The political implications of these trends are clear, though Emmons and co-author Bryan Noeth avoid policy. We need to stop coddling the elderly. Our system of aid to the elderly — mostly, Social Security and Medicare — has a split personality. On the one hand, it serves as a safety net for the elderly by providing crucial income support for the poor and near-poor as well as health insurance. On the other hand, it provides payments to millions of already-comfortable older Americans who could get along with less or, for some, don't need subsidies. We ought to preserve the system's safety-net features, while gradually curbing the outright subsidies.
The idea that Social Security and Medicare spending should be defended to the last dollar — as advocated by many liberals — is politically expedient and intellectually lazy. Rather than promote progressive ends, as it claims, it prevents government from adapting to new social and economic circumstances. It's a growing transfer from the young, who are increasingly disadvantaged, to the elderly, who are increasingly advantaged.
But political change needs honest debate, and honest debate needs a willingness to accept unpopular facts over friendly fictions. It requires that people who candidly pose difficult choices not be stigmatized. As long as Grandma is the poster child for the elderly, that won't happen.
Robert J. Samuelson is a Washington Post columnist.
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