Mitchell’s Musings 6-6-16: In the Long Run…

03 Jun 2016 12:34 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 6-6-16: In the Long Run…


Daniel J.B. Mitchell


John Maynard Keynes is often quoted as saying that in the long run, we’re all dead. His famous statement was meant as a critique of economic reasoning concerning processes that would eventually lead to a desirable stable outcome, while neglecting the difficult transition on the way to that outcome. But the issue of getting to the long run arises in other contexts as well. Consider the following news item:


Demand for long-term care is expected to increase as the nation ages, but the majority of Americans 40 and older lack confidence in their ability to pay for it. The annual cost of long-term care expenses range from $17,680 for adult day care to more than $92,000 for a private room in a nursing home, according to Genworth Financial. Yet an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey finds that a third of Americans 40 and older have done no planning for their own long term care needs, such as setting aside money to pay for a home aide or to help with daily activities or a room in a nursing home…[1]


The article excerpted above is not unique. Think of the number of articles you have read in recent years about people – especially aging baby boomers - not saving enough. Usually, the thrust of such articles is to urge readers to plan ahead “better” than they otherwise might. But there is another message implicit in such pieces. It is that folks don’t generally do a very good job about planning for the future and the private market doesn’t do a great job in helping them. If such planning was well handled privately, you wouldn’t be seeing such news items.


In the long run, the baby boomers will pass on as will everyone reading this musing. However, the transition will be difficult in the absence of some provision dealing with the possibility of needing expensive long term care or just outliving one’s savings. And, as noted, there are problems in private provision of protection against such risks.


First, folks are not good at planning for unpleasant long term outcomes. Second, commercial remedies such as long term care insurance and annuities are not all that effective in solving the problem. Let’s take long term care insurance. Presumably, like any insurance, it can only be offered in such a way as to minimize adverse selection. So commercial providers can’t offer it in a form that let’s purchasers wait until they know they need long term care. It has to be offered well in advance of potential need to get a large and representative risk pool.


But if it is offered well in advance, purchasers are trusting that some insurance company in the distant future (when it may have been merged, acquired, or possibly gone out of business) will treat them fairly at a time when they are likely to be unable to fend for themselves. That’s a lot to expect. And even setting aside that issue, what will the premiums be over time? Will they remain “affordable”? CalPERS – the giant state pension and health care system for California public employees – offered long term care insurance to participants, but later jacked up the premiums. Participants had to choose among the options of paying the much higher rates, accepting a cut-down policy going forward, or simply dropping the coverage for which they had been paying. So even a state-level public entity had difficulty providing subscribers with the coverage they originally thought they were buying.


As for simple saving, there is always the issue of outliving the amount put away. And what is put away will vary in future real value with unknown rates of return and with the rate of inflation in the future. Annuities can be bought in commercial markets but they are often expressed in nominal terms, i.e., not adjusted for inflation or only partly adjusted. And they tend to be expensive. There is an adverse selection issue inherent in annuities in that folks who have expectations of being Methuselahs are the likely buyers. Some of the tendency to believe you will be a Methuselah may be unrealistic expectations. But individuals do have relevant knowledge – based on family background and their own prior health history – as to how long they are likely to live.


Defined benefit pension plans are effectively savings plans with default annuities attached. But as is well known, such have been disappearing from the private sector and have been under attack in the public sector for underfunding. Defined contribution plans, 401k-type plans, and IRAs are not particularly good substitutes. So what remains is Social Security and Medicare, i.e., federal compulsory social insurance arrangements that spread risk. It’s fine to encourage folks to save more. Urging them to take out long term care insurance – given the problems of commercial provision – may not be so fine. Ultimately, what is needed at this juncture is a strengthening of social insurance, particularly to deal with health-related concerns such as long term care.


There is an unrealistic libertarian assumption that if we just leave such matters to the private market – and let folks suffer the consequences if they do the wrong thing – the role of government in elderly support can be limited. The ants will retire in style and the grasshoppers… Well, too bad for them. In fact, the political process and past history suggests that if there are lots of elderly folks (who are also voters) that find themselves in distress - or if there are lots of younger folks (who are also voters) finding themselves in distress due to a need to support their parents - there will be pressure for government to do “something.” Such pressures are what led to the creation of Social Security and Medicare in the first place.

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[1] https://insurancenewsnet.com/oarticle/poll-people-unsure-about-ability-to-pay-for-long-term-care  


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