Are Old People Bankrupting America?

More services, lower taxes: they want it both ways

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As health care costs balloon, swelling the budget and the deficit, elderly Americans are consistently the biggest consumers. This isn't their fault. They simply require more--and more expensive--treatments. These treatments are billed to Medicare, which hands the bill to the federal government, which needs tax revenue to pay it.

Here's the problem: those same elderly Americans are outraged at the rising tax rate and growing federal spending. Seniors are using their tremendous political weight to push a conflicting agenda, expanding services to seniors while reducing the taxes need to pay for them. All of which has raised the question for pundits: Are seniors bankrupting America? And what can we do to fix the problem without reducing the services they might truly need?

  • Elderly Must Change Their Role in America The New York Times's David Brooks laments that "Far from serving the young, the old are now taking from them." They are "taking money" (the federal government spends $7 on the elderly for every $1 on children), "taking freedom" (tax revenue is completely tied up in programs for the old, limiting new programs) and "taking opportunity" (the focus "will mean less growth and fewer opportunities"). What to do?
It now seems clear that the only way the U.S. is going to avoid an economic crisis is if the oldsters take it upon themselves to arise and force change. The young lack the political power. Only the old can lead a generativity revolution -- millions of people demanding changes in health care spending and the retirement age to make life better for their grandchildren. It may seem unrealistic -- to expect a generation to organize around the cause of nonselfishness.
  • GOP, New Party of Elderly? Matthew Yglesias finds that Republican Congressmen who demand drastic cuts to social programs make sure those cuts only apply to Americans under 55. "The basic idea is to take the GOP old white people base and insulate them from cuts. The under 55 crowd will still have to pay the taxes to finance their benefits, but we ourselves won't get the benefits," he writes. "Basically, they've got theirs and don't care about extending the benefits of universal health care to younger people."
  • Blame Doctors, Not Seniors The Washington Post's Ezra Klein explains. "I can make a pretty good case for payment reforms that would encourage doctors to provide fewer treatments. I can make a pretty good case that seniors in many states should go to the doctor far less often than they do," he writes. "A sick senior in Minnesota costs a lot less than a sick senior in Florida, but that's not because the Minnesotan is refusing treatments. It's because his doctor is providing fewer of them. If you want to talk about a group with real power to change medical spending in this country, talk about doctors."
  • Their Selfish Politics Are the Problem Mother Jones's Kevin Drum argues that the real problem isn't seniors' consumption of health care--its their uniform political opposition to legislation that would give future generations access to viable health care. "That means changes in the way we deliver healthcare services and it means changes in the tax base of the federal government. By opposing both of those things in large numbers, today's seniors (and soon-to-be seniors) are helping to ensure that they're the only generation that will truly benefit from this deal," he writes. "But if they want their children to enjoy the same kind of retirement they're allowed to enjoy, these are the things they should support. In general they don't, and that deserves condemnation."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.