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Robert Bennett: Candidates should debate how to fix Social Security, Medicare

Published: Monday, Oct. 15 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

The sparring over Social Security and Medicare between Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan during their debate last week was like a conversation between two women at year end.

First woman: "Christmas this year was just terrible. There was so much to do and so little time — I just couldn't cope with it." Second Woman: "Oh, you poor dear. Didn't you know it was coming?"

It's one thing to deal with a crisis that arises unforeseen, but ignoring an inevitable and definable problem is governmental malpractice. Significant fiscal crises in the future of both Social Security and Medicare are as certain as the coming of Christmas. Without commenting on the wisdom of his plans to deal with these challenges, I give Mitt Romney credit for acknowledging their existence. From the debate, I fault Biden for insisting that everything is just fine and wish Ryan had done a better job of making his position clear. Both were so eager to score partisan points over the other on these matters that the enormity of the problems was lost in the verbal squabble.

The looming crises are not the fault of either party. They arise from basic demographic changes in our society. Americans are having fewer babies and living more years.

Consider the impact of that on Social Security. While called "insurance" for appearance purposes, it is basically a lottery involving every worker. Tickets — payroll deductions — bought each payday go in a lottery pool — the Social Security Trust Fund — from which prizes — benefits — are paid to winners each month. To win a prize — benefit — you must live to retirement age.

When the system was created in the 1930s, that was not easy to do. Roughly half of the workers paying into the pool died before turning 65, getting nothing. Many who did reach 65 died soon after, getting less than they had paid in. The only ones who won the lottery were those who lived long enough to get more than they had paid in, the best example being the woman whose taxes came to a total of $22 while she was 64 and whose benefits, since she lived past 100, were over $25,000.

In the early years, with demographics stacked in its favor, the system worked. Now, however, fewer babies mean fewer workers and longer lives mean more retirees. Nearly everyone wins. The old lottery doesn't work any more. As a consequence, more is going out than coming in, and the Trust Fund surplus is dwindling.

Some people react angrily to this analysis, saying, "Social Security is my money!" Not true. If it were "your money," you could leave it to your grandchildren when you die. (A feature of George W. Bush's proposal for reform, for which he was savaged.)

Your payments never bought you anything other than a shot at a lottery prize.

Here is reality: If we leave everything as it is, there will be drastic Social Security benefit cuts for every retiree when the Trust Fund runs dry, which used to be projected as being over three decades away but now is closer to two. The outlook for the Medicare Trust Fund is even worse.

American voters must be realistic about the condition and future of Social Security and Medicare. Both programs are in serious fiscal trouble. But they can be preserved and strengthened if intelligent changes are made to bring them in line with current demographic realities. We should demand that candidates seeking our votes debate how, not if, that should be done. Christmas will be here before we know it.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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