Ahh, the children and grandchildren. Politicians love to describe how big-bad Washington is robbing them blind. “Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren,” then Sen. Barack Obama declared in 2006, when he voted against raising the debt ceiling. “Passing on ever-increasing debt to our children is not just bad policy, it is morally wrong,” wrote Mitt Romney in his latest book.
But the fault lies less in Washington than you would like to believe. Chances are, you are the one directly to blame. Each and every one of you, as regular dues-paying members of the American social contract. At current tax rates, you are likely to reap far more in Medicare and Social Security benefits over your lifetime than you will pay into the system. The balance gets handed off to your children and grandchildren. Do you think that’s fair? Is there a politician in America willing to put the blame where it belongs?
Earlier this year, C. Eugene Steurle and Stephanie Rennane at the Urban Institute ran the numbers to see how much more in benefits the average American will receive than they pay. You can see the whole report here. Here are the numbers for a hypothetical two-earner married couple, each of whom brings home an average wage.
The difference between the Total Benefits received over a lifetime and the total Social Security and Medicare Taxes Paid is the size of the robbery committed against future generations. We are all guilty of this. For the those of us who will retire later, the scale of the larceny is generally greater–about $250,000 for a couple, in the model above. (All of these numbers assume an average lifespan.)
Of course, politicians don’t generally present this as the situation when they talk about benefits. They talk about how Republicans want to take something away from you, or about how Democrats want to send your grandkids to the poorhouse. But at bottom, this is an issue of personal responsibility, which the country is not yet ready to face.
The Brookings Institution’s Bill Galston takes this fact and runs with it in a new piece for The New Republic called, “Ask Not: Notice to selfish, upper-middle-class boomers: It’s time to pay more for Medicare.”
“My fellow boomer-professionals, fiscal responsibility begins at home,” he declares. “Didn’t the young president who inspired so many of us fifty years ago have something to say about this? Are we still capable of responding?”
It’s a good question. But no one else is asking it.