Viewpoint: Weep Not for the Wizened


Have you ever wondered why the wealthiest man in the United States is entitled to ride for half-fare on any bus? Answer: He's over 65. He's also entitled to Social Security benefits (read windfalls) and taxpayer-subsidized medical treatment (Medicare), and he can see Jaws 3-D on a special senior discount at any American Multi-Cinema.

I don't begrudge anyone Jaws 3-D. Nor billions. Indeed, I wish everyone good health and a long life. What I don't understand is why I should be obliged to subsidize people who have a thousand times more assets than I—merely because they are old.

Being old is nothing to gripe about. It's far more appealing than the alternative: being dead. Lots of people do die before they reach old age. They're the ones I feel sorry for—those who are crippled or hurt or who lose their lives altogether in youth or middle age. Someone who is now elderly has already lived a long life. If it was not a full life, that's his fault. I see no good reason that the elderly should become our prime national charity—especially when many are not even poor.

Look at the figures, and you find that the oldest portion of the population is the richest. The richest. They own more of the nation's real estate, stocks, and businesses than people in any other age bracket. Most of the elderly actually own their homes. Because of the mess they left the country in, many young people never will own their homes.

Not all the old are wealthy, of course. But even those without wealth and with below-average income can realize a higher standard of living than most of the rest of the population. Much of the income of the elderly, in the form of Social Security benefits, is tax-free. And their other income is taxed at lower rates, because they have twice the number of exemptions as persons under 65.

Furthermore, the elderly have lower expenses than persons in other age brackets. Most don't work regularly and thus save thousands required for commuting, dressing for work, and having meals outside the home. Because they typically own their homes outright, having bought years ago at low interest rates, their housing costs, as a group, are lower.

In short, Grandpa and Grandma may deserve our love, and maybe even our pity if their health has started to fail. But not just because they are old. Not because they have lived a long life. There's nothing pitiful about that.

And if we really get down to cases, the elderly have as much to apologize for as to crow about. They're the ones who voted for the politicians who left the country in the shabby shape it's in today. In fairness, they should pay part of the cost rather than using the system to plunder those who were unlucky enough to come along later. They voted in the Social Security system but didn't put it on a sound footing—or pay taxes themselves that were in any way commensurate with the benefits they are now drawing. A man who turned 65 in 1982 and retired in that year with a nonworking spouse would have collected every penny he ever paid into Social Security by the end of March 1983. He and then his widow, when he dies, will continue to collect benefits until after the turn of the century.

Politicians are bidding against one another to make these windfalls even greater. The hoppers in Congress are filled with bills to give elderly persons up to $10,000 in income-tax exclusions, an exclusive right to deduct real-estate taxes paid on rented apartments, exemption from penalties for underpayment of estimated tax, special home health-care subsidies, subsidized home repairs, "grandparents rights," and more.

At the same time the politicians proclaim that the oldsters are so pitiful as to deserve all this bounty, they prohibit any presumption that the elderly are incompetent. Age can now be used as a basis for refusing employment only with the greatest difficulty. One might be obliged to hire an elderly accountant at the same time the politicians tells us that he, but not his young client, may be excused for not paying his estimated taxes. Figure that one out.

Politicians pander to the old because they tend not to work and therefore have a discoverable interest as recipients of benefits from the government. There are tens of thousands of occupations in America. Those of working age who fill those jobs tend to vote in ways that narrowly promote the interest of the groups to which they belong. Farmers vote for price supports, auto workers for import quotas, doctors for restraint of trade in the medical industry, and so on. But retired farmers, auto workers, and doctors all want more benefits for retired people. In old age, they are united in greed, as they were once divided by it. The politicians sense this, which is why the oldest segment in our population will continue to exploit the rest of us; why we see the absurd spectacle of government investing more in the old than in the young.

While those who are now retired on Social Security will collect large multiples of the amount they paid into the system, those now working will be lucky to receive a large fraction of their contributions. The system is unfair and wrong. The next time someone proposes changing the national anthem, which happens every few years, I have a suggestion: that classic sung by the Ponytails in 1958, "Born Too Late."

Jim Davidson is founder and chairman of the National Taxpayers Union and author of The Squeeze.