It came in the mail. An “Official Business” government envelope would normally press my panic button, but I knew this had more to do with death than taxes. Actuaries not auditors were on my case. Inside the envelope was my Medicare card, carrying a unique number I am not to share or transfer under pain of prosecution. When I die, the card expires with me, along with the government benefits I’ve already paid for—paycheck after paycheck, decade after decade—whether or not I have tapped them. With this paper-thin ID in my wallet, I am officially a senior citizen: sixty-five, still wide-eyed and healthy enough, and about to find out what it means to age in America.
The application process did not encourage confidence in the system. I suffered multiple headaches over many months reading about Medicare A-B-C-D, each with its own benefits, rules, restrictions, timetables, mandates, and cautionary language. Which of these “parts” do I apply for? Which must I apply for now or receive reduced benefits or a fine later? Does my employer health care plan allow me to access Medicare and vice versa? You need an advanced math degree to figure out which plan might cost you more in the long run, depending on when you retire and/or when God calls you home. Going over the rules of the Medicare game again and again, I wished I could call up Social Security and tell them to return all the money they’ve taken from me and let me fend for myself, thank you.
But, of course, they’ve already used the money I’ve put in to pay benefits for people who were collecting while I was working, and now my sons’ generation will be paying for me. If it sounds like a Ponzi scheme, at least it has the full faith and credit of the US government behind it, as well as the Treasury to pump out paper money to meet inevitable shortfalls. The economist John Maynard Keynes famously quipped that “In the long run we are all dead” to justify government running up enormous deficits. It was a strange sort of monetary millennialism—the belief that the national debt could be floated till Judgment Day, when other, more personal, debts would be exacted. Indeed, it’s been nearly a century since Keynes wrote those words, and our government has run up some pretty big deficits—trillions each year—and engaged in much fiscal mischief awaiting that indefinite, fateful day when money won’t matter. You can’t take it with you, but you can saddle others with high inflation and economic depression as you make your way to eternity.
Needless to say, I am a fiscal conservative, veering toward libertarian when it comes to government; I have never had an easy relationship with bureaucracy. I remember, age 21, filling out my first W-2 tax-withholding form at my first full-time job and not knowing my social security number, unsure if I had even bothered to apply for one. (I was born long before parents were pressured to sign up their newborns for Social Security before leaving the hospital.) So in order to get a paycheck, I had to go to the kind of impersonal federal office building I’d hoped never to enter and get my social security number, then complete the W-2 so the taxman could start taking money from my measly weekly pay. It only confirmed my mistrust of government in those dark post-Watergate, post-Vietnam days. They make you fill out forms to take your money and fill out more forms to get some of that money back.
These thoughts provide little comfort as I consider the years to come. Every week I get a spate of mail from financial planners and investors asking that haunting question: How much will you need for retirement? With inflation raging and recession a word that dare not speak its name, there’s no easy answer. Gazing down the time tunnel, it’s possible to envision my wife and I spending 25-30 years in retirement. Who knows what a gallon of milk or a pound of coffee will cost then? The good news is that I am employed, with no immediate plans to retire. (I am happily at work on the canonization cause of Knights of Columbus founder Blessed Michael McGivney.) So I am spared for now the tougher decisions regarding the more complex benefits of Medicare Advantage and prescription drug coverage.
Twenty years ago, conservatives would talk about developing a way to replace Social Security with individual retirement accounts and restraining the growth of Medicare. Even presidential hopeful Al Gore spoke of a “lock box” for the payroll tax that funds both. No one talks that way anymore. The system is not that popular in itself but the benefits are politically untouchable since the money has already been taken from every working American, and every retiring American wants his or her share back. Too many have put in too much to risk system-change during the years they get the checks. The system is broken and cannot be fixed, but it persists. Because it’s the perfect bureaucratic creature, one which assures—under penalty of prosecution—dependency on the government that takes the money and cuts the checks.
After all, in the long run . . .