"But the traditional liberal alternatives — raise taxes on the well-to-do, cut military spending — are not nearly enough by themselves. The arithmetic simply doesn’t work, unless we face the fact that entitlements are a bargain we can’t afford to keep, not in full."
- Bill Keller, former Editor of the New York Times and Pulitzer Prize winner
(If I had a dollar for every time that I have argued exactly that, i.e., the demographics and math simply do not add up, only to watch even the rare-somewhat-sane liberal turn batshit crazy, blood-dripping-from-his-crazy-fangs, off-his-rabid-rocker purple with rage and accuse me of wanting grandma to die and grandpa to eat dogfood so that the evil Koch Brothers could get a bigger tax cut, I would be able to fund several Solyndras...not that I would.)
By Bill Keller
IF you were born before 1946 or after 1964, you are free to go. Kindly close the door on your way out. I need a private moment with my fellow baby boomers.
So. I imagine you’re all feeling a little unappreciated these days. We seem to have entered one of our periodic seasons of boomer-bashing. In rapid Op-Ed succession, we children of the postwar demographic bulge have been blamed for turning religion into an indulgent free-for-all, for giving elites a bad name and for making greed respectable, or at least acceptable. That’s just this month, and just on this page. And it’s not only conservatives beating us with the Woodstock whip. Kurt Andersen, a confessed liberal and one of our more prolific cultural omnivores, started the latest thumping July 4 with an argument that amoral self-gratification is just the flip side of social liberation: “Thanks to the ’60s, we are all shamelessly selfish.”
The notion that our generation has been spoiled rotten is not a terribly new thought. A dozen years ago Paul Begala (of Bill Clinton and CNN fame) published in Esquire the classic of boomer-loathing, “The Worst Generation.” “The Baby Boomers are the most self-centered, self-seeking, self-interested, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing generation in American history,” he declared. It’s a sturdy genre. Perhaps while Googling yourself you have come across the blog Boomer Deathwatch (“Because one day, they’ll all be dead”), a checklist of famous boomers who hit their actuarial sell-by dates. Even Barack Obama, who styles himself post-boomer though he was born in 1961, complained in “The Audacity of Hope” that today’s hyperpolarized political discourse began with the “psychodrama of the baby boom generation.”
Yes, yes, this criticism is glib. We didn’t start the war in Vietnam, but members of our generation fought both in it and against it, demonstrating some of the spirit of sacrifice we are not famous for. Our ranks include the outsourcers of Bain and the wizards of the Wall Street casino, but also the entrepreneurial genius of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. The Bill Clinton of Monicagate was the first boomer president, but so was the Bill Clinton of relative peace and prosperity. Our record-buying dollars gave the world disco — so sorry about that — but also Motown and Springsteen. I’d say the argument will continue forever if that didn’t sound like such an all-about-us, boomer thing to say.
But even though the caricature is way too easy, it has stuck, and we all know that it contains more than a nugget of truth. We are an entitled bunch.
This brings me to a soon-to-be released study by the incorrigible pragmatists at Third Way, the centrist Democratic think tank. The study takes a familiar refrain and presents it with a graphic wallop. Though it was intended as a wake-up call, not an indictment of a generation, it can be read as both.
The authors examined two categories of federal spending over the past 50 years, representing two of government’s fundamental missions. One was “investments,” which includes maintaining our national infrastructure, keeping our military equipped, helping assure that our work force is educated to a high standard, and underwriting the kind of basic scientific research that is too risky or long-term to attract private money. The report calls this the legacy of President Kennedy’s New Frontier, though the largest infrastructure project in our history, the interstate highway system, was Eisenhower’s baby, a reminder of the days when Republicans still believed in that stuff. The other category was “entitlements,” a catchall word for the safety-net programs that provide a measure of economic stability for the aging and poor: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.
You will not be surprised to hear that the red line tracking entitlements goes up while the blue line reflecting investments goes down. What is alarming is the trajectory.
In 1962, we were laying down the foundations of prosperity. About 32 cents of every federal dollar, excluding interest payments, was spent on investments, only 14 percent on entitlements. In the mid-70s the lines crossed. Today we spend less than 15 cents on investment and 46 cents on entitlements. And it gets worse. By 2030, when the last of us boomers have surged onto the Social Security rolls, entitlements will consume 61 cents of every federal dollar, starving our already neglected investment and leaving us, in the words of the study, with “a less-skilled work force, lower rates of job creation, and an infrastructure unfit for a 21st-century economy.”
Some of the entitlement bloat comes from the addition of new programs — notably the prescription drug benefit espoused by our second boomer president, George W. Bush, and the Affordable Care Act, though at least that law sets in motion offsetting measures aimed at containing the soaring cost of health care. Some of the growth is built into formulas that increase benefits faster than inflation or G.D.P. And a lot of it is us: boomers, aging into Social Security and Medicare. “We’ve reached the point where our working-age population over the next 30 years grows by one-fifth, and our elderly population grows 100 percent,” said Jim Kessler, the senior vice president for policy at Third Way.
Indignant readers are already revving up to tell me that Social Security and Medicare are sacred promises, that cutting them would be stone-hearted Republicanism. A.A.R.P., the lobby for people we used to call senior citizens until we realized that meant us, got hammered by the left earlier this year when its C.E.O. dared to convene a meeting of Washington insiders to even discuss the subject. No wonder A.A.R.P. shies away from supporting any entitlement reform.
But the traditional liberal alternatives — raise taxes on the well-to-do, cut military spending — are not nearly enough by themselves. The arithmetic simply doesn’t work, unless we face the fact that entitlements are a bargain we can’t afford to keep, not in full.
So the question is not whether entitlements have to be brought under control, but how. The Republican plan espoused by Mitt Romney and his fiscal lodestar Paul Ryan would cut the cost of entitlements largely by moving toward privatization: personal investment accounts for Social Security, vouchers for Medicare. And it’s not at all clear the Republicans would assign any of the savings to investing in our future.
At least the Republicans have a plan. The Democrats generally recoil from the subject of entitlements. Centrists like those at Third Way and the bipartisan authors of the Simpson-Bowles report endorse a menu of incremental cuts and reforms that would bring down costs without hitting the needy or snatching away the security blanket from those nearing retirement. They include gradually raising the retirement age to compensate for the fact that we now live, on average, 14 years longer than when F.D.R. signed Social Security into law. They include obliging those of us who can really afford it to pay a larger share. They also include technical fixes like aligning the automatic cost-of-living formula with reality. To curtail the raging inflation of health costs, the government could better use its market clout to hasten electronic record-keeping, replace the fee-for-service model, reform medical malpractice laws and promote living wills. (A quarter of health care spending comes in the last year of life.) But you won’t hear much of that on the campaign trail.
FELLOW boomers, we have done more than our share to make this mess. It’s not our fault that there are a lot of us, but we have resisted any move to fix the system. We should make a sensible reform of entitlements our generation’s cause. We should stiffen the spines of our politicians, and push lobby groups like A.A.R.P. to climb out of the bunker and lead. (And, by the way, we should resist the boomer temptation to take every cent of the reform from the pockets of our kids.) We should keep the heat on Congress and the president to double down on the cost-saving provisions in Obamacare.
We may not be the greatest generation, but we are the largest — and we vote. We throw our weight around. What if we threw some of it in the right direction?