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Boomer Generation Is in a State of Denial

By Robert Samuelson

WASHINGTON -- Born in late 1945, I say this to the 76 million or so subsequent baby boomers and particularly to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, our generation's leading politicians: Shame on us. We are trying to pillage our children and grandchildren, putting the country's future at risk in the process. On one of the great issues of our time, the costs of our retirement, we have adopted a policy of selfish silence.

As Congress reconvenes, pledges of "fiscal responsibility'' abound. Let me boldly predict: On retirement spending, this Congress will do nothing just as previous Congresses have done nothing. Nancy Pelosi promises to "build a better future for all of America's children.'' If she were serious, she would back cuts in Social Security and Medicare. President Bush calls "entitlement spending'' the central budget problem. If he were serious, he too would propose cuts in Social Security and Medicare.

They are not serious, because few Americans -- particularly prospective baby-boom retirees -- want them to be. It's no secret that the 65-and-over population will double by 2030 (to almost 72 million, or 20 percent of total), but hardly anyone wants to face the realistic implications:

-- By comparison, other budget issues, including the notorious "earmarks,'' are trivial. In 2005, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (the main programs for the elderly) cost $1.034 trillion, twice the amount of defense spending and more than two-fifths of the total federal budget. By 2030, these programs are projected to equal about three-quarters of the present budget, if it remains constant as a share of national income.

-- Preserving present retirement benefits automatically imposes huge costs on the young -- costs that are economically unsound and socially unjust. The tax increases required by 2030 could hit 50 percent, if other spending is maintained as a share of national income. Or much of the rest of government would have to be shut or crippled. Or budget deficits would balloon to quadruple today's level.

-- Social Security and Medicare benefits must be cut to keep down overall costs. Yes, some taxes will be raised and some other spending cut. But much of the adjustment should come from increasing eligibility ages (ultimately to 70) and curbing payments to wealthier retirees. Americans live longer and are healthier. They can work longer and save more for retirement.

Because I've written all this before, I can anticipate some of the furious responses from prospective retirees. First will be the "social compact'' argument: We paid for today's retirees; tomorrow's workers must pay for us. Well, of course, they will pay; the question is how much.

Next I'll hear that the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, intended to cover future benefits, have been "plundered.'' Blame Congress and the White House -- not us. This is pure fiction.

Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are pay-as-you-go programs. Present taxes pay present benefits. In 2005, 86 percent of Social Security payroll takes went to pay current retiree benefits. True, excess taxes had created a "surplus'' in the Social Security trust fund (it hasn't been "plundered'') of $1.66 trillion in 2005; but that equaled less than four years of present benefits. More important, Medicare and Medicaid represent three-quarters of the projected spending increase for retirees by 2030.

All the misinformation bespeaks political evasion. With his rhetorical skills, Clinton might have raised public understanding. Instead, he lowered it by falsely denouncing the Republicans for attempting to "destroy'' Medicare. And Bush's credibility is shot, because he made the problem worse. His Medicare drug benefit increases spending and amounted to a political giveaway.

The failure to communicate also implicates many pundits and think tanks, liberal and conservative. Pundits usually speak in bland generalities. They support "fiscal responsibility'' and "entitlement reform'' and oppose big deficits. Less often do they say plainly that retirees need to lose some benefits. Think tanks endlessly publish technical reports on Social Security and Medicare, but most avoid the big issues. Are present benefits justified? How big can government become before the resulting taxes or deficits harm the economy?

These public failings are also mirrored privately. I know many bright, politically engaged boomers who can summon vast concern or outrage about global warming, corporate corruption, foreign policy and much more -- but somehow, their own Social Security and Medicare benefits rarely come up for criticism.

Our children will not be so blinded to this hypocrisy. We have managed to take successful programs -- Social Security and Medicare -- and turn them into huge problems by our self-centered inattention. Baby boomers seem eager to "reinvent retirement'' in all ways except those that might threaten their pocketbooks.

(c) 2007, The Washington Post Writers Group


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