Aged Cabinet Secretaries: The Silver Lining

Throughout the presidential campaign, George W. Bush managed to avoid taking a clear position on whether the Social Security retirement age should be raised. Before the New Hampshire primary, Steve Forbes tried to make an issue of Bush’s saying he was open to considering the idea, but Bush shut Forbes up by digging out a 1977 magazine column in which Forbes himself advocated raising the Social Security retirement age. After Bush chose Dick Cheney to be his running mate, the Gore campaign attacked Cheney for having voted to raise the Social Security retirement age from 65 to 67. But the Bush campaign neutralized that by pointing out that Gore’s running mate, Joe Lieberman, thought raising the Social Security retirement age to 70 warranted consideration. By the end of the campaign, Bush was emphasizing that his privatization scheme for Social Security would be cost-free, which, as Paul Krugman of the New York Times observed more than once, was transparently false. But Bush still hadn’t closed the door on raising the Social Security retirement age.

Now Bush has appointed a Cabinet that relies heavily on senior citizens. Donald Rumsfeld, the nominee for defense secretary, is 68. Paul O’Neill, Bush’s choice for treasury, is 65. Colin Powell, Bush’s choice for state, is 63. Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, is a relative spring chicken at 59, but he’s in fragile health. Even so, Cheney’s running the Bush transition, and he may end up running the Bush administration, too.

You see where this is going. Chatterbox favors raising the Social Security retirement age. The system needs cash, old people are more vigorous than they used to be, and manual laborers could be granted exceptions. (Click here if you need more persuading.) Does this mean Chatterbox favors appointing geezers to run the government? Not necessarily. Ideally, there should be some middle ground between putting the elderly in charge and putting the elderly out to pasture.

However, if the Bush administration is going to be run by a bunch of old coots, one collateral benefit could be to demonstrate the wastefulness of handing out Social Security pensions to white-collar workers before their 70th birthdays. Does Bush have the guts to point this out? On his own, probably not. But he does favor appointing a panel to look into Social Security’s future, and two names being bruited about to run it are Bob Dole and Pat Moynihan, Senate retiree and retiree-to-be, respectively. (Tim Russert, a former Moynihan staffer, is especially keen on the idea; click here to see him foist it on a slightly reluctant Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle on last Sunday’s Meet the Press.) Moynihan, age 73, actively supports raising the Social Security retirement age, and Dole, age 77, supported the last increase to 67. Usually, Chatterbox thinks appointing blue ribbon panels is a silly way to resolve policy disputes. But if there is a commission, Dallas Salisbury, president of the nonprofit Employee Benefit Research Institute, points out, “you have to have to assume that everything is on the table.” The ideal outcome would be for a Moynihan-Dole panel to conclude that Bush’s privatization plan didn’t work but that raising the Social Security retirement age was needed to help keep the system solvent. And, of course, for Bush and Congress to then endorse that view, on the grounds that doing otherwise would disrespect the views of two wise old men.