Boomer Boomerang

By Robert J. Samuelson
Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Cassandra Devine knows how to solve the coming "entitlements" crisis, preordained when the 77 million baby boomers begin hitting 65 in 2011: Pay retirees to kill themselves, a program she calls "transitioning." Volunteers could receive a lavish vacation beforehand ("a farewell honeymoon"), courtesy of the government, and their heirs would be spared the estate tax. If only 20 percent of boomers select suicide before the age of 70, she says, "Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid will be solvent. End of crisis."

Okay, Devine is a 29-year-old fictional blogger in Christopher Buckley's satirical novel "Boomsday." Infuriated at the injustices awaiting her generation, she becomes an instant media celebrity with a gift for incendiary rhetoric. "Someone my age will have to spend their entire life paying unfair taxes, just so the Boomers can hit the golf course at sixty-two and drink gin and tonics until they're ninety," she tells one TV reporter.

Her plan, once in cyberspace, incites spontaneous uprisings. In Florida, "several hundred people in their twenties stormed the gates of a retirement community. . . . Residents were assaulted as they played golf."

Buckley, born in 1952, is a boomer himself, and his novel is in the best tradition of Jonathan Swift, the writer who once suggested that the Irish relieve a famine by eating their young, of using the absurd to discuss moral outrages. Buckley's comic tale revolves around two truths usually buried in our dreary budget debates.

First, a generational backlash is inevitable. It may not come as attacks on sunbathing retirees, but the idea that younger workers will meekly bear the huge tax increases needed to pay all boomers' promised benefits is delusional. The increases are too steep, and too many boomers -- fairly wealthy and healthy -- will seem undeserving.

Consider: In 2007, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid constitute 44 percent of the $2.7 trillion federal budget. To pay all future benefits could (depending on assumptions) easily require tax increases of 30 to 50 percent by 2030. Many retirees are quite comfortable. About 42 percent of Americans ages 65 to 75 have assets (homes, stocks, cash) worth $250,000 or more; 23 percent have annual incomes exceeding $69,000, says the Employee Benefit Research Institute.

Second, boomers will want even more benefits. Buckley imagines them clamoring for subsidies for Botox, grandparent day care and "giant flat-screen plasma TVs (for boomers with deteriorating eyesight)." Their actual demands may be less exotic and more expensive: closing the "doughnut hole" -- a gap of coverage -- in Medicare's drug benefit; more lenient tax treatment for retirement accounts; more payments for nursing homes.

Out in front will be the 38-million-member AARP, the nation's most powerful interest group. In the past four years, notes National Journal, it's spent $88 million on lobbying. AARP says that in the last election half the voters were older than 50 and a quarter were its members. AARP's new public relations campaign (slogan: "Divided We Fail") misleadingly aims to project an unselfish and high-minded image. In practice, it means AARP will support higher government spending for all age groups, which (of course) will increase taxes further for tomorrow's workers.

For example, AARP urges the expansion of SCHIP, a program of health insurance for poor children that, ironically, illustrates the nation's twisted priorities. In 2007, SCHIP will cost $5.7 billion; Social Security and Medicare, $1 trillion. Well, maybe SCHIP should be expanded, but only if -- a test of AARP's real commitment -- cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits pay for the expansion. A doubling of SCHIP would require cuts of about one half of 1 percent.

Social Security and Medicare are an essential part of the social fabric. Millions depend on them. But the vast benefits -- paid too early and too indiscriminately -- have become disconnected from genuine need. Unless the two are reconnected, these successful programs will tear at the social fabric. It is unfair to blame only baby boomers for not acting preemptively to curb the known costs of their retirement. The "greatest generation" bears equal responsibility. Politicians have done nothing, because voters -- present and prospective retirees -- have wanted them to do nothing. Still, boomers deserve special disapproval.

"Baby Boomers," says Buckley's Devine, "made self-indulgence a virtue." Sure, that's a stereotype, but for opinion leaders and politicians, it is uncomfortably accurate. Consider Newsweek. It has a regular feature, "The Boomer Files," that celebrates boomer musicians, comedians, sports heroes and TV series. It discusses how boomers are "redefining the 'golden years' " -- but not a peep about the costs for their children.

I was born in late 1945 and count myself a part of this failure. In our careless self-absorption, we are committing a political and economic crime against our children and perhaps -- when they awaken to their victimization -- even ourselves.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company