Here we go again -- another article (New York Times, April 4, 2011) bashing seniors with the accusation that Social Security is bringing down the economy. And what's the answer? "To Cut the Deficit, Look to Social Security." Not only are the premise and conclusion flat out wrong, they distract from identifying the true major sources of our massive deficit -- military appropriations and spending for our war follies, the welfare handouts to recklessly mismanaged corporations, and the relentless concessions to the rich.
But the "who dunnit" search for perpetrators of the deficit is about to be overshadowed as predictions of huge gains in life expectancy move from science fiction to reality.
First, let's examine the current so-called "crisis" with Social Security and then look at how the next wave in the longevity revolution will dramatically shift the focus to broader societal concerns.
Since the inception of Social Security in 1935 (monthly payments began in 1940), the Social Security payroll tax has funded payouts, and at the same time has accumulated a surplus currently totaling $2.6 trillion which comprises the Social Security Trust Fund. According to the fund's trustees, any shortfalls in the dedicated Social Security Payroll Tax will be covered by the interest on the $2.6 trillion Trust Fund assets until 2024. After that, the principal from the fund will cover Social Security payments until 2037. When the fund is depleted, the Social Security payroll tax will still provide 75 percent of promised payouts.
Clearly, there is no immediate problem with Social Security, and it should not be included in the roundup of suspects for our debt crisis. Add to this the fact that our government has borrowed the Trust Fund's assets to run day-to-day operations -- and at relatively low interest rates set by the government. Far from contributing to debt, Social Security has reduced debt. If the U.S. government had to raise $2.6 trillion in the open market, interest rates would likely soar.
That's why I was surprised that the recent New York Times article by Alicia Munnell not only erroneously indicted Social Security for contributing to the national debt crisis (Social Security accounted for only 4.8 percent of GDP in 2009 and is projected to grow to 6.1 percent in 2035). It also failed even to mention the Social Security Trust Fund. That's like saying, "My elderly Aunt Mary's income has fallen this year so she will have to severely cut back on her lifestyle, or borrow from family members to get by" -- while neglecting to note that Aunt Mary has a $10 million trust fund that she can draw on to maintain her modest life style.
One simple legislative stroke would end any near future "crisis" with Social Security -- a solution that conservative commentators and legislators conveniently ignore. Just eliminate the income limit for the Social Security payroll tax and goodbye Social Security crisis. For 2010 the Social Security payroll tax for employees was 6.2 percent for income up to $106,800. Therefore, someone who earned $10 million paid Social Security tax on only 1 percent of income, while a worker earning $106,800 or less paid Social Security tax on 100 percent of income. What is the rational -- or moral basis -- for this discrepancy?
The Real Problem
That being said, the ever increasing gains in average life span present critical issues that go far beyond entitlements and impact all age groups. Some scientists predict extraordinary leaps in longevity over the stunning fifty percent increase achieved in the last century. One-hundred-year life spans are already commonplace.
British aging researcher Aubrey de Grey confidently predicts that breakthroughs in the biology of aging will deliver immortality -- or at least 1000-year lifespans -- in the coming decades. Famed cellular biologist Leonard Hayflick (known for the "Hayflick limit" of 120 years), whom I've interviewed a number of times, disagrees. He foresees modest gains that will enable more people to live to the limit of 120 years through disease prevention and cures for the three leading causes of death: cardio vascular disease, cancer, and stroke. Whether life extension will expand by tens, hundreds, or thousands of years, there is no ignoring the experts' widespread consensus that significant breakthroughs will occur.
We are just at the beginning of what has been tagged, "the golden age of biology." And surely some of the four hundred laboratories around the world working on life extension will meet with a degree of success. Dr. Leonard Gurarente's laboratory at MIT has already produced some impressive findings. And inventor/futurist Ray Kurzweil, featured with Aubrey de Grey in the Feb. 10th issue of Time Magazine, believes that quantum leaps in the development of artificial intelligence will fuel discoveries that will make de Grey's prediction a reality, possibly beginning as soon as the mid-2020s. Keep in mind that mapping the human genome, once thought impossible, was accomplished two years earlier than projected. Science is speeding up, not slowing down. So watch out!
While Aubrey de Grey's pronouncement may be welcome news, the prospect of vastly extended life spans poses one of the greatest challenges to civilization since humans first appeared on earth. Communities throughout history have always been dominated by the young -- until recently relatively few people lived to ripe old ages. In fact, through 99 percent of the time that humans have walked this planet life expectancy has been less than twenty years of age.
We might smile at Aubrey de Grey's exuberance, but life extension is not a laughing matter. We should think hard about it and initiate genuine planning. Breakthroughs in the genetics of aging will happen. And when they do, they will shake up everything in the way we live, work, love, and play on this planet.
For example, if you think jobs, social services and safety nets are in crisis now, how will we deal with the economic fallout of vastly extended lifespans? And what about social issues like, "Hi honey, I'm home -- for the next hundred years (thousand years?)!" Will people even choose to have children if they have to preserve resources for lengthy indeterminate lifespans? Leaps in longevity will impact every domain: economic, political, and social. To ignore the speeding train of longevity and all its repercussions places us at great peril.
When we finally wake up and grasp the implications of more and more men and women living significantly beyond one hundred years, the longevity revolution will trump all other issues. We should not idly wait for that wakeup call.