The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Pension Woes Worse Than Thought

A sobering report from the IMF finds that the U.S. government may be underestimating the life expectancy of its aging population by as much as three years. This means Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which are already buckling under the strain of the Boomers’ looming retirements, are even closer than we thought to collapse if not reformed.

Pension plans of both the public and private variety are facing similar problems. The Wall Street Journal reports that this longevity miscalculation could lead to errors of $175 billion per year in future cost calculations, adding up to $7 trillion over the next 40 years. These numbers add up quickly, and the longer we wait, the harder the problem will be to address. The IMF report urges governments to pressure pension plans to get their facts in order:

Besides largely ignoring longevity risk, the IMF says one of the major problems is the use of outdated data on life expectancy. For example, a study of U.S. Department of Labor statistics found that until recently, a majority of pension plans used mortality rates dating to 1983. But in the quarter century since then, medical advances have pushed back the average schedule for death. Using the three-year error rule, that may mean many U.S. pension plans could be facing liabilities 9% higher than budgeted.

Will dire news like this finally galvanize the political establishment to take on entitlement reform? Thus far, neither party seems to be close to a credible plan to do so, although there are some signs that politicians are beginning at least to face the issue squarely.

The longer we wait, the more painful the inevitable changes will be.

Published on April 12, 2012 2:30 pm
  • Kenny

    This gives my wife and I more incentive than ever to outlive our actuarial numbers.

    Starting now, I’ll start eating my salad, cut down on the carbs and get to the health club more often.

    Live to 100!

  • Anthony

    The issue WRM is complicated and vested. That is, pension plans are part and parcel of public policy that inevitably trace back to our politics – generally inadequate officeholders chosen by…on the basis of largely irrelevant criteria (not discounting the fully adequate officeholders engaging public policy responsibly). The pension crisis on one level represents a parody of democratic governance.

  • Andrew Allison

    Your post identifies the key issue. When Social Security was introduced, the average life-span was 58, i.e., seven years less than retirement age. Now it’s two-decades post-retirement. The actuarial implications, namely significantly increased contributions and retirement age should be obvious.
    The Medicare problem is somewhat different. Medical technology has provided, at great expense, the means for artificially extending life. The question is who should pay for it. Again, the solution is rather obvious, albeit painful: means-test anything other than routine care. Regardsless of the ethics or morals, the nation simply doesn’t have the resources to proceed on the present path. BTW, I write as a retiree.

  • Corlyss

    “The longer we wait, the more painful the inevitable changes will be.”

    I’m convinced that this is what pols do. The voters want to believe nothing needs to be done right now. Many believe there’s enough slush in fraud waste and abuse to save the system. Fairy tales. Pols know if they fix the system before it’s completely broken down, they will pay with their careers. But if they wait till people are starving in the streets, then the electorate won’t punish them for doing something, even if it is tardy and wrongly conceived.

  • Corlyss

    @Andrew
    “When Social Security was introduced, the average life-span was 58,”

    It’s refreshing to know that once upon a time, Germans weren’t led by the industrious-stupid and greedy.

  • Mark Michael

    WRM: “Thus far, neither party seems to be close to a credible plan to do so, although there are some signs that politicians are beginning at least to face the issue squarely.”

    What do you call the Paul Ryan’s budget plan adopted by the R’s in the House, Swiss Cheese? What did you call the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Plan – that Obama refused to even acknowledge? What about the modified plan that Ryan and D Sen. Ron Wyden put together as a bipartisan option on Ryan’s basic plan?

    Every time the R’s tried to take a meaningful step towards entitlement reform in the past, the D Party vigorously demagogued them so that they lost seats in Congress.

    Chile privatized their Social Security system in 1980 and it’s been an excellent success after a few hiccups at its start. The one time the R’s (who knows for sure) might have had a partner with a leading D was in the Bill Clinton’s 2nd term. He praised the Chile system (it was designed by the U. of Chicago economists who worked for Chile as advisors) and said he was interested in it. Unfortunately, the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke out and he had to kowtow to his government-centric statist base. So he abandoned that one (and only) possible bipartisan effort at reforming entitlements.

    John McCain had a surprisingly bold health care reform plan in his 2008 platform devised by John Goodman and others.

    The villains in this piece remain the D Party. I realize that “diplomats” never want to throw the truth in a potential “partner’s” face if it makes them look bad, but at some point perhaps telling the D’s to their faces that they’re the heart of the problem might get them off the dime.

    Will this 2012 election make this clear to the voters and let them decide? It’s probably up to Mitt Romney and the Tea Parties. Can the latter marshall enough voters and generate enough noise to reach enough independent and disinterested “middle” voters to carry the day? The determined trashing of the Tea Party by the D Party and its water carriers in the Legacy Media makes it very difficult. We’ll see.

  • http://www.reticulator.com The Reticulator

    Don’t worry. ObamaCare (or the Romney Care that will replace it) will fix the longevity problem.

  • Jim.

    Just cut them by 25% across the board, and do it now.

    It’s what my generation is going to be slapped with. And having a chance to “prepare” is just having a chance to cut my standard of living much farther than the Boomers had to cut theirs during their working lifetimes… how is it remotely “fair” that I should both pay for the Boomer’s “full ride” after they lived it up, while scrimping to pay for my own that won’t be as big as theirs is now?

  • Jim.

    Also, from Kotkin’s piece that WRM cites:

    “The increasingly perilous shape of public finance in almost all advanced countries — largely the result of rapid aging and diminished workforces — can be ascribed at least in part to secularization’s role in falling birthrates.”

    Social Security going bankrupt? You can lay it directly at the feet of Roe v. Wade.