Planning for the Unpleasant Future: Private vs. Public
By Bryan Caplan
Thinking about being old and sick is no fun. It’s tempting to simply refuse to ponder the unpleasant future. But notice: Whether people give into this temptation depends heavily on whether they’re thinking personally or politically.
Personally, almost everyone at least contemplates being old. And most people make some plans for their retirement. Many even write wills.
Politically, however, only a handful of eggheads think about the fact that our society is rapidly aging. Common sense tells us to get Social Security and Medicare in financial order while there’s still time. But voters don’t want to hear it – and politicians are careful not to insist.
I see rational irrationality at work. People face a trade-off between forgetting harsh realities and effectively mitigating those harsh realities. When all the costs are private, people engage in a little denial, but they’re usually realistic enough comfortably retire. When the psychological costs are private and the harsh realities are public, however, people embrace denial on a massive scale. They vote for high benefits and low taxes, and freak out at the prospect of higher retirement ages, means testing, bigger co-payments, technocratic cost control, or – God forbid – privatization. The result will be a train wreck by popular demand.
The silver lining: If my analysis is right, a lot of people will increase their retirement savings to shelter themselves for the train wreck they’re voting for.