TCS Daily

Real Social Security Reform

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - February 16, 2005 12:00 AM

While people are debating Social Security reform, I want to make a more ambitious proposal: Let's get rid of Social Security. And let's do it by making sure that people will live so long that the idea of "retirement" will become largely meaningless.

Right now, we spend enormous sums of money taking care of old people. It's very expensive, and they don't get a whole lot for it in terms of quality of life. Nursing homes do the best they can, but we're not talking Club Med here.

We often hear from the likes of Leon Kass that longer lives would be a bad thing, but I don't think that many people really feel that way. My own grandmother, now 90, is in a nursing home now recovering from a fall. I've spent a lot of time there, and it's brought home to me that old people are really people suffering from a horrible, and ultimately fatal, disease: aging. They used to be strong and healthy; now they're frail, weak, and confused. They don't like it. There are some moving moments -- one man comes in to feed his wife, three meals a day, every day, then sits holding hands with her for hours -- but they're moving in the same way that acts of bravery and compassion in a plague ward are moving. In a better world, they wouldn't be necessary.

Plague, of course, was once seen as inevitable, and there were even those who thought that efforts to fight it represented a challenge to God's will. We got over that, and I think we should recognize that aging is just another disease that science can't address -- yet.

But as the developed nations face a huge unfunded retirement liability, lots of people are talking about extending the retirement age to cut down on payments. I wonder if we might consider extending the retirement age through making people live longer, healthier lives -- perhaps by diverting a small portion of retirement money into aging research. FuturePundit Randall Parker has a somewhat similar proposal:

        "Precisely because scientific research takes a long time to produce 
        desired results we need to greatly increase the push to advance biomedical 
        science and biotechnology now. We can't wait until the budget deficits 
        are even larger, taxes are even higher, medical care rationing has become 
        commonplace, the economy is stagnating, and the task of finding money to 
        allocate to research is even more difficult. As things stand now medical 
        treatment spending is going up faster than inflation while medical research 
        spending is going up more slowly than inflation. Medical research spending 
        ought to rise as fast as medical treatment spending rises.

        "My modest proposal for funding medical research: Change the major 
        medical entitlements programs to require that 10% of all medical entitlements 
        budgets go to fund medical research. Then when medical entitlements 
        spending inevitably goes up medical research spending will go up 
        proportionately. Yes, that will make the financial numbers for the medical 
        entitlements programs look worse in the short run. But the money thereby 
        spent will produce much larger savings for those programs in the longer run 
        and will also produce treatments that will lead to great improvements 
        in the health of the vast majority of people."

This, or something like it, sounds like a winner to me. Social Security, Medicare, etc. are politically popular because people want to have money and health care in their old age. But most people would rather have a job, and health, in their old age, than be warehoused at taxpayer expense. I feel sure that the people I see sitting and staring at nothing in the nursing home would rather be out and about, working for a living, eating at restaurants, and having sex, than sitting in a chair all day in a nursing home, even if the nursing home bills are picked up by the government.

By talking about Social Security reform, we've already decided to think decades ahead. Why not think about what we can do to make Social Security a lot less necessary, while we're at it?


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