Readers may recall the 1950s TV show The Millionaire, which portrayed stories of individuals who were given a “no strings attached” gift of money by an anonymous benefactor. Each week in one of the show’s opening scenes, a man representing the wealthy benefactor, John Beresford Tipton Jr., knocked on an unsuspecting recipient’s door and announced: “My name is Michael Anthony and I have a cashier’s check for you for one million dollars.”
That TV program is scheduled to return next year as a reality show of sorts, and the new recipients will be the typical husband and wife who reach age sixty-six and qualify for Social Security. Starting next year, this typical couple, receiving the average benefit, will begin collecting a combination of cash and health care entitlement benefits that will total $1 million over their remaining expected lifetime.
According to my calculations based on government data, such married couples will begin receiving monthly Social Security checks that will, on average, total about $550,000 after inflation. They will receive health care services paid for by Medicare that, on average, will total an additional $450,000 after inflation. The benefactors will be a generation of younger workers who are trying to support themselves and their families while paying taxes to finance the rest of government spending.
We cannot even remotely afford to make good on these promised benefits. Although our system of personal liberty, free enterprise, and limited government has made us an affluent and upwardly mobile people, we are not yet a nation of John Beresford Tiptons.
The existence of so many million-dollar couples is not the result of elected officials carefully weighing the needs of senior citizens against the financial ability of younger workers to meet these needs. Rather, it is the result of decades of separate legislative actions by both political parties to liberalize retirement and health care benefits, the sum total of which no one has bothered to calculate.
Social Security and Medicare were the result of natural human impulses to create safety-net programs to prevent poverty in old age and to help needy senior citizens with their medical bills. But the programs are flawed.
In 1978, Congress instituted automatic cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security. That’s reasonable. But Social Security’s method of automatically increasing benefits to successive cohorts of retirees by more than inflation makes less sense. It means that the average worker who retires this year receives a monthly benefit that is about 23 percent higher after adjusting for inflation than the monthly benefit received by the average worker who retired twenty years ago. The average worker who retires ten years from now is, in turn, promised an initial benefit at retirement that is 14 percent higher after adjusting for inflation than the average worker who retires today.
Under the federal government’s fee-for-service Medicare program, every time a senior citizen meets with his physician or health care provider for a checkup, lab tests, or surgery, somebody other than the patient foots most of the bill. That such a program should produce runaway costs is hardly surprising. Over the years, the government has expanded the type of services covered, such as prescription drugs, and it has assumed a greater portion of the program’s finances. Medicare premiums paid by senior citizens once covered half the cost of physician and related services. They now cover one-fourth. Co-payments once covered nearly 40 percent of these services’ costs. They now cover only 20 percent.
To fix Social Security, Congress should start by limiting the increase in benefits of future retirees to the rate of inflation. Congress should then gradually raise Social Security’s normal retirement age. Congress should also allow younger workers to invest a portion of their payroll taxes—and create more incentives for them to invest their earnings—in safe, broadly diversified stock and bond funds. This would allow younger workers to become millionaires through their own hard work and thrift.
To fix Medicare, we must move away from the current system of fee-for-services and low co-payments. First and foremost, co-payments should be increased significantly. Medicare recipients need to have more skin in the game if they are to become cost-conscious medical consumers.
The higher co-payments can be offset by reducing Medicare premiums and offering more Medicare health plan choices. Representative Paul Ryan’s proposal—to provide fixed annual grants to enable Medicare recipients to buy an affordable private insurance plan—is a fiscally sound way to achieve this outcome. Competition among providers, not government-administered prices and government boards of experts to determine coverage, is the best way to ensure high quality and reasonably priced health care.
Many of the million-dollar couples believe they rightfully deserve the benefits they have been promised. They have, after all, spent all their working years paying into Social Security and Medicare. And true enough, the typical sixty-six-year-old couple and their employers, on their behalf, have contributed nearly $500,000 in payroll taxes (in today’s dollars) toward these benefits during their working careers.
But regardless of how much they have contributed, the hard reality is that the federal government has already spent it. No matter how deserving they are, it is younger generations of workers who have to come up with the money.
So today’s seniors need to consider how they want the script for The Millionaire remake to be written: There’s a knock at the door. We now know that on the other side there’s a check for a million dollars. When the door opens, do we really want to see our children, under the commanding gaze of Uncle Sam, presenting us with that check?