Bush and Gore Woo the Elderly
Oct. 25, 2000

The three debates starring George Bush and Al Gore under the moderating influence of the imperturbable Jim Lehrer have come and gone. Gore, the consummate debater who burnished his reputation with a triumphant performance over Ross Perot on Larry King Live on the subject of Nafta, showed a masterful command of the issues, even at one point appearing to educate Bush about his - Bush's - plans. Bush, the relative neophyte, tried to stay away from numbers ("fuzzy math") and was clearly glad to see the entire affair come to an end.

While both Gore and Bush sought sedulously to highlight their differences, one issue has clearly garnered support from both candidates -- viz., the treatment of the elderly. The clout of the elderly lobby, having grown in recent Presidential campaigns, has now assumed astounding proportions. Folks over 65 are more numerous and affluent than ever; furthermore, they vote in large numbers -- a fact that has not escaped the gimlet eyes of the Presidential aspirants.

Thus we have the spectacle of Gore and Bush trying to outbid each other in offering the more generous package to the elderly. Take prescription drugs. Both candidates, having noted the pain inflicted by rising drug prices on fixed-income recipients, have proposed plans to extend Medicare to cover prescription drugs. Unfortunately, in their haste to pander to this segment, they have offered the largesse to all, with the result that a retired millionaire and a retired low-income individual will reap similar benefits. While this may strike some as fair -- why shouldn't the benefit be extended to those who, having worked hard throughout their lives and saved prudently, are now retired with large nest eggs? -- the costs to the government will be staggering. Ultimately, the payments for these drugs will have to be met by tax revenues garnered from other parts of the population.

In the case of Social Security, too, both candidates seem to promise the continuance of the benefits under the current system without inflicting any pain. But, as the aging population rises relentlessly, so will the taxes (on the working population) required to pay for the benefits. One solution would be to raise the age at which one becomes fully eligible for Social Security benefits -- but the political will to implement even a modest raise from 65 to 67 is woefully weak. Bush, to his credit, has proposed partially privatizing Social Security: under his plan, individuals will be able to divert a fraction of their current Social Security tax payments to their own investment accounts, thereby partly alleviating the need for higher tax revenues in the future to pay for benefits.

In the remaining days of the campaigns, we will no doubt continue to witness the candidates' unflagging fealty to the elderly. But the generosity of the promises being made now is likely to wither later in the face of harsh fiscal realities.

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