Why Should Social Insurance Reform Not Affect Those Over Age 54?

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s budget plan is ostensibly for FY 2012, but it contains reforms with far-reaching implications for the nation’s fiscal condition.

Most of the action in his plan is on the spending side and mainly on health care entitlements: Medicare and Medicaid.  Many pundits on the left are claiming it is a political document rather than a serious budget proposal, especially because it lacks details on many of its proposed policy changes. 

One thing that stands out, as pointed out by David Leonhardt in the NYT, is that Ryan’s plan exempts people older than age 55 from bearing any share of the adjustment costs.  They should, instead, be called upon to share some of the burden, Leonhardt argues — a point that I agree with.  If seniors are receiving tens of thousands of dollars more than what they paid in for Medicare, then they should not be allowed to hide behind the tired old argument of being too old to bear any adjustment cost.  Indeed, seniors hold most of the nation’s assets and a progressive-minded reform would ask them to fork over a small share to relieve the financial burden that must otherwise be imposed on young workers and future generations.

The numbers presented by Leonhardt are computed by analysts at the Urban Institute.  However, those numbers aren’t quite as one-sided as Leonhardt and Urban scholars suggest, because they only compare Medicare payroll taxes by age group to Medicare benefits.  A large part of Medicare benefits (Medicare’s outpatient care, physicians’ fees, and federal premium support for prescription drugs) are financed out of general tax revenues, not just Medicare taxes. General tax revenues, of course, include revenues from income taxes, indirect taxes, and other non-social-insurance taxes and fees.  Seniors pay some of those taxes as well — especially by way of capital income and capital gains taxes — but the Urban calculations fail to account for this.  That means that the net benefit to seniors from Medicare is smaller than Leonhardt claims in his column.  I don’t know whether it would bring the per-person Medicare taxes and benefits as close to each other as they are for Social Security, however. (See Leonhardt’s column for more on this point.)

Leonhardt also notes that Chairman Ryan’s proposal leaves out revenue increases as a potential solution to the growing debt problem.  Leonhardt argues that wealthy individuals (mostly large and small entrepreneurs) received high returns on assets during the last few years (pre-recession) and could afford to pay more in taxes.

But it would be poor policy to raise these entrepreneurs’ income taxes — that would distort incentives to work, invest, innovate, and hire in their businesses.  Instead, policymakers should consider reducing high-earners’ Medicare and Social Security benefits (premium supports under the Ryan plan) in a progressive manner, including allowing them to opt out of Medicare and Social Security completely if they wish to.

During recent business trips to a few Midwestern towns, I met several investors and professionals in real estate, financial planning, and manufacturing concerns, most of whom expressed their willingness to forego social insurance benefits during retirement.  So there seems to be some public support for such a reform of social insurance programs.