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Young Voters, Get Mad

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By Robert J. Samuelson
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

To: Voters Under 35

Subject: Your Future

Recommendation: Get Angry

You're being played for chumps. Barack Obama and John McCain want your votes, but they're ignoring your interests. You face a heavily mortgaged future. You'll pay Social Security and Medicare for aging baby boomers. The needed federal tax increase might total 50 percent over the next 25 years. Pension and health costs for state and local workers have doubtlessly been underestimated. There's the expense of decaying infrastructure -- roads, bridges, water pipes. All this will squeeze other crucial government services: education, defense, police.

You're not hearing much of this in the campaign. One reason, frankly, is that you don't seem to care. Obama's your favorite candidate (by 64 percent to 33 percent among 18- to 29-year-olds, according to the latest Post-ABC News poll). But he's outsourced his position on these issues to AARP, the 40 million-member group for Americans 50 and over.

Don't believe me? Go to the Web site, www.aarp.org. On Sept. 6, both Obama and McCain addressed an AARP convention celebrating the group's 50th birthday.

Click on the Obama video. You'll see some world-class pandering. There are three basic ways of reducing the costs of Social Security and Medicare: increase eligibility ages; trim benefits; and require recipients to pay more for their Medicare benefits (higher premiums, co-payments or deductibles). In his talk, Obama effectively rejected all three.

Or look at the September-October issue of AARP the Magazine, which has a "voters' guide." In it, Obama and McCain receive the opportunity to check boxes agreeing or disagreeing with AARP's positions on 11 issues. Obama checked agreement on 10. He's not an agent of change but a staunch defender of the status quo. Indeed, he would expand subsidies to the elderly by exempting from federal income taxes anyone 65 and over with $50,000 income or less.

McCain pandered, too. In his video, he praised AARP effusively. He didn't mention benefit cuts. But he hedged. He said today's system is "broken" and shouldn't be inflicted on future generations. In the voters' guide, he didn't check "agree" or "disagree" but merely described his positions. The hint is that, as president, he might try to curb retirement spending. There's a precedent; McCain voted against the Medicare drug benefit.

I am 62. Most of my friends are in their 50s, 60s and 70s. I wish everyone a pleasurable retirement. But we need to overhaul our government retirement programs for the common good and not just the good of the elderly. We have already waited so long that there's no way to do this without being unfair to someone -- overburdening the young or withdrawing promised benefits from older Americans. The present financial crisis, by reducing retirement savings, has made a hard job even harder. Still, these federal programs began as safety nets for the needy; now they've become subsidies for living long, regardless of need.

What the debate has lacked so far is a moral dimension. Obama says it's okay to raise taxes on those with incomes exceeding $250,000. Well, why should Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries with incomes of $250,000 get subsidies from the young making less? How about $200,000 or $100,000? What are acceptable eligibility ages? People live longer; they can work longer. Baby boomers cannot be excluded, because they are the problem.

There can be no "rewriting of the social contract" without benefit cuts, because paying today's benefits inevitably involves much higher taxes, massive deficits or draconian cuts in other government programs. Even with sensible benefit cuts, taxes will have to rise and there will be pressure on other programs.

What should you -- the young -- do? First, get angry -- at the media and think tanks for discussing this problem in misleading euphemisms (for instance, the problem is not an "entitlements crisis"; it's excessive benefits for the old); at the candidates for exploiting your innocence; and at yourself for your gullibility.

Next, start picketing AARP. It's the citadel of seniors' political power and the country's most powerful "special interest." It wields a virtual veto over roughly two-fifths of the federal budget. Your activist groups ought to be there every day with placards reading "Give Us Generational Justice" or "Get Off Our Backs." Ask direct questions of federal candidates about what benefits they'd cut, which they'd keep and why.

You need to appeal to the shame and guilt of older Americans by reminding them that their present self-absorption is not a victimless exercise. Only if older Americans act on their rhetorical pledges of worrying about their children will the political climate change. If you -- the young -- don't stand up for yourselves, believe me, your elders and your politicians won't.


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