Reversing the 'Gimme' Ethos


Washington. It now seems certain, no matter who wins the presidency in November, that affluent older people are going to contribute a lot more money for Medicare, and pay more taxes on their Social Security payments.

That is as it should be. Aged citizens fortunate enough to have large incomes in their retirement should eschew greed and welcome changes that take economic burdens off their children and grandchildren.

Democrat Bill Clinton said Tuesday on NBC's "Today" show that he wants to raise the portion of Social Security benefits (now 50 percent) on which high-income elderly people pay taxes, and that as part of national health-care reform he wants to raise the fees charged upper-income elderly for Medicare.

Ross Perot has stated, without specifics, that he can save the nation $20 billion a year by cutting back on Social Security and Medicare entitlements for the affluent. Even President Bush, who seems never to miss a chance to shield the wealthy, has suggested raising Medicare premiums, but only for individuals with incomes above $100,000 and couples earning more than $125,000 a year.

There is no way to slow the river of red ink that is producing a budget deficit of $400 billion this year without dealing drastically with some of the runaway costs of entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security. It is noteworthy that none of the aspirants to the presidency advocates a "means test" for Social Security or Medicare. These ought not be reduced to poverty programs. But they ought not be blank invitations for the affluent to take and take and take what the nation cannot afford to give.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Uncle Sam can raise $29 billion by raising from 50 percent to 85 percent the Social Security benefits on which elderly individuals earning $25,000 or more, and couples earning $32,000 or more, would pay taxes. Those income levels seem somewhat low to me, but the principle of paying taxes on such income is just.

It is plain bad citizenship for Americans over 65 who have stocks and bonds galore, cushy pension payments, the protections of golden parachutes, to argue that they "made a contract" with the government when they started paying into Social Security, and "by god, I want my money." They will get money far beyond what they paid in, and they ought to pay taxes on it and try to feel self-righteous about it.

I'm enrolled in Medicare. But I confess that I'm an illiterate as to the Medicare rules, and the relationship of this government program to my private insurance protections. I sense a maze of waste, overpayments, double payments, brazen fraud and more. The only thing I'm sure of is that there are millions of Americans like me who ought to be paying a lot more for Medicare premiums and protections.

This country has gone through so many years of graft and greed that few people are saying, "Ask not what your country can do for you." They are asking, "What can I take from my country before somebody else grabs it?" The one bit of hope in this dismal political season is that we just might get a president who will slow down if not halt the grubbers and the grabbers.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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