Death Comes to the Old - Social Security Rejoices

Dead old folks are good for government accounting.

My, what a difference a few weeks makes.  Within the lifetime of Sheryl Crow's current roll of toilet paper, half the world was afraid we'd all die of swine flu before coming to the last sheet.  Today... crickets.  Pigs may fly, and swine flu just flew away.

More people die falling down the stairs than are credited to swine flu; yet tens of thousands die every year from plain old ordinary seasonal flu.  The power of the panic seems to be directly related - in reverse - to the magnitude of the putative disaster.  Is this just yet another example of modern society's total mathematical illiteracy and inability to comprehend simple statistics?

We may yet find out.  The world medical community is far from convinced that we've seen the last of the swine flu:

Some past pandemics were preceded by "herald waves" of a flu strain that surfaced at the end of one flu season, only to return with far greater consequences the next flu season.

Reportedly, swine flu is a combination of various other flus, both human and animal, and as such isn't stopped by ordinary medical means, though extreme medical intervention seems to help.  There is no doubt that national and international authorities are doing whatever they can to head off a true pandemic and are getting prepared as best as bureaucrats can.

However, there is an alternate scenario: one which falls in the category of profoundly frightening silver linings, the stuff of conspiracy theories.

How to Save Social Security

The bankruptcy of our Social Security system - and even more so, of Medicare - has been known for a long time.  The cause is equally clear and well known: Americans are living far, far longer than they were when those entitlements were first set up and consuming far vaster quantities of expensive medical services along the way.

One of the potential solutions is to raise the retirement age, thus shortening the period when people can collect; other suggestions involve raising payroll taxes, taxing the benefits, or restricting them to the poor.  All of these share a common political problem: you are taking something away from people that they have been taught to believe is their property, for which they have been paying their whole lives.

The elderly and near-elderly are the demographic most faithful to vote in elections.  Is it any wonder that Social Security has been called the "third rail" of American politics - touch it and you die?

There's another way to reduce the outlay of these programs: arrange for the elderly to die earlier.  The legalized-suicide movement is one way of accomplishing this: a cocktail of deadly drugs costs a minute fraction of what a month's slow expiry in hospital does.

Although the Doctor Kevorkian crowd has made some progress in extremely liberal states, there still seems to be a residual queasiness amongst most Americans when it comes to encouraging their dear old Dad to pop himself off for the good of Uncle Sam's checkbook - as studies in the Netherlands have shown is exactly what happens once such forms of medical intervention become legal.

A swine-flu pandemic offers a neat and efficient way to square the circle.  Epidemics are acts of God - no politician can be blamed for them.  Ordinary flu already kills vast numbers of the elderly; a flu pandemic would be expected to kill even more.

In the case of a true pandemic, where medical resources are overstretched, not everyone gets treated.  The San Francisco Chronicle reports:

An influential group of physicians has drafted a grimly specific list of recommendations for which patients wouldn't be treated. They include the very elderly, seriously hurt trauma victims, severely burned patients and those with severe dementia. The suggested list was compiled by a task force whose members come from prestigious universities, medical groups, the military and government agencies...The proposed guidelines are designed to be a blueprint for hospitals "so that everybody will be thinking in the same way" when pandemic flu or another widespread health care disaster hits.

Let's connect the dots:

  • Social Security and its associated entitlements are bankrupt because too many people are living to be too old and collecting too much money while they do so.

  • Politics has prevented the programs from being changed to bring them back into balance.

  • A flu pandemic offers the opportunity to get rid of many of the people who are consuming the resources, thus putting the programs back on an even keel.

  • And, we see the sudden disappearance of Swine Flu from the national conversation.

The Law of Unintended Consequences

Thus far, there's a clear case to be made for welcoming a pandemic - if, that is, you are a mechanistic Doctor Death or an emotionless bureaucrat.  For the rest of us, even thinking it through is horrifying.

We haven't even discussed the really scary part yet.  When was the last time any government scheme worked exactly as planned?  There are always unintended consequences with everything the government does or does not do - and a pandemic is no exception.

For there is something about the swine flu that is particularly strange: It doesn't focus on oldsters as you'd expect.  Bloomberg reports:

In the U.S., the CDC said Mexico's initial reports that the virus was disproportionately attacking and killing young people led to the agency's advice that schools close if they suspected anyone were sick with swine flu... Data so far suggest that the virus affects youth more than seasonal influenza, and that younger patients are entering hospitals, Besser said. Few with swine flu are older than 60, and the median age is 16. It's possible that older people have greater immunity or that younger people are spreading the disease on spring break vacation trips to Mexico, he said. [emphasis added]

Why this might be is a mystery.  Maybe the elderly were exposed to similar strains far back in the past and have residual immunity?  It's conceivable that their immune systems are stronger in other ways; the increasing prevalence of asthma in recent decades is well documented.  Who knows?

But the why is less important than the what, and what we have here is a potential pandemic that kills the young and leaves the elderly alone.

Just imagine for a moment the consequences.  Far from killing off the old and saving Social Security, a swine flu pandemic would decimate the young - leaving the elderly healthy in their nursing homes while their nurses and caregivers drop around them.  When it's all over, there would be even fewer tax-paying workers to support the same number of retirees as there were before.

Maybe then the government would finally address the problem?  Don't hold your breath.

It's enough to make one want to run out to stock up on breathing masks and canned soup.

Read other articles by Hobbes or other articles on Society.
Reader Comments
When Social Security was first set up, it was intended that to qualify one had to be at least 65 to collect. At the time (1934), the average life expectancy was 60. If SS was still indexed to LE+5 today, no one would qualify until they were at least 82! It was when they began to liberalize qualification criteria and expand it to include people other than elderly that the problems began to crop up. (I knew a guy in college who got SS checks because he was still "dependent and in school" and his dad was over 65 - why??)

As boomers age, yet are still healthy, they may want to keep working. For every 2 boomers that retire, only one gen x/gen y worker is available to replace them - we're going to either see more outsourcing, or companies will pay extra incentives to keep boomers on the job longer, and ensure the passing of company wisdom to the younger folk. This is a potential crisis no one is talking about. SS is going to have to limit bennies to boomers who keep working past 65. Or not pay them at all. I don't see another way out.
June 10, 2009 9:51 AM
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