The New York Times ran a front page piece warning readers that the cost of treating dementia are “soaring.” The piece tells readers of the findings of a new study by the Rand Corporation that shows the cost of dementia doubling by 2040 from its 2010 level.

Are you scared? Are you shaking in your boots? Thinking about pulling the plug on these costly old-timers?

Well our friend, Mr. Arithmetic, reminds us that the Congressional Budget Office projects that the size of the economy is projected to roughly double over this period. This means that the Rand study’s finding implies that dementia will impose pretty much the same burden on the economy in 2040 as it does today.

This story follows a common practice among the Washington elite. They continually highlight and exaggerate costs associated with an aging population. Of course as a practical matter there is little that we can do about these costs, although we can redistribute the burden. The implicit and explicit intent behind much of this discussion is that the elderly and their children should bear more of these costs, as opposed to the government.

Keeping the costs of an aging population front and center in public debate obstructs discussion of the massive upward redistribution of income over the last three decades. This upward redistribution has shifted roughly ten percentage points of GDP ($1.6 trillion annually) to the richest one percent of the population at the expense of the rest of the population. The impact of this upward redistribution on the living standards of the bulk of the population dwarfs the impact of any taxes that might be associated with caring for an aging population through Social Security, Medicare, and other government programs.

If issues were treated in proportion to their importance to the public we would be seeing daily pieces on proposals for breaking up the big banks, taxing financial speculation, ending patent monopolies for prescription drugs, free trade in health care services and other measures that would reverse the upward redistribution of income over the last three decades. However, importance to the public is apparently not a major criterion for determining news coverage. Hence we get misleading front page pieces in the NYT on the cost of dementia.

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economy and Policy Research. He also writes a regular blog, Beat the Press, where this post originally appeared.

Photo by Susan NYC under Creative Commons license