America's Most Dangerous Lobby
Dear Robert J. Samuelson,
Our records show that you haven't yet registered for the benefits
of AARP membership, even though you are fully eligible. ... I
look forward to your joining us.
William D. Novelli, Executive Director
WASHINGTON -- Among AARP's 36 million members, there must
be many decent people who benefit from the 5 percent to 50 percent
discounts offered on car rentals, hotel rooms and airline tickets.
But I won't be joining, because the AARP has become America's
most dangerous lobby. If left unchecked, its agenda will plunder
our children and grandchildren. Massive outlays for the elderly
threaten huge tax increases and other government spending. Both
may weaken the economy and the social fabric. No thanks.
Anyone who's watched the steel and auto industries can visualize
the AARP's America. In those industries, companies and unions
unrealistically agreed to overly generous pensions and retiree
health benefits that, as the number of retirees multiplied, overburdened
the companies. Now, past promises collide with present economic
realities. Workers and retirees suffer. Wages and jobs are cut;
so are pensions and retiree health benefits. On a much larger
scale, that may be America's fate.
The AARP (which once stood for the American Association of Retired
Persons) had a budget of nearly $900 million in 2004. It stays
in contact with its members through a monthly newspaper, two bimonthly
magazines and an e-mail list of 2.5 million political activists.
Robert Bixby of the budget-watching Concord Coalition says that,
aside from the president, only the AARP can set the terms of debate
on federal retirement programs, meaning mainly Social Security,
Medicare and long-term care through Medicaid.
The AARP suggests that it's trying to balance the interests of
retirees and workers. It has just released a report called ``Reimagining
America'' that rightly poses these questions: ``Can America afford
to grow older? And can we do so with intergenerational fairness
-- that is, without burdening our children and grandchildren with
the bills?'' It then spends 41 pages not answering those questions.
On the one hand, it concedes that ``as a nation, we are not now
ready for the retirement of the baby boomers.'' On the other,
it argues that ``the problem is overstated.''
Overstated? Well, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid constitute
more than 40 percent of federal spending. Given the baby boom,
longer life expectancies and rising health costs, these programs
are projected (by the Congressional Budget Office and others)
to grow by about two-thirds or more during the next 25 years.
To cover these costs, we'd have to do one of the following: raise
all federal taxes by 30 percent to 50 percent (depending on whether
today's budget were balanced); eliminate defense spending and
30 percent of other federal spending, excluding interest payments;
run budget deficits three times present levels.
In 2005, the AARP spent $25 million, mostly on advertising, to
defeat President's Bush's proposal for ``personal'' Social Security
accounts. The punch line of one ad is revealing: ``If you have
a problem with the sink, you don't tear down the entire house.''
Translation: the problems of today's retirement programs resemble
a clogged sink; ``personal accounts'' are a radical solution,
akin to demolishing the house. Only tinkering (fixing the sink)
is needed. Brilliant imagery -- and misleading.
Like the AARP, I oppose personal accounts. But I do so because
they divert attention from the basic problems and don't do much
to solve them. It isn't just the sink that's clogged; the roof
is leaking; the porch is sagging. Unless we renovate the entire
house, it will become uninhabitable. That is, we need to rewrite
the social contract to reflect improved health and longer life
expectancies: Americans need to work longer; eligibility ages
for Social Security and Medicare need to be raised gradually;
benefits for wealthier retirees should be gradually reduced.
The longer we delay, the harder changes will be. But delay is
the AARP's program. As to the future, its stock answer is: fix
health care. A less costly and more effective health-care system
would control Medicare and Medicaid spending. True. But several
decades of loud calls for a more efficient and effective health
care system haven't yet created one. Meanwhile, the question remains:
who pays? The AARP expects younger taxpayers to bear most of the
burden. Where's the generational fairness?
The AARP's America is an illusion. Sooner or later, it will be
overtaken by demographic and economic realities. The reluctance
to begin refashioning benefits -- focusing more on the neediest
and oldest Americans -- will compel more wrenching benefit cuts
later. By their abruptness, these will be unfair. But even these
cuts won't spare younger workers from higher taxes or cuts in
other programs. Like auto and steel workers, we will learn that
we could ignore the future but not avoid it.
2005, Washington Post Writers Group
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