Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Too young to die, too old to live

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 1991 and 2020, the number of over-60s will grow by 59% in the rich industrial countries, and by 159% in the "less-developed" ones though. There's no question that the population's aging is of major importance, and that it will change the whole tenor of social life health care, the consumer culture, architecture, living arrangements, and even population sex ratios, since women live longer than men. But the real crisis for capitalism and its governments is that the costs of health care and pensions will grow, something that's usually presented as a "burden" on the nonelderly members of society. Older people are not to be cared for, even cherished they're a cost that has to be minimised in the name of fiscal prudence, growth, and productivity. Unless older people are to starve, some provision for their income must be made. In pre -industrial societies, where life is short, people tend to work until they can no longer, and then their families take over. With industrialisation families break apart, and such informal arrangements can no longer be relied on.

According to the doomsters, there are many faults to existing pension systems. Too many of the benefits go to affluent retirees, funds that could be better targeted to the poor; public pensions crowd out spending on other worthy public purposes, like education; the assurance of a reasonably generous income at retirement discourages personal saving; and the retired are essentially a parasitic layer of old folk feeding off the non-old. While a public system may work well when it's young, when the number of contributors greatly outweighs the number of retirees drawing on it, as the system matures, the rate of outgo rises to match the rate of income. "Who pays for what?" This is the central question in public finance. But this one question is actually two questions: "who pays?" and "for what?"

The World Bank, the voice of world capitalism, proposes a three -pillared system. A mandatory public system, financed by tax contributions on a pay-as -you go basis, to provide a minimum floor income for the elderly possibly a single, flat-rate benefit for all. The second is a mandatory pri vately managed system, financed by contributions from either employers, workers, or both a form of forced saving with the accumulating balances invested (Privately management in order to prevent the backdoor nationalisation of the private sector that could occur if public entities invested their funds in the stock market). And the third is a system of similarly invested voluntary savings, also financed by worker and/or employer contributions, but not required by law. The public pillar would assure a minimum income (subsistence) in old age, but nothing terribly comfortable. Comfort would only be achieved through the second and third pillars.

Increasing reliance on private savings, forced or voluntary, to fund retirement takes it on faith that funds invested in the stock and bond markets will magically grow to meet rising needs. Over the very long term, interest rates on long-term bonds average about the same as economic growth rates. Stocks do better than this, but it seems economically unwise to bet that financial asset prices can forever grow more rapidly than the value of the underlying real assets the present and future profits of private corporations they're a claim on.

The Bank's favorite model is Chile yet the Chilean system fails to live up to the Bank's promises. The poorest, supposedly protected by a "safety net," get a payment equivalent to a loaf of bread and a cup of coffee per day. Less poor workers are hardly well taken care of by the new system; it's likely that about half of all retired workers will fall under the official poverty line. Women, with lower wages and longer lives than men, come up particularly short. Administrative costs are far higher than the old public system; investment managers are a lot more expensive than public sector bureaucrats. As with most private pension funds, workers have no say over how their savings are used; fund managers cast the stockholders' votes by their own lights, even though they're really only the workers' agents. In the USA the The National Academy of Social Insurance detailed some options workers could pay more; reduce benefits; reduce the cost of living adjustment; increase the age for full retirement benefits; lengthen the career-earnings averaging period; and reduce benefits for new beneficiaries.

Many call for the raise of the retirement age to 70. This isn't based on any evidence that people are working longer and don't actually need it, but on the fact that people are living longer and draining from the fund longer than in years past. In fact, the real belief is that many who have to retire before 70 will do so for health reasons on truncated benefits and die before they ever reach 70, thus saving the system money. Those few that actually can and do work until 70 will continue to pay into the system, so it's a win/win move. Added to that is the fact that earners in the top half of the economic strata have a longer life expectancy than those in the bottom half and have a far greater chance of making it to 70 and drawing full benefits Another solutions though could be raising the rate of immigration since immigrants (legal or not) tend to be young, and swell the ranks of those paying into the system rather than drawing it down. GDP growth will, since the size of the economy decades hence will determine how much money is available to pay retirees. The bankruptcy scenario is based on an assumption that GDP will grow at a rate seen only in depression decades.

The ones being sacrificed on the altar of economics are society's oldest and frailest, an almost inevitable result of the pursuit of profit above all else in our society..

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