-seller of a couple years ago, he can call it "The Most Pampered Generation." The wealthiest and healthiest generation of seniors in world history has been whining about paying for its own drugs, prompting the whippersnappers in Congress to abase themselves thoroughly to this elderly plaint.

Legislation will soon pass Congress to create a new prescription-drug benefit that will cost at least $400 billion over the next 10 years and will be available to all seniors no matter how wealthy they are. That Granny is getting a government benefit she doesn't need is galling enough, but this needless pander will bust the budget, advance the socialization of U.S. health care and discourage the development of new drugs in the future.

About three-quarters of seniors have private insurance that covers drugs, and the average senior pays about $900 a year for drugs, comparable to the amount the average senior spends on dining out in a year. There is a small segment of the elderly that genuinely needs help paying for its drugs -- a small, targeted subsidy would suffice.

Instead, Congress is creating a program for all, meaning a Medicare system that will already be straining to deal with the retirement of baby boomers will have roughly another $10 trillion added to its unfunded liability. And the new entitlement will inevitably be more expensive than advertised, as all entitlements are.

The benefit will entangle the drug industry in government regulations that it is unlikely ever to escape, moving the United States a step closer to a Canadian-style socialized system. Soaring costs will mean inevitable pressure for price controls. It is precisely the absence of price controls that has allowed an endlessly creative drug industry to thrive in the United States when it has been snuffed out elsewhere.

The partisan hypocrisy involved in Democrats cheerleading for this benefit is considerable, even by Washington standards.

Democrats are supposed to abhor corporate giveaways. But the drug benefit is a huge gift to corporations. According to the Congressional Budget Office, 37 percent of seniors with employer-provided coverage will have it dropped. Why should businesses cover the drugs if the government will do it instead?

Democrats are supposed to hate it when the rich get richer. As The Wall Street Journal has noted, seniors own 60 percent of the wealth in the United States. But Congress is still effecting a transfer payment from working people -- many of whom are struggling to support families -- to the best-financed demographic cohort in the country.

Democrats, at least at the moment, are supposed to frown upon anything that adds to the budget deficit. They opposed President Bush's tax cut because the nation supposedly couldn't afford it, but love the $400 billion drug benefit and want it to be larger.

One thing trumps all these factors for Democrats -- Granny's vote. As political writer Ramesh Ponnuru has pointed out, the Democrats began pushing in earnest for the new benefit after their share of the elderly vote slipped in the 1998 election because seniors were turned off by Clinton's sex-and-lies scandal.

Sometimes, however, it's important to look beyond the panderers in Congress to the panderees among their constituents.

The cliched way of expressing disappointment with the decline of long-held values is the head-shaking statement, "Kids, today." When it comes to the erosion of the values of self-reliance and individual responsibility, as demonstrated in the current drug debate, one can only say in frustration, "Elderly, today."

Expecting society to tax working families and throttle the drug industry in order to remove what for the vast majority of seniors is essentially an inconvenience is the height of modern immaturity. Granny, shame on you.