They're living the good life at America's expense

We may not have Barbara Castle on this side of the Atlantic, but we do have Grampa Simpson.
Like your old Labour battle-axe, consistency is not the forte of this cartoon character. On the one hand, he is a vibrant old codger writing stern letters to the "sickoes at Modern Bride magazine": "When I read your magazine, I don't see one wrinkled face or a single toothless grin. For shame!"
On the other hand, he is a pathetic old geezer, desperate for government handouts. "Grampa," Bart and Lisa ask him in one episode, "didn't you wonder why you were getting cheques for doing nothing?"
"I figured 'cuz the Democrats were in power again," came the priceless response.
This is shaping up to be Grampa Simpson's year. It has taken Tony Blair three years to realise that any left-of-centre party depends on solid support from welfare-loving pensioners; but Al Gore has known this for years.
He and Bill Clinton got elected in 1996 after blanketing areas of high pensioner population with terrifying messages about how Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich were about to toss them into the poorhouse. Demagoguery over pensions and healthcare for the elderly comes as naturally to Democrats as promising tax cuts comes to Republicans. The results are always electorally impressive.
The over-65s, after all, vote in far greater numbers than any other age group. This year marks the first time in history that the number of Americans over 50 is larger than the number under 18 - every day, 400 more elderly voters are added to the rolls. Arguably the most important swing state in this close election is Florida, a historically Republican state slowly becoming more Democratic as retirees grow in strength.
The result in America is the same as in every other industrialised nation. The power of the old is increasingly bankrupting the country. If entitlements remain as they are and an economic miracle does not materialise, America will be crippled by the costs of caring for the old within a decade or so.
With retirement still at 65, the age introduced in the 1930s when life expectancy was far shorter, and with fewer Americans in the workforce to support the old, bankruptcy beckons.
What do the politicians do? They vie with each other to add yet more goodies to the elderly's already hefty entitlements.
Gore's record in this is particularly shameless. Here is what he is offering: no reform of the pension and healthcare system; no change in the retirement age; a new prescription-drug entitlement that pays for unlimited coverage for any oldie with expenses over £2,740 a year; free preventive tests twice as often as today, and on and on. The cost? Gore says his plan would cost £173 billion over the next 10 years, although the congressional budget office puts the price at £232 billion. But, hey, what's £59 billion between friends? Bush's plan is almost as feckless, subsidising small premiums even for multimillionaires.
Isn't there a pressing need to help the elderly poor? In a cosmic sense, of course there is. Who does not wince at the plight of the old struggling to afford payments for necessary drugs?
However, responsible politicians care for the whole of society, not just a part of it. In America, where the elderly are easily the wealthiest segment of the population, there is no moral rationale for funnelling even more of other people's cash into their pockets.
According to the census bureau, the median net worth of American pensioners is £59,000 - about 15 times the net worth of those under 35 and three times as high as the net worth of households headed by people between 35 and 44.
The poverty rate for people under 18 is 17%, compared with less than 10% for the elderly, and the gap is growing.
Surely the elderly have already paid their share? Not exactly. Today's generation of American oldies, like their British counterparts, are getting back far more in social security and Medicare benefits than they or their employers paid into the system - and far more than future generations will probably get in our not-so-golden years. The "greatest generation" is also one of the luckiest.
Of course, that is not how they see it. There was a wonderful story the other day in The New York Times in which a reporter asked elderly people in Baltimore what they thought of the various plans to change, revamp or expand Medicare. Surprise, surprise - they all wanted more of everything.
"I have not only a regular internist," said Syd Goldfield, 71, "I have a urologist. I have a bone doctor. I have an eye doctor . . . I know who I am seeing and I like them. And I don't like to have a strange doctor working on me for anything." Another Baltimore senior citizen opined: "If you want the best, you have to pay. And I want the best." Fine, until you realise who "you" is.
America is worse off than Britain in this regard because Ronald Reagan was no Margaret Thatcher. The decoupling of pensions from earnings was arguably one of the most important fiscal reforms Thatcher ever initiated and it is one of the reasons why Britain has a far rosier fiscal future than most other western countries.
If some pensioners have fallen into poverty the answer is not to ratchet up the benefits for everyone, but to direct resources at the neediest.
The lesson from America is a relatively simple one: there is no satisfying this constituency. If they succeed in getting their way now, what possible hope do we have of resisting them when they make up almost half the population?
We should not be mugging our own grannies; but we should insist that they don't mug the rest of us.


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