|Image obtained from Salon.com. (Original credit|
I have not studied the career of Mr. Ryan, though I was aware of him before the weekend.
I have not studied Mr. Ryan's career, or his positions, because -- before now -- he and his positions have been essentially irrelevant: Ryan could only sell his own party on any of them because it was certain that any of his bills that the House passed would die in the Senate.
My son-in-law Olaf hates Ryan with a passion. Older Daughter and Hank are coming to town this weekend. Given Olaf's opinion, inasmuch as Hank tends to be far more blatantly partisan, I am afraid that Hank may arrive foaming at the mouth.
Still, I know this much: Mr. Ryan is right when he says Social Security and Medicare cannot continue indefinitely as they are presently constituted. Something must give. Either benefits must be cut or funding must be increased or some combination thereof. When Social Security was instituted, as this Mental Floss article by Matt Soniak explains,
Roughly half of the existing private and state-run old-age pension systems, as well as the federal Railroad Retirement System, were using 65 as their retirement age, and the other half were using 70. It was practical for the federal plan to sync up with one half or the other, and the government’s actuarial studies suggested that starting the pensions at age 65 would allow for a system that could easily be sustained with moderate payroll taxes.Soniak's article traces America's Social Security program back to Otto Von Bismarck's old-age insurance program in Germany. While the retirement age in German had dropped to 65 by the time our Social Security program came into existence, the original retirement age was 70. Writes Soniak, "The choice for the age of eligibility was actually more of a shrewd, and maybe a little cynical, cost-saving measure: it closely matched the average German life expectancy at the time."
In other words, the original idea was we'll provide a little comfort in your old age -- but not for long.
Times change. Medical science advances. I think 65 is the new 40 (something like that, anyway). Even if that's not exactly right, life expectancy has increased. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012, Table 108, average American life expectancy has increased overall from 73.88 years for the period 1979-1981 to 75.37 years for the period 1989-1991.
These averages, of course, include all those who died young -- victims of wasting disease or violent crime -- soldiers or Marines in the nation's wars -- idiots who texted while driving -- we could go on, but why bother? The point is that, by age 55, according to this life expectancy table (compiled, it says, with information provided by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Social Security Administration -- and without taking into account individual health or lifestyle considerations), the average male can look forward to another 24.9 years of life; the average 55-year old female can expect another 28.3 years. The 67 year old person (the newest retirement age) can still expect, on average, 15.8 more years if male, 18.3 years if female.
The cold, hard numbers show the problem with the social security model: By living longer, we are sucking the system dry. I, for one, do not intend to die merely to accommodate everyone else; since I think this is probably a widespread (and I hope understandable) attitude, it follows logically that there must be some structural reform in order for the system to survive at all.
(The cold, hard numbers hint at the political problems that this logical conclusion creates: Life expectancies for men are shorter than life expectancies for women. And life expectancies for Whites are shorter than those of Blacks. Indeed, according to that linked Census Bureau table, the average life expectancy for a Black male in the 1989-1991 period was only 64.47 years -- not enough to reach Social Security even as formerly constituted.)
We could go through a similar analysis on Medicare -- and arrive at the same, depressing conclusions.
And we know that, as life expectancy has increased, and the number of pensioners increased, the number of persons paying into the system per pensioner has fallen. Our situation in the United States is not as bad as it is in Europe, where birthrates have really plummeted, but it is undeniable that there are fewer workers now to support each pensioner.
Moreover, we know that (despite the promises made from the inception of the Social Security program) the government has used and is using the money we pay into the system. There is no "lock box." There never was. However, revenues taken in for Social Security and Medicare have heretofore exceeded benefits paid -- but the day is coming, predictably, inexorably, when this will no longer be true.
The usual political response to these uncomfortable realities is denial or diversion. Anyone who suggests a problem is immediately accused of trying to 'pull the plug on Grannie' or trying to gut seniors' Social Security checks. Who needs that? Therefore, any sensible politician loudly pledges eternal fealty to Social Security and Medicare and silently prays, like Louis XV, that the deluge will come after he or she is gone.
Paul Ryan has stood up and said Social Security and Medicare are in trouble. He has been smeared and vilified in the traditional, predictable manner. That doesn't make him wrong.
Of course, it doesn't make Mr. Ryan's reform proposals valid just because he has some proposals -- nor are his proposals necessarily good because most of Ryan's Congressional colleagues (in rare bipartisan agreement) have their heads in the sand.
As Olaf told me last night, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
But a man with ideas is potentially dangerous to the status quo. Those who think Mr. Ryan's ideas wrong may be forced -- * gasp! * -- to advance ideas of their own.
In that sense, Mr. Romney's choice is very, very interesting, and even potentially refreshing.
And, even if every idea in Ryan's head is wrong, wrong, wrong, he still stands head and shoulders above Mr. Biden -- a confirmed plagiarist who can't even craft an original speech. I could go on here, but it might sound like I'm taking sides.
I do begin to hope, however, for some discussion of vital issues which will transcend mere slogan-tossing.
Am I dreaming or what?