Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Fun With Longevity-Adjusted Benefits

His description of the president's social security proposal as a "dead horse" rightly got most of the attention, but House Ways & Means Chairman Bill Thomas covered a lot of strange turf in his comments yesterday on retirement and taxes. Most notably, he wondered aloud if we ought to downwardly adjust Social Security benefits for women because they tend to live longer.

The idea that women are unjustly sapping the Social Security Trust Fund by perversely refusing to die as fast as men raises the broader question whether all benefits should be "adjusted" based on longevity. Why not incentivize cost-effective early deaths instead of parasitical dotage?

As my friend the political consultant Dan Buck pointed out to me today, if women are to be punished for living too long, it follows that those with shorter average lifespans, like, say, African-Americans, should get a boost in monthly benefits. Maybe this could become Karl Rove's prize wedge-issue for expanding the GOP share of the black vote.

But why stop at racial or gender categories? Why not just come right out and reward behaviors that tend to shorten life and thus protect the solvency of Social Security? By his own logic, Bill Thomas should start talking about higher benefits for smokers, heavy drinkers, and the obese, and lower benefits for careful eaters and regular exercisers. After all, good health and a buff physique are their own rewards.

It's time to stop coddling oldsters and giving them more of their share of what they earned before retirement than they actually deserve. Anyone who can echo Casey Stengal's late-life self-appraisal--"Most people my age are dead. You could look it up"--needs to shuffle on in the great cattle drive of life and get off the public dole. Right, Mr. Thomas?
-- Posted at 6:03 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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