Expenditures under the Social Security and Medicare programs account for approximately one-third of total federal government spending. It is obvious that any major reduction in government spending requires major reductions in spending for these programs. Unfortunately, Social Security and Medicare are generally regarded as sacred and thus virtually untouchable, with the result that few if any proposals have been made that would greatly reduce the spending they entail.
At present, the age at which full — "normal" — Social Security benefits can be obtained, given the individual's lifetime earnings and contributions to the system up to that time, is 66. This represents an increase of 1 year from the age in force from the system's inception until 2003, at which time it was increased by 2 months, reaching 66 after a series of 5 more 2-month increases in the years 2004–2008. Commencing in 2021, the full-benefit retirement age is scheduled to begin increasing by a second series of 2-month additions, until a full-benefit retirement age of 67 is reached in 2027.
From the beginning of the system, and scheduled to continue indefinitely, it has been possible to choose to receive Social Security benefits starting at age 62, though at a reduced rate. This rate is currently 75 percent of the full-benefit amount, down from 80 percent when the full-benefit retirement age was 65, and is scheduled to fall to 70 percent when the full-benefit retirement age rises to 67. By continuing to work and postponing the receipt of benefits until age 70, it has been possible to obtain premium benefits that are currently, i.e., for retirees in 2011, 32 percent higher than the "full" benefit amount. This premium is scheduled to fall to 24 percent when the full-benefit retirement age rises to 67.
The age for enrollment in Medicare is still 65, and, under existing law, is not scheduled to increase. Indeed, enrollment at any later age is frequently penalized.
The Social Security system, together with Medicare, could be eliminated by means of the following steps, each one of which would result in substantial cost savings. First, following a grace period of perhaps two or three years, to provide sufficient warning and time to adjust, there should be a phased increase to 70 in the age at which individuals are eligible to receive full Social Security benefits and Medicare. At the same time, the early benefit retirement age for Social Security should be increased from 62 to 66.
The increases in age could take place in 6-month increments over a period of 8 years, with the exception of an initial increment of 1½ years in the case of Medicare. Thus, assuming that the reform I'm proposing were implemented prior to 2021, with the Social Security retirement age still at 66, in the first year of its implementation the early Social Security retirement age would be raised to 62½, while the full-benefit retirement age, along with the Medicare retirement age, rose to 66½. In the second year, the respective retirement ages would be 63 and 67. And so it would continue, year after year, for a total increase of 4 years over an 8-year period.
In this period, apart from adjustments for increases in the consumer price index, retirement benefits would remain unchanged as the respective ages increased at which they could begin to be obtained. Thus, by the end of the process, individuals receiving early retirement benefits at age 66 would receive no greater benefits than individuals had previously obtained at age 62. In the same way, individuals at age 70 would receive full benefits no greater than individuals had received at age 66, before the process of reform began.
Thus, when completed, after 8 years, the effect of just this phase of the reform would be a substantial reduction both in the number of people receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits and in the average per capita benefit received by those who remained in the Social Security program. Members of the age-group 65–69 would no longer receive Medicare benefits. Members of the age-group 62–65 would no longer receive Social Security at all. Members of the age-group 66–69 enrolled in the program at that time, would receive benefits 25 percent less than their predecessors had received, before the start of the reform, because just as early retirement benefits starting at age 62 had been 25 percent less than the full benefits starting at age 66, so now early retirement benefits starting at age 66 would be 25 percent less than full benefits starting at age 70. Indeed, the reduction in the benefits of the 66–69 age-group would be further increased to the extent that they would no longer contain any premiums for retirement after 66. The elimination of premium benefits would ultimately work to reduce the aggregate benefits of all later age-groups as well, insofar as they too would eventually no longer reflect the incorporation of premium benefits to anyone.
As of December 2009, of the approximately 33.5 million people receiving Social Security retirement benefits, approximately 4.4 million, or roughly 13 percent, were in the age-group 62–65. This group received retirement benefits of $54.7 billion, which represents about 11.7 percent of the aggregate Social Security retirement benefits of $468.2 paid in 2009. It is not unreasonable to assume that the closing of Social Security to new enrollees in the 62–65 age-group would achieve comparable percentage reductions in the number of people receiving Social Security retirement benefits and in the overall cost of the program. To this must be added the effect of the 25 percent reduction in the benefits of the 66–69 age-group plus the effect of the elimination of premiums for late retirement.
"Fundamentally, rights to entitlements of any kind, that must be paid for involuntarily by other people, are no more legitimate than the alleged property rights of slave owners in their slaves."
Based on the Social Security benefits paid to the members of the 62–65 and 66–69 age-groups in 2009 relative to total Social Security retirement benefits in that year, the resulting overall reduction in the cost of such benefits can be estimated at approximately 18 percent. The benefits paid to the members of the 66–69 age-group were $116.9 billion, representing 25 percent of the total. A 25 percent reduction in these benefits represents a reduction of 6.25 percent in overall benefits. Thus, the total reduction in benefits is the sum of 11.7 percent, the share of Social Security retirement income previously received by the members of the 62–65 age-group, plus 6.25 percent, i.e., approximately 18 percent in all. This percentage is the measure of the reduction in the yearly cost of Social Security that can be expected at the end of 8 years.
Based on data supplied by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (Medpac), the cost savings in Medicare that would result from a rise in the eligible age from 65 to 70 can be estimated at perhaps as much as 15 percent of Medicare's spending.