Increasing the Social Security Retirement Age Isn’t Just Bad Politics

It occurred to me today that while I’ve mocked the political wisdom of Chris Christie and Jeb Bush coming out for an increase in the retirement age for Social Security, I haven’t commented on the idea’s dubious merits. Ezra Klein has been on a sort of multi-year crusade on this topic, and what he said in 2012 is still true:

[T]he cavalier endorsement of raising the retirement age by people who really love their jobs, who make so much money they barely pay Social Security taxes, and who are, actuarially speaking, ensured a long and healthy life, drives me nuts.

If you want talk about cutting Social Security, talk about cutting it. It’s a reasonable point of view. You’re allowed to hold it.

But “cutting” Social Security is unpopular and people don’t like to talk about it. So folks who want to cut the program have instead settled on an elliptical argument about life expectancy. Social Security, they say, was designed at a time when Americans didn’t live quite so long. And so raising the retirement age isn’t a “cut.” It’s a restoration of the program’s original purpose. It doesn’t hurt anything or anyone.

The first point worth making here is that the country’s economy has grown 15-fold since Social Security was passed into law. One of the things the richest society the world has ever known can buy is a decent retirement for people who don’t have jobs they love and who don’t want to work forever.

The second point worth making is that Social Security was overhauled in the ’80s. So the promises the program is carrying out today were made then. And, since the ’80s, the idea that we’ve all gained so many years of life simply isn’t true….

[S]ince 1977, the life expectancy of male workers retiring at age 65 has risen six years in the top half of the income distribution. But if you’re in the bottom half of the income distribution? Then you’ve only gained 1.3 years.

Not unreasonably, Ezra suggested that being in the bottom half of the income distribution increases the odds significantly of being in an unpleasant or physically difficult job from which one is anxious to retire even knowing that it involves a major loss of income. And he points out that far from happily accepting a longer working life, Americans are already retiring early even though they are aware it will reduce their Social Security benefits.

And so, in a piece on Christie’s advocacy of a later retirement age for Social Security, Ezra simply says this:

Given the polling, when politicians propose raising the retirement age, they portray themselves as committing an act of great political bravery. “You’re going to have to raise the retirement age for Social Security,” Christie said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute. “Oh, I just said it and I’m still standing here! I did not vaporize into the carpeting.”

But there’s another way to look at the eagerness of political elites to raise the retirement age: as an expression of the vast chasm of class privilege that separates political Washington from the rest of the country.

This proposal also should not become a litmus test for willingness to rethink our big retirement programs. As Kevin Drum recently noted (continue getting well, Kevin!), delaying the retirement age is not some sort of compromise or easy “reform:”

I am part of a dwindling band of liberals who is willing to cut a deal on Social Security that would reduce future payouts in return for higher funding rates. Unfortunately, this was never going anywhere because conservatives weren’t willing to deal on the funding side, and it’s even deader today because liberals are increasingly demanding increases in Social Security, not cuts.

But regardless of how you feel about all this, you should hate Christie’s proposal. As I and others have pointed out repeatedly, raising the retirement age is the worst possible way of fixing Social Security’s finances, doing its work primarily on the backs of low-income workers while making only token demands on the rich. It’s a cruel and callous proposal and everyone should recognize it for what it is.

It’s possible to change Social Security in any number of ways, and one can even imagine a compromise that involves partial means-testing in exchange for increased benefits for people who really rely on Social Security as their principal retirement income. But a retirement age boost simply cuts benefits for lower-income retirees and keeps them from retiring regardless of their circumstances. So the political punishment Christie and Bush receive for proposing this favorite panacea for elites will be richly earned.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.