Debunking ‘The Myth Of The Greedy Geezer’

You know the greedy geezer, don’t you? That resource-sucking, Social Security-inflating senior who’s being blamed by some these days for the federal budget deficit now and in years to come, depriving today’s children of their rightful legacy?

Well, in a sweeping piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, health care reporter Trudy Lieberman explodes the idea that the Social Security debate should be framed as a conflict between old and young.  She begins:

A meme that has been bubbling up in the media for months goes something like this: The elderly have it too good. They claim too much of the country’s financial resources and will eat their children’s—and grandchildren’s—breakfast, lunch, and dinner unless Social Security and Medicare are cut. The country can no longer afford to give seniors so much.

Trudy Lieberman

Trudy Lieberman


The press, she writes, “has been presenting a one-sided picture of the Social Security situation, quite possibly to the detriment of young and the old alike. From other perspectives, the two generations are not in opposition at all, but natural allies, both with common interests in a strong Social Security system.”

In fact, Trudy argues, this false generational conflict draws attention away from what may be the true conflict around Social Security: Between the richest 1 percent and the rest of us. Listen to her discuss the issue by clicking the play arrow on the sound file above, and read her full article here.

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  • Joan

    Medicare doesn’t begin to pay my medical bills — typically they pay about 30% of what the doctor/hospital charges. Also, there are many exclusions — Medicare doesn’t cover eyeglasses (no matter how low vision you are) or hearing aids. It covers my asthma drug, but not the spacer to use it. A friend had knee surgery and was transferred from the hospital to a rehab facility. She had to pay for the ambulance to get her there.

    Yes, the costs of hospitals are way too high, but that’s a separate problem. Making Medicare fit actual patient needs, and cutting down on administrative costs would go a long way to improving the system.

  • Dennis Byron

    The analysis/article by Lieberman is just journalistic navel gazing (which presumably is the intention of writing articles for Columbia Journalism Review). She claims a long list of journalists say X about us seniors and how we use government programs. But some other “influential” people say Y, which is different than what the X group says. So? I cannot find any original thinking in Lieberman’s article anywhere (again, maybe Columbia doesn’t want any) explaining why X is not true or a reason why that long list of people should be saying Y. (One of the Y’s I don’t think she mentioned is Urban Institute which puts out a misleading report annually about how we seniors suck so much out of the government that we don’t deserve. That report seems to me to be the catalyst for all the X articles. And that report is just plain wrong.)

    Basically the generational issue is between my kids and their grandparents, not with me — a first wave baby boomer. Lieberman — and all the X’s and Y’s — lump all today’s seniors (and near seniors) — the greatest generation, the pre-WW’s seniors, the baby boomers — into one pot. And lumps all government benefit programs we get — SS, Medicare, Medicaid — into one pot. This has to be some kind of journalism malpractice.

    Start with us seniors. Not only do you have to consider each senior generation separately (the greatest generation, the intra-WW’s seniors, the baby boomers) and analyze what each gets out of government retiree programs separately, you have to consider what each generation put into the programs separately. The answers are wildly different. Most of the X group’s accusations and allegations apply to the greatest generation, not to us baby boomers (not that I hold that against my parents). But more important, the X group totally ignores the fact that most of the government debate is about the succeeding generations, not us current or about to be retirees.

    More important the X group’s comments and the Y groups opinions totally ignore the differences in the three retiree programs themselves. For starters there are really eight “retiree” programs buried in the three (with a ninth program — help for low
    income non-seniors — buried somewhere in Medicaid as well but that’s a small
    part of Medicaid). There is (1) SS, (2) Medicare and (3) Medicaid for regular
    middle-income retirees (there are not a lot of high- income retirees; they get the same three programs as middle-income retirees but pay more and get less). There is (4) SS, (5) Medicare and (6) Medicaid for low-income seniors. And there is (7) SS and (8) Medicare for disabled people under 65.

    To lump all these programs into one pot and also ignore the generational differences related to them the way these Journolisters do is intellectual deceit of the worst kind.

    Baby boomers, especially the first wave middle income seniors, break even from all the programs (but may make out on Medicaid in a nursing home if they get there?). The SS age was already raised for us first-stage baby boomers in 1985. And have already been raised even higher for our younger brothers and sisters. The few seniors with high income (by the government’s definition that includes retired high-school principals and cops/nurses that worked too many details/shifts each week than they should have to put their kids through college) already pay much more in Medicare premiums than they will ever get out of the system and they already get much less out of SS than they contributed (in contrast to those who earned less during their working lives and in proportion to both lifetime incomes and what their income could have been turned into if it had been self managed).

    Meanwhile, my parents got much more out of the programs than they put in. That was intentional if you read any thing about the legislative process back in 1935 and 1965. Congress knew it was giving them a deal but didn’t count on the fact that the baby boomers had so few kids, relative to their parents. And you guys born after 1960 are screwed unless you get on board with some variation of the Aaron/Bowles/Dominici/Reischauer/Rivlin/Ryan/ Simpson/ Widen plan. That’s going to be hard for you to do because the Journolisters in the X group honestly report about the Aaron/Bowles/Dominici/Reischauer/Rivlin/Ryan/ Simpson/ Widen plan (they just call it the Ryan plan).

    • Aquifer

      Tch, tch , Dennis, there you go again – so many words, if you can’t convince ‘em confuse ‘em. I ran across you on the Health Care Blog site, now here you are again – so you want folks to get on board with the Ryan plan, but you say that will be hard to do because “Journolisters” report on it “honestly”? In other words, if folks really knew what the Ryan Plan was about, they wouldn’t really want to get on board, now, would they?

      Folks, expect to see more Medicare bashing with a few numbers thrown in here and there ….

      • Dennis Byron

        Oops, a typo which I have corrected. What I meant to say what that the Journolisters DO NOT report on the Aaron/Bowles/Dominici/Reischauer/Rivlin/Ryan/ Simpson/ Widen plan honestly. In fact they never mention Aaron, Bowles, Dominici, Reischauer, Rivlin, Simpson or Widen.

        (And I think anyone that reads this blog will expect numbers from me. You have something against numbers?)

        • Aquifer

          Methinks there has been coverage on the Ryan Healthcare plan, which consists of turning Medicare into a voucher program, which vouchers to be used to buy insurance in the private market and whose value is capped at an arbitrary amount which may have little to do with the actual cost of insurance. It saves the government money at the expense of out of pocket costs for the senior …. Lousy idea if what you want to do is actually provide healthcare, as opposed to just saving the Gov’t money, no matter the consequences for the recipient. …. As for numbers, from my prior encounter with you, the numbers you use never quite tell the whole story ….

  • Reasonable?

    The meme is incorrect, but there is an issue here.
    Medicare costs are high and rising, but Medicare users are almost completely oblivious to costs (especially in hospital costs).

    The problem is not greed but invisibility. Medicare quality data is just starting to come online and is pretty immature right now. Cost data for public consumption on in-hospitral costs are absent AND most importantly elderly citizens don’t pay in-hospital costs (no skin the game).

    If cost data were present and Medicare beneficiaries had to pay a proportion of their cost (like 10 to 20 percent(, we’d see competition between hospitals drive cost down.
    It is a shortcut to blame elders for this issue. It’s definitely a systems problem.

    • Dennis Byron

      What are you possibly thinking of? Of course, we “elderly citizens” pay for in-hospital costs. Original Medicare users have to pay a $1165 deductible for each hospital admission (even if it’s one day). There is no theoretical upside limit on how much a user on Original Medicare could pay but there is an effective limit relative to hospitalizations of about 6 visits a year (so about $7000 is the probably but not legal exposure annually). Worse, there is a lifetime limit in Original Medicare of how much it will pay for days of admitted hospitalizations (so there is no catastrophic coverage; there are Original Medicare users with $1,000,000-plus bills outstanding even though they have full Medicare hospitalization coverage). Part C Medicare users typically pay from $250 to $500 per day for a hospital admission with an upper cap on each visit and a yearly cap.

      And that’s just the rules for admitted hospital visits. There is a whole other Part of Medicare and different rules (including 20% co-pays) for observed hospitalizations, hospital outpatient visits and clinic visits.

      • Reasonable?

        Dennis,

        Thanks for you corrections. I will look into this further.

      • Aquifer

        Dennis, those costs can be defrayed or eliminated by purchase of Medicare supplemental insurance – using those private insurers you love so much. I am on SS and in the traditional Medicare system (not Pt C), with a supplemental policy to cover the deductible, co-pay, etc – the total cost for that is considerbly less than what the premium I was paying the year before for a policy that had a high deductible I had to pay out of pocket even before it kicked in with even a penny AND that higher premium was WITH the benefit of a COBRA deduction. I feel much more secure now as far as accessibility to healthcare is concerned.

        • Dennis Byron

          I’m a little confused by your comment… I am very aware of Medigap and don’t think I said otherwise??? What I said was that the the statement that “elder citizens” had no skin in the game was incorrect. Reasonable suggested elders be responsible for 10%-20% of their healthcare costs. In reality, we have huge skin in the game and very high exposure. Non-institutionalized FFS Medicare subscribers pay 53% of their healthcare costs out of pocket per MedPAC Databook, June 2012; Original Medicare pays only 47%.

          (By the way, if security is an issue, do you have catastrophic coverage as part of your Medigap plan? Original Medicare does not offer it nor do most Medigap plans — none in Massachusetts.)

          Finally, I am not sure what you read where but you won’t find me praising “private insurers” very much (unless it is occasionally deserved). I am forever bashing Blue Cross and Tufts on this site and elsewhere. I personally am on a “public plan,” Part C Medicare.

          • Aquifer

            Part C – Medicare dollars funneled through private insurance plans – does your Plan limit your choice of physician or hospital?

    • Aquifer

      If Medicare beneficiaries had to pay that portion of their costs they would probably starve as well as go bankrupt – i suggest you listen to the podcast again .. I suspect you have had little significant contact with the healthcare system, and/or are one of the increasingly smaller number who have good health insurance … As for skin in the game, folks prepaid during their working lives through payroll taxes – they have already put their “skin in the game” – think of the payroll tax as a “skin bank” if you like. In addition, there is an amount taken out of SS checks every month as a “premium” payment for Medicare – continuing “skin in the game” …