Thursday, February 27, 2014

House of Cards and entitlements: embarrassing, but to whom?

UPDATED BELOW

I know I’m late to this little fracas, and I’m not yet caught up on the entire second season, but it is terribly embarrassing that characters in Netflix’s House of Cards would propose raising the retirement age from 65. Now, I understand the original novel was set in the UK. But Netflix’s version is set in the U.S. and in the near present. Were all the writers born before 1938? Because everyone born after 1937 has a Social Security retirement age greater than 65. If you are turning 54 this year, or if you are younger than that, then ever since 1983 your retirement age has been 67. Frank Underwood says the Republicans have wanted this “since Johnson” but Underwood first ran for office in 1986– three years after Republicans got their increase in the retirement age for Social Security.

Now, technically speaking, House of Cards (as far as I have watched) talks only of “entitlements” but connects it to an increase in the age for early retirement, which applies to Social Security but not Medicare. In any case, compared to the typical Medicare recipient, those in their mid-60’s are relatively healthy– while many of those especially unhealthy would be on Medicaid anyway. Consequently, raising the retirement age for Medicare doesn’t even reduce deficits by a noticeable amount. According to the Congressional Budget Office, it would save some $6.7 billion in 2023 (PDF source)– an amount less than 0.03 percent of GDP.

I wonder what the writers had in mind. I’m guessing it’s a slip on the part of the writers. Or– in an age of low employment, wrecked private pensions, and thin household savings– is 70 is just too absurd a proposal for the viewers to swallow? Is this not embarrassing to supposed reformers? Then again, with respect to Matthew Yglesias, maybe the fight over entitlements is not about deficits.

Update: Yup. In the next episode, Underwood specifically mentions Medicare. That makes the CBO report relevant. At least, as relevant as an actual CBO report can be to a fictional show. More importantly, it is not so embarrassing to single out Medicare when talking entitlements. It’s health care costs which are projected to threaten the federal budget– not Social Security. If the United States had health-care costs in line with the rest of the developed world, we would be looking at surpluses, not deficits. But raising the retirement age is no solution.

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