Brad DeLong often titles his posts "Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?", and Andrew Sullivan often names his posts after and gives awards in (dis)honor of journalists who make outlandish statements. I would like to introduce my own award--the Voxy--to be bestowed occasionally on journalists in the mainstream media who make exceptionally lucid and thoughtful contributions to the public discussion. Feel free to e-mail me with nominations.
The inaugural award goes to Greg Ip, for his article in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Medicare Ills Make Social Security Look Fit. Read the whole thing. I'm just going to focus on some excerpts that show why the article is noteworthy. Greg begins with an observation:
He's right. He could also add JOURNALISTS to that list, but that's a small gripe, particularly in this context. He continues:
Reforming Social Security occupies countless scholars, commissions and legislators. Reforming Medicare, the program that could really wreck the budget, gets almost no attention at all.
The mismatch between the programs' problems and the energy devoted to them is striking. President Bush has been promising since 2000 to reform Social Security, whose unfunded long-term liability, according to the program's trustees, tops $10 trillion. Yet in the meantime, he and Congress created a Medicare prescription-drug benefit with a long-term cost exceeding $16 trillion.Yes, that's basically right, too. According to the 2004 Medicare Trustees Report (see Table II.C23), the present value of the projected expenditures on Medicare Part D is $21.9 trillion, or 2.4% of GDP. (I would have called this the long-term cost.) Beneficiariy premiums and state transfers are projected to offset $3.6 and $1.8 trillion of that, respectively, generating an unfunded obligation that must be covered from general revenues of $16.6 trillion (after rounding), or 1.8% of GDP.
There are two caveats to comparing this $16.6 trillion directly with the $10.4 trillion in unfunded obligations for Social Security. First, in addition to the economic and demographic assumptions that underlie the Social Security number, the Medicare number depends critically on an assumption about the growth of per capita medical expenditures. The disparity could be higher or lower than $6.2 trillion even if the $10.4 trillion projection is completely accurate. Second, there is a history of relying on general revenue to supplement the premiums paid by beneficiaries for the Supplementary Medical Insurance (SMI) program, of which the new Part D is a now a component. Some general revenue financing appears to be part of the design.
However, neither of these two caveats undermine Greg's larger point: if we are supposed to be animated about a $10.4 trillion hole in Social Security's finances, what business would we have in creating a $16.6 trillion hole in Medicare's finances? And for pointing out that inconsistency, Greg earns a Voxy. Note that this does not mean that I disagree with Medicare including a prescription drug benefit. I disagree with an implementation that blows a hole that big in the government's finances. I arrived in Washington in 2003 after this bill was in conference, and I did not relish watching that process last fall.
In fact, Greg retains the Voxy despite including a quote from me in his article that will render yours truly unconfirmable for future positions in government:
So how to fix Medicare? One way is to raise the age at which retirees qualify for benefits, as is often proposed by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and others for Social Security. "Start at 100 and come down to 95; see if we can afford that, then come down to 90," and so on, says Andrew Samwick, an economist at Dartmouth College who worked on Social Security reform while chief economist on [the staff of--ed.] President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers. "There is some age at which the system is in balance."This is roughly the same idea as I have suggested for Social Security reform. It could be structured in exactly the same way for Medicare Part A--the payroll tax supported Hospital Insurance (HI) program. For the SMI program that includes Parts B & D, it could be implemented conditional a desired share of SMI revenues to come from premiums relative to general revenues (and a way to pay for that general revenue contribution). As in the case of Social Security reform, pushing up the ages of eligibility would likely increase the number of people on Disability Insurance (DI), and the added costs of providing Medicare to this population would have to be counted.
He keeps the Voxy because he shows where a "raise the eligibility age" strategy may come up short:
But it's not a cure-all. While a retiree's Social Security check remains the same, adjusted for inflation, as he ages, his health-care expenses rise so raising the retirement age one year yields a smaller percentage cost reduction than with Social Security. And it's politically unpalatable.Greg's right again. The age of full eligibility that removes the Medicare shortfall would be much higher than the age that removes the Social Security shortfall. Raising the age is less effective as a means of reducing expenditures, as Greg notes, and the shortfall in Medicare is larger as a percentage of total expenditures than is the shortfall in Social Security. Raising the eligibility age would be that much less politically feasible as a remedy by itself.
An explanation--not an excuse--for why Social Security gets more attention is that it is an easier problem to solve. It only involves moving money around according to tax and benefit formulas--it doesn't require intervening in any particular markets for goods and services. This doesn't mean that it has gotten no attention. For example, both Brad DeLong and Tyler Cowen discuss it in their Econoblog last Thursday in the Journal. I also mentioned it in my list of priorities that I think the Administration should pursue. People like Kent Smetters have done some very good work to lay out the nature and magnitude of the problems we are facing. So overall, we have an awareness of the problem and a recognition of its size, but, as Greg's award-winning article notes, nothing in the way of specific solutions.
Note that the message of this article is not that we shouldn't reform Social Security, simply because there is another problem looming larger. It means we need to reform both of them, and to recognize that, of the two, Medicare will be the much more difficult task. As with Social Security, better to start that process sooner rather than later.
Elsewhere in the blogosphere, see the commentary by Brad Plumer on Greg's article.
Other blogs commenting on this post