quoted by The Pittsburgh Tribune Review today as saying that he thinks that the retirement age should be raised to 70, over the next 20 years, as part of any restructuring of Social Security. Boehner's words were reasonable enough, and couched enough, that they should be taken as just a thoughtful politician musing over possibilities, and probabilities, in the decades ahead, and not as anything drastic about "the third rail of politics." But as The Huffington Post headline, reproduced above, suggests, Boehner's political opponents will likely do their best to paint Boehner as an enemy of Social Security and, by extension, of senior citizens. Cue up the direct mail from AARP and the National Committee to Protect Social Security and Medicare, as well as partisan foes.
Most observers, on both sides of the aisle, agree that something will have to be done about the future growth of entitlement programs. But as with any problem, there are better solutions and worse solutions. The better solution is to help Americans become healthier, so that they can be happier, live longer, and yes, be more economically productive.
Lots of Americans would be happy to continue working till they are 70, or maybe even older, but they are unable to do so, due to various medical problems, perhaps the most serious of which is Alzheimer's Disease (AD). AD is surging in the US; the incidence of AD is expected to triple in the next 40 years. And early-onset AD may be on the rise, too. Which is to say, given the current state of medicine, it might not be possible for a significant number of Americans to work longer.
And so AD poses a big problem for anyone who might wish to see the retirement age go up.
So here's a suggestion: Make a big offer to the American people: Couple the raising of the retirement age with a Manhattan Project-like quest for an AD cure.
History tells us that we could either cure AD or put a big dent in it, IF we made a concentrated effort. That is, bring the best experts together, sweep away the litigation and regulation that blocks progress, explore new financing mechanisms, such as "health bonds," and generally mobilize the country in the search for a cure, as Franklin D. Roosevelt did in the fight against polio, back in the 30s, when he established the March of Dimes. It's worth recalling that the fight for a polio vaccine was initiated by a Democratic president, Roosevelt, then continued by another Democratic president, Harry S. Truman, and then completed by a Republican president, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Which is to say, the fight against polio was a bipartisan success; great leaders of both parties joined together for the common good of the country.
In that spirit, Boehner might wish to have a chat with his fellow Midwesterner, Lou Weisbach, a Democratic businessman based in Chicago, who has been leading The American Center for Cures for the past decade. Weisbach has been making Serious Medicine-ish arguments for all that time; he has assembled an impressive array of allies, in both parties. Improvements in medicine are vastly more important to him--and to almost Americans--than mere partisan advantage.
So Weisbach and the American Center for Cures would be happy to help any leader wrestling with these issues, as part of an overall bipartisan approach to curing AD, among other serious diseases. As Weisbach has said many times, in the long run, it's cheaper to cure a disease than it is to treat it. His logic is impeccable, but as he himself has discovered, the politics are difficult, because too many politicians aren't very interested in long term solutions to problems, no matter how serious the problem.
But Boehner is thinking long term--about a very controversial topic. So he would benefit from rallying together those who think creatively about the problem, those who are eyeing better solutions to the problem.
And, we might add, those who are eyeing, as well, the opportunity. Because a cure for AD would not only be a boost to Social Security's solvency and a boon for America's aging population, but a cure for AD would immeasurably strengthen America's competitive position in the world.