You know, it is not often that you can draw a direct analogy between events here in the US, and events in places like sub-Saharan Africa . . . but today we have one!  Sadly, it’s not a happy one.

Yesterday, the Beeb reported on protests in Malawi over an effort to set the retirement age at 55 for women and 60 for men.  Why the protests, you ask?  Well, because life expectancy in Malawi is about 50 years . . . so this is a bit like asking the US to accept an increase in the age of retirement for social security to 80.

Well, the analogy doesn’t hold all that well – actually, most of my colleagues in Ghana, where mandatory retirement from state-funded jobs starts at 60, would like to see that age lifted to 65 or more so they could keep earning a salary.  But this points up a larger issue – that these colleagues of mine are highly educated and make good (by local standards) salaries.  They are also more likely to live well past the average lifespan in Ghana (about 59 years).  For those with less education, working in lower-paying jobs, even a retirement age of 60 is a bit of a cruel joke, as they are unlikely to ever get there.  In other words, there is an income dimension to life expectancy that makes the issue of a single, blanket retirement age in places like Malawi and Ghana inherently unfair . . .

So, it is really interesting that, just as we start hearing about various plans to reduce the US deficit, and indeed our massive national debt, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) ran a study on life expectancy and retirement ages, and came to an African-sounding conclusion here in the US:

Raising the retirement age for Social Security would disproportionately hurt low-income workers and minorities, and increase disability claims by older people unable to work, government auditors told Congress.

The projected spike in disability claims could harm Social Security’s finances because disability benefits typically are higher than early retirement payments, the General Accountability Office concluded. (via Businessweek)

Paul Krugman makes the point a bit more starkly:

Working until you’re 69, which may sound doable for people with desk jobs, is a lot harder for the many Americans who still do physical labor.

But beyond that, the proposal seemingly ignores a crucial point: while average life expectancy is indeed rising, it’s doing so mainly for high earners, precisely the people who need Social Security least. Life expectancy in the bottom half of the income distribution has barely inched up over the past three decades. So the Bowles-Simpson proposal is basically saying that janitors should be forced to work longer because these days corporate lawyers live to a ripe old age.

Can we spend money forever?  No.  But is it fair to start pushing the benefits people have contributed to for their whole lives via their taxes out of reach in the name of deficit reduction?  No.  We are going to have to create a very nuanced set of reforms here, that recognize whose benefits should start when, if we are to have anything that looks like justice – either here or in Africa.  One size fits all is not, in fact, fair . . . and as someone whose retirement age would likely be raised under any plan (given my income and job description), I am strongly in favor of justice, even if that means some people get to retire before I do . . . besides, according to the GAO, we need to consider this or we will blow up social security even sooner, which means no benefits for anyone.  Now, let’s see if people can grab onto this point and use it to force a real conversation about spending that doesn’t turn deficit reduction into another hammer used on the poor, here or abroad.

And why, oh why, is there really no discussion about raising the Social Security taxed maximum wage (the “cap”)?  I wonder how many Americans understand that Social Security taxes are only collected on the first $106800 of wages, and after that they disappear.  Yep, that means that the bulk of Americans (roughly the bottom 92%) pay Social Security taxes on roughly 85% of their taxable income, while the top 8% enjoy what amounts to a 6-ish percent tax cut on that income after $106800.  This is obscene.  While there is significant debate about how much additional revenue we would gather from eliminating this largely arbitrary cap, or how much that income would help, removing the cap would certainly raise revenue, help the situation, and correct an absurd component of our tax system . . .