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Pandering to the Older Generation, Bipartisan-Style

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

With less than three weeks to go before Election Day, we can't be certain who will emerge with control of Congress. We can be certain, though, about what the party that wins will do with its power: suck up to Granny.

We know that because candidates are wearing themselves out screaming hysterically at their opponents for allegedly suggesting anyone with white hair should ever be asked to sacrifice in the interest of fiscal balance, economic vitality or national survival. Not, by the way, that their opponents have actually made any such suggestions.

Rep. Debbie Halvorson, D-Ill., has an ad in which one old person after another angrily scolds her Republican opponent, Adam Kinzinger, for proposing to raise the retirement age. Their thoughtful critiques include such lines as "Don't you dare!" and "Keep your hands off my Social Security!"

But Kinzinger is not putting his hands on the benefits of frail little old ladies like those seen in this commercial. His stated idea is to gradually increase the future retirement age "to take into account increases in longevity" -- not to force 80-year-olds back into the coal mines. No one is talking about increasing the age of eligibility for those already retired or anywhere close to retirement.

Halvorson depicts the very idea as an atrocity that she and her party would never consider. As it happens, though, House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland gave a speech in June asserting that "we could and should consider a higher retirement age, or one pegged to lifespan."

Democrats are not alone in their pandering to retirement home residents. Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who is running for the Senate against state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, attacks the Obama administration for a health care plan that includes "$500 billion in cuts for seniors, who depend on Medicare."

If you are a normal person, you may assume that these cuts mean the government will be spending far less on Medicare benefits. But normal ways of thinking do not apply in the political arena. In truth, those benefits will keep growing at a brisk clip. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that in the next decade, Medicare outlays will increase by 76 percent. Spending per recipient will rise by 36 percent. That sound you hear is the world's smallest violin.

Kirk neglects to mention that even some Republicans favor moderating the growth of (aka "cutting") Medicare spending. Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, one of the party's young visionaries, proposes to save money by replacing the existing entitlement with vouchers, so retirees can buy private coverage.

That may or may not be the optimal remedy, but there is no escaping the need to contain entitlement costs. The anti-deficit Concord Coalition points out that by 2042, absent reform, Social Security will take 50 percent more out of the economy than it does today, forcing a big increase in payroll taxes. The outlook for Medicare is even worse. Something has to give.

The good news is we're all living longer. The bad news is we can't afford to retire with any semblance of comfort unless we work more years to provide the funds for our leisure years. A higher retirement age is unavoidable, unless we all volunteer to shuffle off to the graveyard ahead of schedule.

The normal retirement age is already scheduled to rise to 67 by 2022. Even if it were slowly bumped up to 70, future retirees would enjoy higher living standards than current ones. Eugene Steuerle, an analyst with the center-left Urban Institute, says this change would allow median lifetime benefits per person "to increase from about $250,000 for today's people in their 50s to $360,000 for their 10-year-old kids."

The story for Americans who are now retired or verging on retirement is even less scary, since the higher retirement age would not apply to them. The changes in Medicare would mean only that their benefits would not grow quite as rapidly as they would have otherwise.

Says Steuerle, "Purely from self-interest, the elderly should lobby for Social Security reform because no other budget revision so totally exempts them from sharing the pain of deficit reduction."

Maybe Halvorson and Kirk will run ads featuring unhappy fourth-graders saying, "Keep your hands off that Social Security check I'll collect when I get old" and "Don't mess with the Medicare benefits I'm going to need in 2070." But in their eyes, truth is no virtue.


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